James Clerk Maxwell

1831 - 1879
by David F. Coppedge

In our roll call of great scientists of Christian faith, it would be hard to find a better role model than James Clerk Maxwell. Just take a look at his report card! His scientific work alone puts him in a triumvirate with Newton and Einstein, but no matter what other way you examine his life – intellect, personality, creativity, wit, work ethic, Christian character, integrity, breadth and depth of knowledge and accomplishments – Maxwell comes out on top. He pursued science with exuberance, and with grace and charm and unselfishness, giving glory to God. In his too-brief life of 48 years, Maxwell changed the world.

Do you use a cell phone? A GPS unit? A remote control for your TV? A radio? Television? You owe these inventions in large part to Maxwell. Radar, satellite, spacecraft and aircraft communications – any and every means of transferring information through thin air or the vacuum of space, comes out of his work. The inventors of all these devices all built on Maxwell’s exceptional discoveries in electromagnetism, discoveries that required the best in experimental method with the best in mathematics and theory. Maxwell discovered many things, as we shall see, but his crowning achievement was the summation of all electromagnetic phenomena in four differential equations, appropriately named Maxwell’s Equations in his honor. These equations, that express natural laws, not only brought together all the work of Faraday, Ohm, Volta, Ampere, and everyone else who had studied the curious properties of electricity and magnetism, but made an absolutely astounding and important prediction: that light itself was an electromagnetic wave, and through manipulation of electromagnetic waves, it might be possible to transmit information through empty space. Thus, our modern world.

The importance of these equations can hardly be overstated. Dr. Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate and influential 20th-century modern physicist, paid his respects this way: “From a long view of the history of mankind–seen from, say, ten thousand years from now– there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.” Electricity and magnetism, mere curiosities when explored by Faraday and explained by Maxwell, turned out to generate more economic wealth than the entire British stock exchange. Our modern world is inconceivable without the experimental and theoretical foundation laid by these two great Christians and scientists who harnessed mysterious laws of nature for human benefit.

And that was only one of Maxwell’s claims to fame. One biographer described him, “a man of immense intellectual capacity and seemingly inexhaustible energy, he achieved success in many fields, ranging from colour vision and nature of Saturn’s rings to thermodynamics and kinetic theory. In a short life he published a hundred scientific papers and four books. His was perhaps the last generation of scientists to whom so wide a field of interest was possible: with the rapid increase in knowledge in the latter part of the 19th century specialization became unavoidable . . . . on any assessment Maxwell stands out conspicuously among a race of giants. How much more might he not have achieved had his life run a normal span.”

We are fortunate to have a great deal of original source documents on Maxwell, thanks largely to his biographer and lifelong friend, the Rev. Lewis Campbell, who collected many personal letters, essays, anecdotes and tributes into his excellent 1882 biography, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, co-authored by William Garnett, one of his Cambridge colleagues. In addition, Cambridge University (where Maxwell was a distinguished scholar) has recently (1990, 1995) published three thick annotated volumes of Maxwell’s collected scientific papers and letters–including even his postcards. Yet in spite of these resources, few have even heard of James Clerk (pronounced Clark) Maxwell and his work, because these books are rare and costly. The biography, long out of print, used to only be found on dusty shelves of large libraries, and the new volumes of his collected papers cost $300 apiece. But now, thanks to the work of James C. Rautio of Sonnet Software, Campbell’s biography can be read online, making Maxwell’s personal life story (the kind you never get in the textbooks) accessible again. We will include some choice quotes here, but if there is one of the great scientists in this series you would pick to study in more detail, try this one. You’re in for a treat, because Maxwell’s personality is as captivating as his equations. He was the kind of fellow you would want to chat with over dinner every chance you could. No matter what the subject, he would keep you entertained and fascinated for hours.

Most important, Maxwell’s Christian faith was the core of his being. It guided his life’s work and personal habits, and motivated him to search out the laws of the great Lawgiver with diligence, as a mission from God. Thoroughly versed in classic literature and philosophies ancient and modern, Maxwell was uniquely qualified to speak to science, theology, and philosophy–and he did. He was a true Christian in heart as well as mind; he loved the Lord Jesus Christ with all his heart, mind and soul. And, he knew his Bible inside and out. Clerk Maxwell opposed any philosophy (like the new Darwinian evolution) that exalted itself against the God of creation, yet he did it with wit and grace (sometimes even in clever poetry) that earned the attention and respect of all.

