ConsultantProf Martin HendryUniversity of Glasgow

The Scot who made the modern world

James Clerk Maxwell is one of our greatest scientists and without him we may not have x-rays, radio or colour photography. But while scientists Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are household names, Maxwell is barely known to the general public.

At a time of great scientific development, Maxwell's passion for experimentation and endless curiosity about the world around him led to discoveries that changed our way of life. So why has he been forgotten?


Born in Edinburgh

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James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell pictured as a young man.

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh but raised on his family’s estate, Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire.

He attended school in the Scottish capital where classmates singled him out as a country bumpkin and called him ‘Dafty’. Maxwell was an inquisitive child who was fascinated by the puzzles of the natural world around him. He continued his education at both Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, studying natural philosophy and mathematics. On graduating he applied for a fellowship at Cambridge University, a move that allowed him a great deal of freedom to pursue his own scientific interests.

Tour Maxwell's birthplace

What’s the go o’ that?

A question commonly asked by James Clerk Maxwell


Devises the colour triangle

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Maxwell’s colour wheel. Please note this clip contains flashing images. James Clerk Maxwell: The Man Who Made The Modern World (BBC Scotland, 2015)

The properties of colour had fascinated Maxwell since childhood. As an adult he became intrigued by a colour wheel invented by scientist James Forbes.

The wheel attached combinations of primary colours red, green and blue. When spun these would reproduce most of the colour spectrum, but not perfectly. Through experimentation Maxwell identified mathematical expressions for the amounts of each primary colour required to make any colour of the spectrum. The result, a colour triangle, was well-received and was essentially the forerunner of the RGB colour model used in computing today.

Why do we see colours differently?


The conundrum of Saturn's rings

Space Frontiers/Hulton Archive/Getty Imgs

Colour enhanced view of Saturn's rings

A colour-enhanced view of Saturn's rings captured by the Voyager 2 probe in August 1981.

Maxwell’s next great achievement was to discover the structure of Saturn’s rings, the nature of which had baffled astronomers since the 1600s.

He methodically worked through the mathematical possibilities and identified that the rings couldn’t be solid or liquid. He realised they consisted of individual particles orbiting the planet independently. This was proved correct a century later when the Voyager space probe passed Saturn in the 1980s. Maxwell's method of working through pages of equations to arrive at his conclusion was also a watershed, showing a level of rigour and mathematical complexity rarely applied at that time.

NASA: Ring-a-Round the Saturn

It is one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.

Sir George Biddell Airy, Astronomer Royal, on Maxwell's Saturn conclusion


The kinetic theory of gases

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Ludwig Boltzmann

Austrian scientist Ludwig Boltzmann, who helped develop the Maxwell-Boltzmann Distribution Law.

Studying Saturn piqued Maxwell’s interest in the motion of gases. This led to his next feat, this time in the area of physics focusing on heat.

He developed a formula, later to be modified by scientist Ludwig Boltzmann and known as the Maxwell-Boltzmann Distribution Law, which led to a clearer understanding of how the temperature of a gas was related to the movement of its constituent atoms or molecules. Maxwell’s work was pioneering. He ushered in a new era of physics where the behaviour of gases was described in terms of the statistics of vast numbers of particles, so that probabilities and not certainties were considered.

St Andrew's University: Kinetic theory of gases


The first colour photograph

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Iain Stewart demonstrates how Maxwell created the first colour photograph. James Clerk Maxwell: The Man Who Made The Modern World (BBC Scotland, 2015)

Maxwell’s growing reputation within the scientific community led to an invitation to talk at the Royal Institution in London.

There he demonstrated that the human eye contains cells sensitive to red, green and blue and that because of those cells we see a wide range of colours. He took three separate pictures of a ribbon, each with a red, green or blue filter. When he projected all three on to a wall at once the ribbon’s tartan colours were clear for his amazed audience to see. They were looking at the world’s first colour photograph. Incredible as this was, Maxwell’s achievements were far from over.

History of the Royal Institution

I never try to dissuade a man from trying an experiment. If he does not find what he wants, he may find out something else.

James Clerk Maxwell


Maxwell's equations

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Maxwell aimed to learn about the link between electricity and magnetism. James Clerk Maxwell: The Man Who Made The Modern World (BBC Scotland, 2015).

Maxwell’s curious nature saw him attempt to prove the link between electricity and magnetism suggested by Michael Faraday, whom he greatly admired.

He began to develop the idea mathematically. The resulting equations proposed that magnetism and electricity were inter-linked. They also put forward the idea that changing electric and magnetic field together create a wave of energy – an electromagnetic wave – that can move through empty space at the speed of light. The equations were complicated and at first received a muted reception, but they would eventually transform scientific thinking and lead to discoveries such as x-rays and radar.

The Guardian: What are Maxwell's equations?Who was Michael Faraday?

There can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th Century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.

Richard Feynman, physicist


Designing the Cavendish Laboratory

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Cavendish lab

Entrance to the original site of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.

Maxwell’s reputation for innovative experimentation led to an invitation to return to Cambridge.

Though unknown to the general public, he was well-regarded within scientific circles for being a great experimenter and theoretician. Maxwell was asked to design and lead a new laboratory at the university. In this era experimental work in institutions was uncommon. Universities focused on theoretical work while experimentation was carried out in private workspaces. But this new lab was specially designed to Maxwell’s specifications to give scholars the space and resources for research.

University of Cambridge: History of the Cavendish

[Maxwell is] the unsung hero of British science

Stephen Hawking, physicist


Death at an early age

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Plaque at Parton Church

Maxwell is buried in the graveyard of Parton Church near Glenlair where this plaque is displayed in his honour.

James Clerk Maxwell did not live to continue his work on electromagnetism, or to see those theories proved correct.

He developed stomach cancer and died aged 48 at home in Glenlair. Just eight years later German scientist Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves and in doing so discovered radio waves. Italian Guglielmo Marconi developed this research further, going on to create the wireless radio which revolutionised communication. By the early 20th Century infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays had also found their place in what’s known as the ‘electromagnetic spectrum’.

BBC Radio Four: The Invention of Radio

20th-21st centuries

Maxwell's legacy

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Statue of James Clerk Maxwell

A statue of James Clerk Maxwell was erected in Edinburgh in 2008.

In 1905 Albert Einstein said his theory of relativity owed its origins to Maxwell’s equations. So why aren’t we more aware of James Clark Maxwell?

His ideas were complicated and ahead of the time, often unappreciated until many years after they were introduced. His short life was packed with incredible achievements in a variety of scientific areas, but he was a humble man not prone to self-promotion. All these factors have clouded his fame but there is a growing movement to give greater acclaim to this modest yet hugely influential Scotsman.

BBC News: Honour for Scottish physicistBBC World Service: Scotland's Forgotten Einstein

One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell

Albert Einstein, physicist