The theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who was so important in the development of the theory of relativity and quantum physics, was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College London in 1860. He was there for the best part of five academic years, and did some of his most significant work during that time.
Accounts of Maxwell's life focus on his years in Scotland and Cambridge, and rightly so. He was a Scotsman first and last, born in Edinburgh and brought up at Glenlair, his father's estate in Galloway. The only surviving child of adoring parents, he was precocious from the start, always asking "What's the go o' that?" (Ellis 131), and refusing to be fobbed off by vague answers. His early education was received in Scotland, too. After his mother's death and a period with an unsatisfactory tutor, he attended the Edinburgh Academy, cutting an amusing figure with his countrified clothes and odd little ways, and earning himself the nickname of "Dafty." Yet his first publication, an equation for bi-focal curves that would be useful in optics, dates from these years. Since he was only fourteen at the time, it had to be read out for him at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was still sixteen when he entered the University of Edinburgh, and it was from there that he went up to Cambridge in 1850, initially to Peterhouse and then to Trinity. His academic progress at Cambridge has been well described by Christopher Haley, but it is worth adding here that he was a member of the Apostles, a close friend of Frederic William Farrar and a supporter of F. D. Maurice, both of whom were also associated with King's.
Had it not been for two strokes of bad luck, Maxwell might never have come to London at all. Not long after being made a fellow at Trinity he had returned to Scotland to take up a Professorship at Marischal College in Aberdeen. There, he had fallen in love with and married Katherine Dewar, the daughter of his college principal. He had seemed quite settled in life. But the merger of Marischal with King's College Aberdeen had suddenly made him redundant (with his counterpart at King's, nicknamed "Crafty" to his "Dafty," managing to retain the chair). It was only after Maxwell failed to get a similar post at Edinburgh that he put in for the vacant Professorship at King's. Even then, a severe bout of smallpox almost prevented him from coming to the capital.
Left: James Clerk Maxwell's plaque at King's College, London. Click on thumbnails for larger images. Photograph by author.
Right: The first projected colour image: Maxwell's tartan ribbon (from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain)
However, come he did, allowing King's to share in some of the glory that would soon be attached to his name. He had just won the Royal Society's Rumford Medal for his work on colour and colour-blindness, and one of the milestones of his career was about to come. In 1861, with the help of Thomas Sutton, then a lecturer in photography in King's, he projected the world's first-ever colour image onto a screen during a lecture on colour vision at the Royal Institution. The picture was of a tartan ribbon, highly appropriate in view of his strong Scottish background. It may have been a fluke, as his biographer explains, but most would agree that "perhaps he made his own luck" (Mahon 94). Maxwell went on to publish some of his most groundbreaking work in these London years. On Physical Lines of Force (1861) and A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field (1865) both advanced remarkable new theories. The latter, for example, "encapsulated some of the most fundamental characteristics of the universe. Not only did it explain all known electromagnetic phenomena, it explained light and pointed to the existence of kinds of radiation not then dreamt of." It has been described as "one of the greatest leaps ever achieved in human thought" (Mahon 126). Inevitably, such revolutionary ideas were greeted with some scepticism; but they soon had their impact. The claim that Maxwell is "the father of modern physics.... Worthy to stand between Einstein, who he inspired, and Newton, whose almost immortal status he ended" (Emsley 16) was confirmed long ago by Einstein himself, who responded to the comment that he "stood on Newton's shoulders" with the words, "No, I stand on Maxwell's shoulders" (qtd. in Everitt).
Maxwell's ideas (or at least the more accessible ones) would have percolated downwards, too, to the humblest levels of Victorian society. In common with many of his idealistic peers, he had given evening classes to working men right from the start, even while holding his Trinity fellowship. During his first appointment in Scotland he had lectured at the Aberdeen Mechanics' Institution. In London, now that he knew Maurice personally, "no longer as a writer, but as a friend" (Campbell and Garnett 172), he gave up some of his precious time to teach at the Working Men's College in Red Lion Square — this, on top of his evening classes at King's. For a glimpse of the kind of people who benefited from such endeavours, look at the following entry in the diary of a young Surrey builder, Joseph Harrison, who happened to be working near the recently opened Royal Holloway College in Egham:
[January 1887] Th. 7.45. Making coffin for Griffin's child. To Egham 3 times. Planed off table top. Back and panels bookcase. Lecture at College on Light. Showed how colours are analysed. (56)
It is more than likely that Joseph would have learnt something about Maxwell's work that winter evening, after his day's carpentry. At any rate, the great scientist would no doubt have approved, both of the topic and of Joseph's effort to extend his knowledge.