Maxwell’s letters sparkle with a joie de vivre that is infectious, but he also knew hardship and tragedy. He knew what it was like to be taunted and bullied as a young boy at school (like when he was inadvertently sent to a new school a bit “overdressed” for his peers’ taste). He knew what it was like to have to learn to defend himself and earn respect without losing his composure. At age eight, he faced a devastating tragedy for a boy: he watched his mother suffer and die of stomach cancer. Fortunately, his father, John Clerk Maxwell, filled the emptiness better than most single parents could. He became his son’s dearest mentor and supporter, well into James’ college years. His fatherly letters reveal his proud interest in everything his son was doing. John’s expansive Scottish estate at Glenlair (which you can visit on the Web), provided young James with woods, streams, horses and books enough to fill his sponge-like mind, a repository that could not absorb enough fast enough. Playful and jocular, young James would one moment be swinging from trees, “tubbing” in the creek, creating his own spinning tops, reading books, or surprising his friends with a frog leaping out of his mouth.

All his life James never tired of a good joke, though his humor became much more sophisticated at Cambridge. To his university colleagues he would sign his postcards dp/dt, which being translated in the language of mathematical physics, became “JCM”–his initials. Sometimes he would write backwards, or pose puzzles or riddles for his friends. His writing is peppered with Latin, Greek, French, and German quotes. It would take a scholar in Greek mythology and Sophocles’ plays, for instance, to comprehend this whimsical line from a postcard to his friend Peter G. Tait: “The Hamiltonsche Princip., the while, soars along in a region unvexed by statistical considerations while the German Icari flap their waxen wings in nephelococcygia.”  His best wit, though, can be found in his poems. Early on in grammar school, Maxwell took a liking to making up rhymes. (Part III of Campbell’s biography contains examples both witty and profound). He was often known to slip his latest verse to a friend, his wife, or to a philosophical rival. Many of these make excellent reading and allow us to peer into his soul.

The Scottish schools of Maxwell’s youth were old-fashioned. Instead of building self-esteem, they forced students to learn Latin, Greek, and classic literature. Good thing, because Maxwell’s grasp of history, philosophy, and rhetoric served him well as a writer, professor, scholar, and defender of Christianity. As a young student at Cambridge, Maxwell once wrote Lewis Campbell that he intended to plow up all the secret hiding places of philosophy and world religions, the sacred plots their owners want you to tiptoe around. Not Maxwell; he was going to charge in and investigate whether their claims could stand up to scrutiny. And he was unafraid to apply the same rule to the Bible. He said, “Christianity–that is, the religion of the Bible–is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations.” Christianity, to Maxwell, was not stifling to the scientist or truth seeker; it was liberating.

Young Maxwell, by J. Beverly Greene. All rights reserved.

At age 22, Maxwell graduated at the top of his class at Trinity College, the Second Wrangler (tied for the highest grade), and Smith’s prizeman. In those arduous days of preparing for the Cambridge final exams—the toughest in the world—he composed a ten-verse poem, “A Student’s Evening Hymn.” He must have taken a moment away from the intense pressure of studies to go outside a watch a sunset. As the stars came out and reminded him of God’s great power in creation, he pondered the big picture of his life and priorities, and put his thoughts into verse. This gem of poetic worship and supplication, long forgotten after 148 years, we have reproduced here and set it to a new original melody. These eloquent lines can be seen as an encapsulation of Maxwell’s purpose in life. He never deviated from these sentiments, even through his final, greatest trial.

Graduation opened the door to a 26-year career in science characterized by a series of exceptional discoveries, culminating in his famous equations. Maxwell became a Cambridge scholar par excellence, always humble and devout, and loved and admired by his colleagues. He was close friends with Peter Guthrie Tait, the father of vector calculus, Michael Faraday, and Lord Kelvin. He served as professor at Kings College and Trinity, but always kept close ties to Glenlair, his home for life. At age 27, he married Katherine Mary Dewar. Though described by some as a “difficult woman” and frequently ill, Katherine was this model husband’s target of loyalty and love, though they bore no children. Some of his love letters and poems have survived, including Bible studies they shared, in which Maxwell’s deep understanding of and reverence for the Scriptures is manifest. Through their married life, they attended church faithfully where the Word of God was preached, supported their church, and walked their talk. Clerk Maxwell even took time out of his busy schedule to teach poor working men science, to give them a chance at a better life than the dismal factories that enslaved them. Always the lover of wisdom, his many letters, essays, lectures and articles are both deep and cheerful, and, however they traverse the theories of the day, always lead back to the wisdom of God. Maxwell stood firmly against the creeping atheistic Darwinism that got its foothold in the scientific establishment, but was perhaps too much the gentleman. We have good statements by him on the matter of evolution, but with hindsight of the atrocities committed in the name of Darwinism in the next century, we could only wish that Maxwell and Faraday both had spoken out even more firmly than they did. Perhaps it would not have made a difference, but this is perhaps the only criticism that can be made against these great Christian heroes of science.

