James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
James Clerk Maxwell, bronze bust by
Jackson Pilkington ABDUA:30110

Born in 1831, Maxwell entered Edinburgh University at the age of 16. In 1850, already an accomplished mathematician, he went to study mathematics at Cambridge, graduating in 1854. In 1855, he was made fellow of Trinity College, aged just twenty five, which was shortly followed by professor of Natural Philosophy  at Marischal College in 1856. Between 1860 – 1865 he occupied a similar position at King's College, London. He then became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge, in 1871.

Maxwell was an outstanding scientist and contributed much to the unifying of the understanding of physics through his work on electromagnetism. His work on the kinetic theory of gases laid the foundations of modern physics, and formed the basis of spatial relativity and quantum mechanics.

Maxwell's dynamical top
First colour photograph ever printed

Maxwell’s Phenakistoscope discs and this model of Maxwell's dynamical top are held within the Natural Philosophy collection. The dynamical top was used by Maxwell to illustrate advanced concepts relating to rotating bodies. Maxwell took the original instrument with him when he went to the Cavendish. The University holds a rare commercial replica of the dynamical top.

This print made in 1960, is from the original negatives of Maxwell’s first photograph by Kodak researchers and presented to Prof. R. V. Jones. Not catalogued.

Maxwell is also known for creating the first true colour photograph in 1861 and for his work on the rigidity of rod-and-joint frameworks now seen in many bridges.

Paper describing the dynamical top, read to Royal Society
of Edinburgh TB 500 TRS

SLA holds letters between Maxwell and his close friend and fellow mathematician PG Tait.  The two men met at Edinburgh Academy, and remained lifelong friends, often discussing mathematical problems and assisting each other’s work.

For more information on the University museum and archival collections please search the online catalogue