Notable alumni: James Clerk Maxwell

Rosalind Franklin

 

Physicist

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) was Professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s in the 1860s when he brought magnetism, electricity and light together in a unique and elegant system of equations.

Growing up in Scotland, James was an inquisitive child. His mother described how a three year old James was often asking ‘show me how it doos’.

At the age of 14 James wrote his first scientific paper, ‘Oval Curves’. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine. Professor James Forbes, of Edinburgh University, presented the paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, because James was considered too young to present the work himself.

James studied at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities before being offered a professorship at Marischal College in Aberdeen at just 25 years old. He joined King’s as Professor of Natural Philosophy from 1860-65, probably the most productive years of his career.

Between 1861-62 he published three papers that formulated the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, bringing together for the first time electricity, magnetism, and light as different manifestations of the same phenomenon and paving the way for radio, television, radar and mobile phones. The Theory of Electromagnetism is summarised in four key equations that now bear his name. This discovery led Albert Einstein to later comment: ‘One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell’.

Amongst his other achievements, James also made a considerable contribution to the field of photography. His work led to the first colour photographs being taken in 1861.

Today, the student physics society at King’s is known as the Maxwell Society and a building at Waterloo campus is named in his honour.

Did you know? At school his eccentric behaviour earned him the nickname ‘Daftie’ among his peers.