Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

James Clerk Maxwell

A Great Leader in Modern Science; "A Most Perfect Example of a Christian Gentleman"

Two scientific friends, Professors of Natural Philosophy, each remarked to me that he supposed I should be including Clerk Maxwell in the Heroes of Science. His was the first name that each of these learned friends mentioned. There is a great natural charm about this Prince of Philosophers, although the general reader might fail to grasp the immensely great value of his scientific work, it being confined to mathematical and theoretical science, at no point directly touching the practical applications of Science.

James Clerk Maxwell was born in that year (1831) in which Michael Faraday discovered the electro-magnetic principles which have led to the great practical applications of electricity. At the time of Clerk Maxwell's birth Professor Faraday would be about forty years of age.

Clerk Maxwell was of gentle birth, his father being a Scottish laird, although a younger son. For centuries the family had been associated with all that was most distinguished in Scotland. John Clerk Maxwell was intensely interested in his son James, whose life we are about to consider.

James was an only child, excepting a sister who died in infancy. We have an interesting picture in a family letter of this only son at the age of three years. Even at this early age he must have been a great inquirer, for in this letter it is said, "the words 'Show me how it does' were never out of his mouth. He also investigated the hidden course of streams and bell-wires. . . . As to the bells, they will not rust; he stands sentry in the kitchen, and Mag runs through the house ringing them all by turns, or he rings, and sending Bessy to see and shout to let him know, and he drags papa all over to show him the holes where the wires go through."

The boy James was not without mischief, for on one occasion when he heard a servant-maid bringing the tea-tray along a passage, he blew out the light and lay across the doorway, with what result we are left to imagine. At ten years of age we see him riding his favourite pony behind his father's carriage. He was genuinely interested in all outdoor games, but the report given to his father by the tutor concerning his lessons was hat the boy was very slow at learning. The real fact was that the tutor was very inefficient at teaching, and took an entirely wrong way with the child. To strike a pupil with a ruler and pull his ears till they bled was not the way to instil knowledge into the mind of a spirited boy.

When James was sent to reside with an aunt in Edinburgh, so that he might attend the Edinburgh Academy, he was no ordinary boy. His little eccentricities earned for him the nickname "Dafty," which, like many another boy's nickname, was very wide of the mark. However, on one occasion he turned upon those who were tormenting him, and to such good purpose that they left him in peace for the future.

Clerk Maxwell, like many others who became great men, did not take the first place in school, but at fourteen years of age he gained the gold medal for Mathematics. Before he was fifteen years of age he wrote an original mathematical paper, which proved of such value that it was communicated by Professor Forbes to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which his father was a Fellow. The paper of this schoolboy met with great approbation among the men of science.

His father sought to encourage him in Science, taking him to some of the meetings of the Royal Society, and also buying him magnets and chemicals. But the state of the boy's health became an anxiety to his parents. He was often absent from school, and his father could not take him to any scientific meetings. But we must not picture Clerk Maxwell as a delicate boy. One of his playmates describes how James used, when bathing, "to take a running header from the bank, turning a complete somersault before touching the water." At other times he would dive from a height, first with his face to the water, and the next time backwards, saying that to do so was good for the circulation.

At sixteen years of age he went to Edinburgh University, where he was recognised as a genius, and was allowed the free use of the scientific apparatus for making original experiments. Maxwell was by no means a recluse; he was keen to get out to the games, but was willing to sacrifice his play if he could help some fellow-student. For instance, one student had hurt his eyes in making experiments on light, and he was ordered to stop reading, although he had been keen to prepare for his examination. Clerk Maxwell found him sitting in his room with closed eyes, and rather depressed about his enforced idleness, whereupon our hero offered to be eyes to the blind; and very often he would give up an hour of recreation to enable this student to prepare for his examination.