Saturn's rings seen from Voyager 2 in 1981

Saturn’s rings seen from Voyager 2, 1981

Maxwell’s scientific work was varied and colorful. When a contest for the Adam’s Prize was announced, Maxwell took up the challenge and set to explain the nature of Saturn’s rings. His 60-page analysis, filled with recondite mathematical logic, proved that the rings must be made of separately orbiting particles following their own Keplerian orbits. Along with the paper he provided a mechanical model of how the ring particles orbit the planet. He easily won the prize in 1857, but the real honor came 124 years later in 1980-1981, when the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft visited Saturn and verified his theoretical proof with direct observations. Maxwell also explained color vision and demonstrated a technique for color photography, taking the first color photograph by combining monochromatic images taken through filters with the three primary colors. In addition to being the father of electrodynamics, Maxwell was the father of statistical thermodynamics and kinetic theory, which deals with the aggregate motion of large numbers of particles. He thus gave thermodynamics a firm foundation in mechanics. A puzzle he left for future theoreticians came to be known as “Maxwell’s demon.” He surmised that it might be possible to violate the Second Law of thermodynamics and separate hot from cold molecules in a gas if you had a little man at a trap door able to sort them out as they flew by. Later physicists proved that the entropy of the little man would more than compensate for the ordering of the molecules, thus the Second Law would not be violated. The puzzle continues to arouse discussion into modern times.

Maxwell and Faraday gave us our modern world of motors, radio, and telecommunications; they complemented each other perfectly. Where Faraday was weak in mathematics and theory, Maxwell excelled. Maxwell took the results of Faraday’s years of experimentation with magnets and wires and organized them into his famous four equations. This was a monumental step, requiring years of analysis, thought, experimentation, insight, and genius, culminating in the publication of his 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Here is a case of one little item starting a revolution: in the fourth equation, Maxwell (through theory and experiment) added a term to Ampere’s Law (a law which relates the magnetic effect of a changing electric field or of a current) he called the “displacement current” i. Such a little thing, the letter i; what could such a trifle mean? It means, as he wrote, “light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.” Thus, he unified light with electricity and magnetism, and formed the theoretical basis for radio, TV, radar, and all the spinoffs of these technologies such as remote controls, spacecraft telemetry and cell phones which poured like gold from Maxwell’s Equations in the years after his death.

Maxwell's EquationsConcerning these equations, Ludwig Boltzmann (quoting from Goethe) remarked, “Was it a god who wrote these lines…”  J. R. Pierce, in a chapter titled “Maxwell’s Wonderful Equations,” wrote, “To anyone who is motivated by anything beyond the most narrowly practical, it is worth while to understand Maxwell’s Equations simply for the good of his soul.” A college physics textbook states, “The scope of these equations is remarkable, including as it does the fundamental operating principles of all large-scale electromagnetic devices such as motors, synchrotrons, television, and microwave radar.” Interestingly, Maxwell’s Equations needed no revision when Einstein published his theories of relativity 40 years later, but Newton’s laws did. Maxwell’s Equations already had relativity “built in” – they are invariant in all frames of reference. Truly remarkable. Engineers frequently use these wonderful equations in the most advanced work today. Another phenomenal result of these equations is that it became possible to derive the speed of light from theoretical considerations alone.

Image credit: Illustra Media

In his forties, Maxwell devoted himself to building the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, named for the pioneering physicist who in 1798 first measured the gravitational constant G. This laboratory was destined to become the hub of many major discoveries in atomic and nuclear physics in the coming century. But by 1879, Maxwell became ill. Hiding his discomfort so as not to worry his wife and his colleagues, he continued working until it was too late; he was diagnosed with the same stomach cancer that had taken his mother’s life forty years earlier. Throughout his ordeal, Maxwell’s thoughts were only for others, especially for his wife Katherine. As grieving friends and pastors visited him in his sick bed, Maxwell would quote Scripture and Christian poems from memory:

Christ is my only head,
My alone only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me e’en dead;
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in Him new drest.

Also frequently quoting from a hymn,

Lord, it belongs not to my care,
Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And that Thy grace must give.

His faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ was his great consolation that eternity lay before him as a joyous entrance to heaven. Toward the end, after giving the glory to God for all his achievements, he said, “I have been thinking how very gently I have been always dealt with. I have never had a violent shove in all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.” That he did on November 5; his doctor observed, “His intellect also remained clear and apparently unimpaired to the last. While his bodily strength was ebbing away to death, his mind never once wandered or wavered, but remained clear to the very end. No man ever met death more consciously or more calmly.”

