James Clerk Maxwell


James Clerk Maxwell : biography

13 June 1831 – 05 November 1879

Aberdeen was the main port of Scotland, but many departments of its university were sadly neglected. In the first days of his professor’s activity James Maxwell tried to imrove this situation at least on his own department. He was working on the new methods of teaching and tried to arouse students’ interest with the scientific work, but didn’t succeed. The new professor’s lectures, which were full of humour and play on words, concerned very difficult things and this fact frightened off the majority of students, who were accustomed to [popularity of statements, absence of showing and neglect to mathematics. Among eighty students only several people, who really wanted to study, managed to be taught by professor Maxwell.

In Aberdeen Maxwell also arranged his personal life – in summer of 1858 he married the youngest daughter of the Marischal college’s director Catherine Mary Dewar. Immediately after the wedding ceremony James was expelled from the council of the Trinity college as he broke the vow of chastity.

In 1855 Cambridge suggested Maxwell a work on investigation of Saturn’s rings to nominate for the Adams’s prize, and it was James Maxwell, who got this prize in 1859. but he wasn’t satisfied with the only prize and continued to investigate this subject, as a result in 1859 he published a treatise “On the Stability of the motion of Saturn’s rings”, which immediately got scientists’ acknowledgement. They said, that the treatise was the most brilliant use of mathematics for physics. When Maxwell was a professor in the Aberdeen college he also was working on the subject of light refraction, geometry optics and above all kinetic theory of gases. In 1860 he made the first statistic model of microprocessors which became a base for statistic mechanics’ development.

Maxwell was rather satisfied with his professor’s position in the Aberdeen university – the college demanded his presence only from October to May, and the rest of time was wholly free for the scientist. There was atmosphere of freedom in the college, professors didn’t have any strict duties, and besides, every week Maxwell delivered paid lectures for mechanical engineers and craftsmen in a scientific school of Aberdeen. He was always interested in their education. This wonderful condition of things was changed only in 1859 when two colleges of the University were combined, and a position of a professor of natural philosophy department was abolished. Maxwell tried to get the same position in the Edinburgh University, but his old friend Peter Tat got it. In June of 1860 he was invited to be a professor in the London Kings-college on the department of natural philosophy. In the same month he made a report about his investigations in the theory of colour and was rewarded with Rumford’s medal for works in the field of optics and mixing of colours. But other time he spent in his ancestral estate – he didn’t work, because he was seriously ill with smallpox.

Being a professor in London turned out to be less pleasant than in Aberdeen. Kings-college had splendidly equipped physical laboratories and honoured experimental science, but there were much more students. The work left Maxwell time only for home experiments. Nevertheless, in 1861 he was accepted in the Committee of standards, which had a task to define main units of electricity. Two years later results of accurate measuring were published, and in 1881 they were the base for accepting of volt, ampere and ohm. Maxwell also continued working on the theory of elasticity, he made the Maxwell’s theorem, which considered voltage in farms with the methods of graphostatics, he also made analysis of equilibrium conditions of sphere casing. He got the Cate award from the Edingburgh Royal Society for this and other works, which had considerable practical meaning. In May of 1851 when Maxwell was delivering a lecture on the theory of colour, he produced a very convincing proof of his rightness. This was the first colourful photo in the world.

But Maxwell’s greatest contribution to physics was an invention of current. When he made a conclusion that electric current had a forward motion and magnetism had a vortical nature, Maxwell made a new absolutely mechanic model, according to which “molecular whirls produce”, while revolving, magnetic field, and “idle transmission wheels” provide their one-sided rotation. Electric current’s formation was provided with forward motion of transmission wheels (according to Maxwell – “parts of electricity), and magnetic field, when it was directed along an axis of vertical rotation, was perpendicular to current’s direction. It was expressed in a screwdriver rule, which was established by Maxwell. Owing to this model he managed not only to demonstrate visually a phenomenon of electromagnetic induction and field’s vertical character, which caused current, but to prove that changes in electric field, which were named bias current, caused magnetic fields. And bias current gave presentation of existence of unlocked currents. Maxwell presented these results in his article “On Physical Lines of Force”, he also registered likeness of vortical environment with luminous ephyra’s characteristics – and it was a serious step to beginnings of electromagnetical theory of light.