James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell And His Contributions To Physics

Regarded as one of the most influential physicists of all times, we all know Maxwell for his fundamental contributions towards the scientific community. June 13, 2020, marks the 189th birth anniversary of this mastermind. So, in a manner to celebrate his birthday, this article aims to put light on the legend’s life and some of his groundbreaking works.

James Clerk Maxwell And The Equations of Electrodynamics

Early Life, Education, And Love For Geometry

The father of Maxwell’s equations, James Clerk Maxwell was born on 13 June 1831 in Edinburgh to an upper-middle-class family. Maxwell was a child prodigy. From childhood itself, he showed a sense of extreme curiosity. He lost his mother at a young age of 8 years. Maxwell was not a very bright student according to examination results. But, his interests ranged far beyond the school syllabus. Consequently, at the age of 14, Maxwell published his first scientific paper. This paper focuses on a generalized series of oval curves that we can trace with pins and thread by analogy with an ellipse.


His love and fascination with geometry continued throughout his career. It proved helpful in his future research works as well. At the age of 16, Maxwell joined Edinburgh University. Here, he studied for 3 years and published two more scientific papers. Later, he moved to Cambridge University. There he enrolled to study mathematics and consequently became a Trinity Fellow.

Awards And Positions Held

At the young age of 24 years, Maxwell shared the Smith’s Prize for theoretical physics and mathematics with Edward Routh. In 1856, he received Edinburgh’s highest prize in mathematics, the Straiton Gold Medal. In the same year, the University of Aberdeen appointed him to the Chair of Natural Philosophy.

Aged 29 in 1860, he took a professorship at King’s College, London where he stayed till 1865. However, in 1866, he took a break from all his positions and returned to his family. During this period, he wrote his groundbreaking Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Maxwell became the Cavendish Professor at the University of Cambridge in 1871. He remained here until his death in 1879, aged just 48.

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Major Contributions

During his lifetime, Maxwell made some extraordinary discoveries. Maxwell contributed significantly to the field of colored photography. He formulated a brilliant analysis of particle composition of Saturn’s rings.

James Clerk Maxwell And His Contributions To Physics 2
Image credits: NASA

Apart from this, Maxwell also established that each molecule of air at room temperature collides 8 billion times a second with other molecules on average. Though Maxwell studied many things, he is known best for his mathematical work on electromagnetism and on the behavior of gases. His treatise on electricity and magnetism is fundamental in giving new dimensions to scientific thinking.

The four Maxwell’s equations have been termed as the “Second great unification in Physics”. He established that light is an electromagnetic wave. He brought together with light, electricity, and magnetism as different demonstrations of the same phenomenon. No doubt that Maxwell’s equations are quite hard to understand on the first go.

Watch: The physical meaning of each of the four Maxwell’s equations

Although they aroused controversy when they were published for the first time in 1864. Still, they are one of the most wonderful and fundamental keys to understand the modern-day world. Moreover, Maxwell contributed significantly to developing the Maxwell Boltzmann distribution, which is highly useful in the Kinetic Theory of Gases.

Maxwell’s discoveries also helped in laying the foundations of various fields like special relativity, quantum mechanics, and electrical engineering. Hence, Maxwell is rightly credited for being one of the most influential physicists ever.

Read all the articles of the Basics of Astrophysics series here

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