Artwork by J. Beverly Greene commissioned for this biography. All rights reserved.

Tributes poured in after James Clerk Maxwell’s death. Few grasped the significance of what he had discovered, and what it would bring to civilization, but all who knew him honored his intellect and reputation. Not diminishing his scientific achievements, however, Dr. Butler at the funeral focused on his spiritual side:

… we may well give thanks to God that our friend was what he was, a firm Christian believer, and that his powerful mind, after ranging at will through the illimitable spaces of Creation, and almost handling what he called “the foundation stones of the material universe,” found its true rest and happiness in the love and the mercy of Him whom the humblest Christian calls his Father.  Of such a man it may be truly said that he had his citizenship in heaven, and that he looked for, as a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the unnumbered worlds were made, and in the likeness of whose image our new and spiritual body will be fashioned.

To get a true glimpse at the spirit of Maxwell, you need to read his own writings. We will provide samples of his best wit and wisdom here, but could only whet your appetite. In the meantime, read Lewis Campbell’s biography. May the testimony of James Clerk Maxwell, and other great Christians in science like him, inspire a new generation to fulfill their calling with similar zeal, humility, joy, and dedication. Maxwell expressed his work ethic in these profound words:

He that would enjoy life and act with freedom must have the work of the day continually before his eyes.  Not yesterday’s work, lest he fall into despair, nor to-morrow’s, lest he become a visionary,–not that which ends with the day, which is a worldly work, nor yet that only which remains to eternity, for by it he cannot shape his actions.

Happy is the man who can recognise in the work of To-day a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity.  The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been made a partaker of Infinity.  He strenuously works out his daily enterprises, because the present is given him for a possession.

Thus ought Man to be an impersonation of the divine process of nature, and to show forth the union of the infinite with the finite, not slighting his temporal existence, remembering that in it only is individual action possible, nor yet shutting out from his view that which is eternal, knowing that Time is a mystery which man cannot endure to contemplate until eternal Truth enlighten it.

The largest, tallest mountain on Venus – over 10 miles higher than the average height – is named after Maxwell, the only feature on that planet named after a historical person. A crater on the moon on the moon is also named in his honor. On the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is exploring the universe in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Edinburgh Academy

“His name stands magnificently over the portal of classical physics, and we can say this of him; by his birth James Clerk Maxwell belongs to Edinburgh, by his personality he belongs to Cambridge, by his work he belongs to the whole world.”  —Max Planck, physicist

by David F. Coppedge


Learn More About
James Clerk Maxwell

The year 2006 was declared “Maxwell Year” by the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, for the purpose of “celebrating the man who changed everything,” upon the 175th anniversary of his birth.  Take a look at the pictures, documents, anecdotes and links for more information about him at Maxwell Year 2006.

Read Lewis Campbell’s excellent biography online: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell.

Read “Maxwell and the Christian Proposition” by Ian Hutchinson, an illustrated biographical sketch emphasizing Maxwell’s Christian motivations for science. This makes for a good summary of Lewis Campbell’s biography if time is limited.

Read the interesting chapter on Maxwell by George Mulfinger in Christian Men of Science: Eleven Men Who Changed the World. A physics professor himself, Mulfinger found little known details about Maxwell’s life.

Browse Maxwell’s repertoire of original poetry: clever rhymes from the whimsical to the sublime! Read Daniel Silver’s attempt to unscramble Maxwell’s last poem, written as he was ill with the cancer that would take his life the following year. The poem contains a rebuke to Darwinian philosophy.

Take a tour of the Maxwell House at Glenlair (but bring your own coffee). Loaded with links and pictures.

Check out books by or about Maxwell at the Caltech Library or search for them on Amazon.Com.

Here is a secular Biography of Maxwell.

Visit the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation website.

Read the IEEE’s tribute to Faraday and Maxwell and description of the importance of their work on electromagnetism.

Let Professor Michael Fowler explain Maxwell’s Equations. Or hear Dr. Physics give a whiteboard demonstration on YouTube of how Maxwell’s Equations are derived.

Study the Electromagnetic Spectrum.

Find Crater Maxwell on the Moon.

Find Maxwell Montes, the highest mountain on Venus (taller than Mt. Everest!), in this global view.  And here’s a stunning rendition of Maxwell Montes from an oblique angle.

Learn about the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and submillimeter astronomy.

Play and sing Maxwell’s A Student’s Evening Hymn at the piano.