Mr. John Clerk Maxwell had thought of preparing his son for the Scottish Bar, but it was suggested that he should rather send him up to Cambridge. Perhaps the thought of parting with his son weighed with the father, for while James had been resident in Edinburgh his father was a constant visitor at the aunt's house. There was a perfect affection and confidence between father and son. But the father wished to do whatever would be best for his son, and so he consulted those who could help him to come to a decision. It is interesting to note that one of those whom the father consulted was Professor William Thomson, afterwards Lord Kelvin. Thomson was then a youthful professor in Glasgow University; he would be only seven years older than Clerk Maxwell.

Ultimately it was decided that our hero should go to Cambridge. On going there he took with him his scraps of gelatine, gutta-percha, and unannealed glass, bits of magnetised steel and such-like. His fellow-students recognised him as a very uncommon person, and every one was attracted by his gentlemanly ways, and by his conversation. One of his student friends has said: "No one could converse with him for five minutes without having some perfectly new ideas set before him; sometimes so startling as to utterly confound the listener, but always such as to well repay a thoughtful examination." But this deep thinker, engaged even then in original research work, was known among his friends as the most genial and amusing of companions.

I remember hearing, from what source I cannot recollect, an amusing story of Clerk Maxwell, which I have not seen in print. One night he had been entertaining some fellow-students with a large gyroscope, and they were all surprised at the length of time it continued to spin; indeed, it was still spinning when they separated to go off to their several rooms. In the morning Clerk Maxwell heard some of his friends coming up the stairs to his room, before he was out of bed, and remembering their surprise at the spinning gyroscope, he sprang out of bed, set the top spinning, and was back in bed, apparently sound asleep when the students entered. How long they were in solving the mystery I cannot say. It must have seemed to them at first as though Maxwell had solved the problem of perpetual motion.

Clerk Maxwell tried some experiments with his hours of work and sleep. One of his fellow-students has related how Maxwell would come out of his room at two o'clock in the morning, and take exercise "by running along the corridor, down the stairs, along the lower corridor, then up the stairs, and so on, until the inhabitants of the rooms along his track got up and lay perdus  behind their sporting-doors to have shots at him with boots, hair-brushes, etc., as he passed." He was still keen on bathing and boating. On one occasion he was upset out of his "funny" trying to take off his jersey after he had shipped his oars, but to such an expert swimmer it was in no way alarming. We find his father referring to the incident in a letter: "Were you carrying your watch when you were upset in your funny? and if so, how did it agree with the douking?"

When at home on his father's estate near Dumfries, Clerk Maxwell did not shoot, and when a friend informed him that the neighbours thought it a pity that he was "so little suited for a country life" he thought it a huge joke. The truth was that he had such a love for animals that he would not shoot them. He never denounced vivisection, thinking that it might serve a useful purpose, but he said that he could never do it.

Here is a description of the appearance of our hero: "A slight contraction of the chest; a stature which, although above the average, was not tall enough to carry off the weight of his brow, made him less handsome standing than sitting. His hair and incipient beard were raven-black."

On one occasion at Cambridge the mathematical lecturer was working out a difficult problem on the blackboard. He had filled the board three times over with figures, and had not yet reached the end of the calculation, when Clerk Maxwell asked if it would do to solve the problem by means of a geometric figure, and he showed that with a single figure and a few lines the solution of the problem could be obtained. But with all his great mathematical skill and exceptional genius, when he himself became a lecturer at Cambridge, he had great difficulty in imparting his knowledge to others. And later, when he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Aberdeen, the same difficulty was apparent. One of his friends has stated that, "either from shyness or momentary excitement, or the despair of making himself understood, would land him in chaotic statements, breaking off with some quirk or ironical humour." But the Professor was a good friend to his students, as the following incident will show. At the Marischall College, Aberdeen, the professors were allowed an unlimited number of books from the Library, and could even borrow a book for a friend, whereas no student was allowed more than two volumes at a time. Maxwell would take out books and lend them to his students, and when his colleagues thought it necessary to complain of this irregularity, Maxwell explained that the students were his friends.

