Historical Engineers: James Clerk Maxwell, Founder of the Electromagnetic Theory

January 04, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

A pioneer of electromagnetism, James C. Maxwell redefined how mathematicians—and students—have approached both quantum mechanics and special relativity.

We often envision juggernauts like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein when identifying science’s key figures. However, these household names built their work upon foundational discoveries from lesser-known peers. 

James Clerk Maxwell was one such figure. Although Maxwell himself wasn't an engineer as we've typically discussed "historical engineers" in the past, his findings paved the way for many foundational principles that uphold electrical engineering practices.


Early Life and Education

James Maxwell (later James Clerk Maxwell) was born on June 13th, 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He displayed remarkable curiosity from a young age and was renowned for his exceptional memory.

Maxwell took to geometry in particular. His abilities blossomed upon attending the Edinburgh Academy in 1841. He published his first academic paper on geometry and mechanic models at the ripe age of 14; this interest endured during his schooling as Maxwell attended the University of Edinburgh merely two years later. 


A young James C. Maxwell

A young James C. Maxwell. Image used courtesy of James Clerk Maxwell Foundation

Maxwell was by all accounts a research hound. His studies and extracurricular interests were abundant during his stint at Edinburgh, where he published two additional papers. Maxwell rode this momentum to the University of Cambridge, where he was revered for his mathematical prowess.

One professor of his made him a wrangler—a student of top mathematical achievement—and he was eventually named a Smith’s Prize winner in 1854. This award recognized his commitment to sound research and penmanship. Maxwell would continually explore greener pastures by obtaining professorships at Marischal College and King’s College of London.


Academia and Professional Achievements

Maxwell's time at King’s College was eventful. He published two papers on the electromagnetic field within five years. These essays explored the unique ways in which magnetic fields are generated and how such fields are structured.

Building upon these interests, Maxwell branched out into related fields. He even dabbled enthusiastically in photography, electricity, and measurement.

Maxwell achieved remarkable feats at King's College from 1861 to 1866; for instance, he oversaw the designation of electrical units for the British Association for the Advancement of Science and partook in measurement-and-standardization work, which gave rise to England’s National Physical Laboratory.

He also successfully tied electricity and electromagnetism to the speed of light, in accordance with his own theories.


James C. Maxwell

James C. Maxwell. Image used courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Encyclopaedia Britannica

Maxwell would continually dig into electromagnetism and physical phenomena late into his career. To further this study (and instruction), he served as Cambridge’s first professor of experimental physics.

When Maxwell left King’s College in 1865, he harkened back to his photographic genius. Maxwell received a Rumford Medal due to his color analysis. He’s often credited with making color photography possible in conjunction with his studies on light. Maxwell also created the Kinetic Theory of Gases. 


Contribution to Electrical Engineering

Electrical science wouldn’t be the same without James Clerk Maxwell, and his achievements were headlined by one particular work: A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. This 1873 analysis was heavily influenced by Michael Faraday’s previous work, which formed the basis for his book. 

Maxwell’s findings were ahead of his time. His models uncovered displacement currents in dielectric mediums, relating to transverse waves. These waves were nearly identical in velocity to those of light. This finding connected light waves to those consistent with electricity and magnetism.

Maxwell's theories confirmed Faraday’s own physical findings. He also concluded that electromagnetic waves could be generated in a controlled environment. Many Maxwell equations are derived from this keystone work.


Diagram included in Maxwell’s Treatise, depicting circular currents.

Diagram included in Maxwell’s Treatise, depicting circular currents. Image (modified) used courtesy of Wikisource

A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism also laid the groundwork for future discoveries. Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s theories eight years after his death, linking these assertions to the behavior of radio waves.

As a result, James Clerk Maxwell is inherently connected to the radio industry to this day. Albert Einstein openly credited Maxwell’s equation of electromagnetism in developing his own Theory of Special Relativity. 

His scientific breakthroughs have since touched the space, thermodynamics, nuclear science, engineering, and rheology realms. This positive ripple effect is nearly unparalleled.


Death and Modern Mentions

James Clerk Maxwell passed on November 5th, 1879. His teachings exist in almost every physics textbook today; his theories have stood the tests of time and trials of scrutiny. 

Maxwell was a strong proponent of giving scientific thought a voice. His old Edinburgh residence now houses the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, which aims to unite global thinkers. The Foundation gives scientists, engineers, and others a platform for expression through workshops, seminars, and courses. 

James Clerk Maxwell engaged regularly with the scientific community during his 48 years, and that veracity has lived on long after his death.



How have Maxwell's accomplishments affected you? Which engineer would you like to see discussed next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.