On Maxwell, The Natural Philosopher

James Clerk Maxwell was a man of prodigious and singular gifts, of insight, curiosity and determination. The equations, developed one hundred and fifty years ago, describe the link between the classical and quantum worlds of physics.

We gather in Raleigh this month to speak grounding, waves, signals, crosstalk, electrical burps, hiccoughs, and groans. As a tribute to the man whose equations have both inspired innovations and struck great fear in the hearts of undergrads around the world, we present this tribute to one of the greatest of Natural Philosphers, James Clerk Maxwell.

James, or “Jamsie” as he was known to his family, was born in 1831 in Edinburgh Scotland. He was a precocious young man, and, after the death of his mother, he was sent to study at the Edinburgh Academy where his gifts were soon to blossom.

James was a country kid, observant and curious, and pursued many activities that were spurred by his natural inquisitiveness. Although he was brutally teased when he entered Edinburgh Academy for his odd vestments, square peasant-like shoes, and funny Galloway accent (he was christened “Dafty” by his schoolmates) he dove intensely into his studies, a broad mix of mathematics and philosophy. He mastered Greek and received the epitome of a classical education.

One of his friend’s mother summed him up thus: “His manners are very peculiar; but having good sense, sterling worth, and good humour, the intercourse with a college will rub off his oddities.”

John Maxwell, James’ father, who remained close to him for his entire life, realized that he had a boy with a particular way to see the world. He advocated for him and James’ first paper was published at the young age of fourteen, a treatise on the mathematics of curves and lines, ellipsoids and multi-foci shapes.

His work improved on the work of the great French philosopher and mathematician from the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes, generalizing the behavior of lines.
No lesser man than William Thompson, who would later become Lord Kelvin, recognized James’ gifts as well.

James’ natural inquisitiveness gave him an intense desire to explore, create and discover. A pivotal part of his genius was to visualize the phenomena he was investigating, using geometric models which gave rise to the equations that described the behavior of heat, gasses, optics and, his ultimate contribution, the theory of electromagnetic fields.

At Edinburgh, James developed fast friendships with two great minds, P.G. Tait and Lewis Campbell, both of whom would rise in academia and remain life-long friends.

James was an inveterate tinkerer and experimenter and once wrote: “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.” That is a value that every great discoverer holds. Truly grounded in Reality, his theoretical mastery of mathematics and ability to visualize physical phenomena were singularly prescient.

“In the mid-nineteenth century, the word ‘scientist’ had not yet come into common use. Physicists and chemists called themselves ‘natural philosophers’ and biologists called themselves ‘natural historians’…science was a splendid hobby for a gentleman but a poor profession.” (Mahon, p31).

A man who touched nearly every corner of natural philosophy (the study of nature), James reconciled the properties of light, heat and radiation was a link in the chain that brought Sir Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein who noted that “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.”

What was remarkable about discovery in the 1800s was the capability of the innovators of the day to link disparate physical phenomena. James both solved the equations that dictate the movement of the rings of Saturn (validated by spacecraft 100 years later) as well as made discoveries about the nature or color (making the first color photograph in the process).

For electromagnetics, James’ approach was one of the first to employ the concept of a ‘field’ of energy. This notion ran counter to ideas of Weber and Reimann that preferred to describe the effects of ‘action at a distance.’ In James’ view, the reductio ad absurdum conclusion of that line of reasoning would lead to the development of perpetual motion machines and the violation of the conservation of energy.

In 1864, James published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field and presented it to the Royal Society in December of that year. “Most of his contemporaries were bemused. It was almost as if Einstein had opposed out of a time machine to tell them about general relativity; they simply did not know what to make of it.” (Mahon,
p. 100) James’ approach was so novel, many of his colleagues at the time never understood this new way to describe a fundamental behavior of nature.

In addition, James was a man of moral conscience. He advocated for, and provided teaching to various “Working Men’s Colleges” bringing education to the common man, supporting these institutions in Cambridge Aberdeen.

James died in Edinburgh at the age of 48 on November 5, 1879 of stomach cancer, cutting short what would have been years of further exploration of the natural world and support for education and the conquest of the unknown.

It would be a scant 8 years until Heinrich Hertz proved that radio waves followed the behavior predicted by Maxwell.

The rise of age of Wireless thus began. favicon

Mahon, Basil. 2003. The Man Who Changed Everything. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons.


Alexander Graham Bell worked in many other areas during the golden age of industrialization. His areas of interest included optics and aeronautics and he collaborated with the early innovators in aviation. He is also credited with building the first metal detector.

Ironically, he would not have a phone in his study as he did not want to be interrupted. I wonder if he’d respond to a text message?

All of the images from Al’s Notebook can be found at the following website: www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr002.html

Lankester, E. Ray. “Charles Robert Darwin.” In Library of the World’s Best Literature: Ancient and Modern, edited by Charles Dudley Warner, 4391. 1902.
Mahon, Basil. The Man Who Changed Everything. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.


author_violette-mike Mike Violette, P.E.
is President of Washington Laboratories (wll.com) and Director of American Certification Body (acbcert.com). He can be reached at mikev@wll.com and doesn’t mind taking phone calls: 240 401 1388.