His father died about the time Clerk Maxwell was appointed to the Professorship in Aberdeen, and needless to say, this sad event was a great trial to the devoted son. When twenty-seven years of age he married a daughter of the Principal of the Marischall College, and his married life was one of great happiness. One cannot imagine any man more devoted to his wife, and we shall see some proof later of his devotion.

The whole of the correspondence of Clerk Maxwell is of great interest, but much of it deals with scientific subjects beyond the layman's knowledge. Here, however, is an example of something in lighter vein, such as was continually coming up in his letters. It is an extract from a letter written to a friend who in after-life became one of Maxwell's biographers. An additional interest attaches to this letter as it refers to Lord Kelvin while still a young man, then Professor William Thomson. Maxwell writes:

"I was writing great screeds of letters to Professor Thomson about those Rings (Saturn), and lo! he was a-laying of the telegraph which was to go to America, and bringing his obtrusive science to bear upon the engineers, so that they broke the cable with not following (it appears) his advice. However, I know nothing. List to the new words to a common song, which I conceived on the railway to Glasgow. As I have only a bizzing, loose, interruption-to-talking-&-deathblow-to-general-conversation memory of the orthodox version, I don't know if the metre is correct; but it is some such rambling metre anyhow, and contains some insignificant though apparently treasonable remarks in a perfect thicket of vain repetitions. To avoid these let—

(U) = 'Under the sea,'

so that 2(U), by parity of reasoning, represents two repetitions of that sentiment. This being granted, we shall have as follows:

"The Song of the Atlantic Telegraph Company


Mark how the telegraph motions to me,


Signals are coming along,

With a wag, wag, wag;

The telegraph needle is vibrating free,

And every vibration is telling to me

How they drag, drag, drag,

The telegraph cable along.


No little signals are coming to me,


Something has surely gone wrong,

And it's broke, broke, broke;

What is the cause of it does not transpire,

But something has broken the telegraph wire

With a stroke, stroke, stroke,

Or else they've been pulling too strong.


Fishes are whispering. What can it be,


So many hundred miles long?

For it's strange, strange, strange,

How they could spin out such durable stuff,

Lying all wiry, elastic, and tough,

Without change, change, change,

In the salt water so strong.


There let us leave it for fishes to see;


They'll see lots of cables ere long,

For we'll twine, twine, twine,

And spin a new cable, and try it again,

And settle our bargains of cotton and grain,

With a line, line, line

A line that will never go wrong."

Little did Clerk Maxwell think that his own scientific work was one day to lead men on to the invention of wireless telegraphy. It was Clerk Maxwell who first predicted the existence of electro-magnetic waves, such as we use to carry our wireless messages through space. We may say that he discovered these waves by his mathematics, but a quarter of a century passed before the young German, Professor Hertz, discovered a means of demonstrating the presence of these waves by actual experiment.

On leaving Aberdeen, owing to his college being fused with others, Maxwell was urged to become a candidate for the vacant professorship in Edinburgh University. The preference was given, however, to his friend, Professor Tait, and it goes without saying that this made no difference whatever in the friendship of these two great men. Shortly after this Maxwell was appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy in King's College, London, where he carried out many important investigations. He performed many of his experiments at his home in Kensington. Sometimes he had occasion to work with his colour-box close up to the window, and as it was a large black box, measuring about eight feet in length, the neighbours thought he was mad to spend so many hours staring into what they believed to be a coffin.

During his stay in London, Maxwell used to meet Michael Faraday, who was then about seventy years of age. One evening Clerk Maxwell, then about thirty years of age, was making his way from the Lecture Theatre of the Royal Institution, when Faraday observed him entangled in the crowd. Remembering the young Professor's work on the movements of particles of matter, Faraday shouted to him, "Oh, Maxwell, cannot you get out? If any man can find his way through a crowd it should be you."