Yet, like his fellow-scientist Charles Wheatstone, and even Maurice himself, Maxwell had problems in the undergraduate lecture theatre. He was hard to hear and harder to follow. As a result, disorder reigned in his college classes. King's wisely appointed another lecturer, either to leave him free for more productive labours, as his biographer suggests (Mahon 127), or simply to prevent his students from getting out of hand (Hearnshaw 247). But the tactic seems only to have hastened his departure. Mahon suggests that he decided "to resign his chair so that he and Katherine could take up a settled life in Glenlair" (127); but the King's historian, F. J. C. Hearnshaw, drawing on a contemporary source, believes that he was asked to leave because "there was obviously not enough going on, apart from noise, to give employment to two teachers" (247-48). For whatever reason, Maxwell did offer his resignation, and it was duly accepted. The lecturer currently assisting him, a strict disciplinarian, was promoted to the Professorship in his stead. Like his colleagues, Maxwell clearly found his evening students more amenable and rewarding, for he continued to teach them during the winter following his resignation (Campbell and Garnett 314). All this may say as much about the boisterous London undergraduates (Hearnshaw calls them "raw youths," 247) of those early days, as about their teachers.
After the London interlude, Maxwell spent several years back at Glenlair, which he had inherited on his father's death in 1856. They were highly productive years, during which he expanded on the ideas he had introduced at King's, writing The Theory of Heat (1871) and many original papers, as well as acting as an examiner for the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge and fulfilling other professional duties. In 1871 he was enticed back to Cambridge again, becoming the first Professor of Experimental Physics there, and organizing and equipping its world-famous Cavendish Laboratory. He was still at his peak when he died in 1879, at the same age (48) and of the same cruel disease (stomach cancer) as his mother, leaving others to build on his revolutionary new ideas. His wife Katherine, who had never enjoyed good health, died seven years later and is buried beside Maxwell and his parents in Parton Churchyard a few miles from Glenlair.
Maxwell's legacy as a scientist is secure. There is no doubt that he changed the way we look at the universe, and in so doing laid the groundwork for the modern technological age. But what of his reputation among the general public? He was by no means a reclusive boffin: he was passionate about literature as well as science, and his sense of fun can be seen from some of the poetry he wrote. He also revelled in the outdoors and outdoor pursuits, and always kept his deep religious faith. So it does seem sad that, unlike Newton's and Einstein's, his life is not widely celebrated today. Mahon writes:
This is an injustice and a mystery but most of all it is our great loss.... His was a life for all of us to enjoy. He was not only a consummate scientist but a man of extraordinary personal charm and generous spirit: inspiring, entertaining and entirely without vanity. His friends loved and admired him in equal measure and felt better for knowing him. (3)
Sign for James Clerk Maxwell Building at King's College, London.
Click on thumbnail for a larger image. Photograph by author.
Campbell, Lewis and William Garnett. The Life of James Clerk Maxwell with a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and A Sketch of His Contributions to Science. London: Macmillan, 1882. Available online: "The Life of James Clerk Maxwell."
Ellis, Roger. "James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)." Who's Who in Victorian Britain. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997. 131-33.
Emsley, John. "Unweaving the Rainbow." Cam: Cambridge Alumni Magazine. No 49, Michaelmas Term, 2006. 14-16.
Everitt, Francis. "James Clerk Maxwell: A Force For Physics."
Harrison, Joseph. The Diary of Joseph Harrison. Transcribed by T. O'Kelly. Privately printed, 2001.
Hearnshaw, F. J. C. The Centenary History of King's College, London, 1828-1928. London: Harrap, 1929.
Mahon, Basil. The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. London: Wiley, 2003.
Ian Hutchinson's interesting essay, "The Maxwell at Glenlair Trust."
Last modified 21 March 2008