From Dafty To Genius

Dec. 5, 2011
European Editor Paul Whytock looks at the formative years of one of the worlds greatest mathematical physicists: James Clerk Maxwell.

Inconceivable yet true: James Maxwell was nicknamed "Dafty" in his early school days. Yes, this was the same person whose groundbreaking work on electromagnetic (EM) fields would forever change the way in which we all communicate. To be fair, the unkind name of Dafty was not entirely related to the level of intelligence he displayed. More likely, it was because his fellow pupils considered him dull and rather shy. Making friends was difficult for the young Maxwell. And his schoolfellows could not comprehend his unsociable demeanorparticularly his penchant for solitary holidays. During those holidays, he toyed with crude mathematical diagrams and constructing modelsperhaps an early indication of the genius to come.

Where It Started

Maxwell was born on June 13, 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland at 14 India Street (Fig. 1). His father had constructed this house in what was then referred to as Edinburgh's Georgian New Town, an area that was designed and built after the Napoleonic Wars. The family also had an estate at Glenlair, near Dumfries.

Despite the unkind name his fellow pupils had bestowed upon him, Maxwell's early progress at school was reported by his teachers as reasonablebut in no way indicative of what enormous academic potential laid dormant in the child's brain.

During summer vacations, Maxwell enjoyed the opportunity to escape school and spend time at Glenlair, where he would while away his time playing with his toys (see sidebar on left). Observers of the young Maxwell at that time remembered watching him not merely play with his toys, but attempt to make them do tricks that were far beyond their original design capability. A good example of this was the way in which he exploited his "devil on two sticks" toy (often called a diabolo; Fig. 2). This toy was a firm favorite with the young Maxwell. He rapidly mastered it. To onlookers, it seemed like he could make it do tricks that defied the laws of gravity and physics. Maxwell kept the diabolo with him most of the time as a boy and even brought it with him years later when he went to study at Cambridge University.

Long before Cambridge and back in Edinburgh, Maxwell was taken by his father to study at the Edinburgh Academy. It was here that his powerful mathematical mind was first unleashed. Instrumental in releasing this ability was James Gloag, who was Master of the Arithmetical and Geometrical School. Gloag was known and feared as a disciplinarian. But he also was recognized as being an extremely fair-minded manone who considered it his duty to ensure that both the cleverest pupils and the less accomplished students in the class received a high level of tutoring.

Maxwell began to write on mathematical topics. By 1845, he had won a Mathematics Medal. He surprised fellow pupils and associates by becoming one of the most talented among them and winning many prizessome of which were the highest prizes attainable for mathematics and English.

Glenlair House
As the home of James Clerk Maxwell, Glenlair House captures a lot of interest. A special wing was constructed for Maxwell by local architect James Barbour. Some of Maxwell's most important work is thought to have been carried out here. It also is believed that he designed the tiled floor in the lobby. (The tiles themselves are made by Minton.)

Glenlair was built for Maxwell's father in 1830 by Walter Newall, the principal architect working in Dumfriesshire in the first half of the 19th Century. Newall's house was a plain double-pile, M-gabled building with gabled dormers at the first-floor level.

Maxwell's Equations, in their modern form of four partial differential equations, first appeared in fully developed form in his textbook, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, in 1873. Most of the work for that was done by Maxwell while at Glenlair.

If Maxwell's progress in mathematics at this stage was outstanding, even better was to come. By early 1846, he was conducting his own research on ovals. In this work, he generalized the definition of an ellipse by defining the locus of a point, where the sum of m times the distance from one fixed point plus n times the distance from a second fixed point is constant.

If m = n = 1, then the curve is an ellipse. Maxwell also defined curves in which there were more than two foci. This work was the basis of his first paper about the description of oval curves and those having a plurality of foci. It was read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on April 6, 1846. His ideas were not new, but the level of work presented by Maxwell was considered amazing for a 15-year-old.

In 1847, Maxwell enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, where he continued his studies of optics. He remained there until 1850, when he entered Cambridge University. Maxwell graduated in 1854 and was named a Fellow at Trinity College, teaching optics and hydrostatics. In 1856, he left Trinity to become a Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College. Shortly after that, Marischal College joined with King's College to create the University of Aberdeen. Maxwell moved to King's College in London, where he became Professor of Physics and Astronomy.

As Maxwell had long been interested in color, he continued his research into the color spectrum. He discovered that color blindness in humans has a direct relationship with a lack of certain receptors in their eyes. Most of his time, however, was devoted to studying electromagnetism. Although this article set out to look at the formative years of James Clerk Maxwell, it is impossible not to mention his later work in EM behavior.

In 1870, the Chancellor of Cambridge decided to build a physics laboratory for Cambridge. Maxwell became its first Director and Chair of Experimental Physics. For years, he had been fascinated by electricity and magnetism. This interest dated back to 1856, when he investigated Michael Faraday's theory of lines of force. Yet Maxwell would go much further.

He devised four equations, which of course are now referred to as Maxwell's Equations. These equations demonstrated the nature of electric and magnetic fields. Maxwell showed that an EM field moved through space at the speed of light. From that fact, he established that light was really a type of EM field. Maxwell also theorized that light was not the only EM field of this sort. Other possible fields also existed, which consist of longer waves. This work was proven when Heinrich Hertz discovered the existence of radio waves.

Maxwell's Equations are extremely complex, but Hendrik Antoon Lorentz would build on this work. In doing so, he laid the physics foundations on which Albert Einstein would realize his theory of relativity.

About the Author

Paul Whytock | Editor-in-Chief

Paul Whytock is European Editor for Microwaves & RF and European Editor-in-Chief for Electronic Design. He reports on the latest news and technology developments in Europe for his US readers while providing his European engineering audience with global news coverage from the electronics sector. Trained originally as a design engineer with Ford Motor Co., Whytock holds an HNC in mechanical, electrical, and production engineering.

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