During the time they were resident in London he and Mrs. Maxwell took regular exercise on horseback. Maxwell bought a beautiful pony for his wife; it was a high-bred, spirited animal, with arched neck and flowing tail. Maxwell himself bought the pony at a fair, and he broke it in, riding side-saddle, with a piece of carpet to take the place of a habit. Shortly after this Maxwell was laid low with a severe attack of smallpox, it being supposed that he had become infected at the fair at which he bought this pony. During this trying illness his wife was quite alone with him, the servants only coming to the door of the sickroom. Maxwell used to say that his wife's careful nursing on this occasion saved his life.

Wireless telegraph


A few years later, when Maxwell was riding a strange horse, he struck his head on the bough of a tree, and received a scratch which was followed by erysipelas. This proved to be a very serious affair, but his devoted wife once more nursed him back to health and strength.

When thirty-five years of age Maxwell resigned at King's College, and retired to his estate near Dumfries, in Scotland. He was never absent much from home, but was busily employed writing his great treatises on Heat and on Electricity and Magnetism. His longest absence from home each year was when he went as Examiner to Cambridge. On these occasions, despite the pressure of examination papers, he wrote to his wife every day, and sometimes twice a day, telling her everything that would interest her, even the dress of lady friends.

When his wife was seriously ill he himself assisted in nursing her, and his concern for her is well illustrated by the following incident. When watching by her bedside one evening a terrier snapped at him and bit him in the face. The dog held on to Maxwell's nose, but rather than disturb his wife, he quietly lifted the dog and carried it from the room, still holding on to his nose.

This busy scientist took an interest in everything in which Mrs. Maxwell was interested. On one occasion he found that she was distressed with a sense of failure in her first attempts at cottage-visiting, so he read to her Milton's sonnet on his blindness, the last few lines of which read:

". . . thousands at his bidding speed,

And post o'er land and ocean without rest,

They also serve who only stand and wait."

Maxwell himself would visit any sick person in the village, and would read and pray with them in cases where such ministrations were welcomed. He and Mrs. Maxwell would always go to London in spring, and so, with busy days, the years of retirement passed quickly.

About this time (1870) the Chancellor of the University at Cambridge, the Duke of Devonshire, desired to build a Physical Laboratory in connection with the University. The Duke was a great-nephew of our eccentric friend the Hon. Henry Cavendish, and the laboratory, when completed, was named, and is still called, the Cavendish Laboratory. In recent years it has been the scene of Sir J. J. Thomson's remarkable scientific work.

Clerk Maxwell was urged to become the first professor in charge of the Cavendish Laboratory, and he accepted the post only because Professor William Thomson could not be persuaded to leave Glasgow, and because Maxwell's friends urged that it was therefore his duty to fill the Chair himself. He planned the new laboratory most carefully, and to-day Science reaps much benefit from his labours.

During these years at Cambridge he kept up his interest in his Scottish home. At Easter-time he made it a point always to leave Cambridge in time to officiate at the communion in the little Scottish kirk where he was an elder.

Unfortunately, a serious malady began to undermine his strength. Before the close of the session (1877) he complained of a choking feeling after meals, but it was about two years later before he mentioned the matter to his doctor, and only then in an incidental way when writing about Mrs. Maxwell. All at Cambridge noticed a change; there was a want of the old vivacity. A rest at his Scottish home did not seem to do much good, and when specialists were consulted they told him quite frankly that he had only about another month to live. His only concern was the happiness of his wife.

As they were at some distance from a doctor it was thought better to remove either to Edinburgh or Cambridge, and Maxwell selected the latter, where he might still do some work. He suffered much, but seldom mentioned it. His mind and memory remained perfectly clear up to the very end. Every one marvelled at his fortitude in suffering. About an hour before his death he was able to whisper some instructions to the doctor, but these did not concern himself; they were requests on behalf of his devoted wife. "He breathed deeply and slowly, and, with a long look at his wife, passed away."

At his death James Clerk Maxwell was only forty-eight years of age. The doctor who was with him at the end said that no man ever met death more consciously or more calmly. Another doctor, who knew him well, wrote the words which are used in the subtitle to this chapter, "A most perfect example of a Christian gentleman," and with this verdict the nurses and all who knew him heartily agreed.