James Clerk Maxwell is regarded by most modern physicists as the scientist of the 19th century who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. He is ranked with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein for the fundamental nature of his contributions.
Born in Edinburgh in 1831, Clerk Maxwell's family moved to Glenlair near Corsock in Galloway when he was a child. He returned to Edinburgh for much of his education before heading to the University of Cambridge.
Extracts from the accompanying The Greatest Scot television programme are being added to these biographical notes as the programme is broadcast between November 9 and 13. If you live outside the UK, you will not be able to see these, but you may enjoy other videos about some of the subjects which are available via links in the text. Here is one about the unveiling of a statue in Edinburgh honouring James Clerk Maxwell.
Clerk Maxwell was later elected to the Royal Society and occupied a role as professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and then King's College, London.
However, by 1865 he retired to the family estate in Dumfries and Galloway where he spent most of his days until his death, aged 48, in 1879. He is buried at Parton graveyard close to his long-time home.
Clerk Maxwell’s formulation of electro-magnetic theory paved the way for Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which established the equivalence of mass and energy. Maxwell’s ideas also ushered in the other major innovation of 20th-century physics, the quantum theory. His description of electromagnetic radiation led to the development (according to classical theory) of the ultimately unsatisfactory law of heat radiation, which prompted Max Planck’s formulation of the quantum hypothesis
The mobile phone, satellite communications, television and radio were all made possible by his work. As Albert Einstein put it: "One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell."
In 1931, on the 100th anniversary of Maxwell’s birth, Einstein described the change in the conception of reality in physics that resulted from Maxwell’s work as “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”