James Clerk Maxwell
Photographs by and copyright of Allan Devlin
A prophet, they say, ‘is not without honour, save in his own country and in his own house’ and few fit the biblical quotation more than a man who lies buried in the village graveyard of Parton, near Loch Ken in Dumfries and Galloway. Ranked alongside Galileo, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, he is considered amongst physicists to be one the four greatest minds the scientific world has ever known, though few non-scientists are familiar with his name. Which is a sad state of affairs because, even without understanding his equations, or grasping the intricacies of his theories, every time people switch on the radio or television or use a mobile phone, they should be aware of the name of the man whose ground breaking work made such technologies possible.
James Clerk Maxwell was one of the 19th century’s greatest mathematical physicists. Maxwell defined the nature of gases and, with a few mathematical equations, expressed all the fundamental laws of light, electricity and magnetism which provided those who followed with the tools to create the technological age, from radar to radio and televisions to mobile phones. His work on colour vision led him to taking the first colour photograph. He is credited with fundamentally changing our view of reality, so much so that Albert Einstein said: “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.” Perhaps had he lived longer, for he was just 48 when he died in 1879, his name, like that of Einstein, would have been much more widely known today.
Thanks to the tireless efforts over many years of Sam Callander, a resident of the picturesque village of Parton, James Clerk Maxwell’s name is certainly much better known locally than it was a decade ago. Sam, who was instrumental in having the commemorative plaque erected outside the kirkyard where Maxwell is buried would like to see the scientist’s name receive the wider recognition it deserves.
Sam moved with his parents to Parton in 1936 when his father became the village blacksmith. He remembers the minister saying a famous scientist was buried in the kirkyard. “I thought he would be an interesting person to know about, but at school I never heard anything about him. It wasn’t until years later, when I was the Kirk Session Clerk, I began to learn more about him. People used to come looking for their ancestors and other people – often from abroad – came asking about James Clerk Maxwell. I started to collect anything I found about him and, just like Topsy, the collection kept on growing,” he said. Sam has organised several exhibitions celebrating Maxwell’s life and work in an attempt to increase public awareness of the great man and has contributed to books and pamphlets.
James Clerk Maxwell was born on 13 June 1831 at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, but moved shortly after with his parents John and Frances, to Glenlair House, a few miles north of Castle Douglas, near Corsock in Dumfries and Galloway. Here, from all accounts, young James enjoyed an idyllic childhood. He had many friends among the local children with whom he explored the surrounding fields and woods, climbing trees, bird watching, getting up to mischief. His mother was also his teacher and James learned to read at an early age and became a voracious reader with an astounding memory for all he read and heard. The family attended Parton village church where James sat motionless throughout the sermon, every word of which he was able to repeat afterwards.
From an early age he had an enquiring mind, always wanting to know how things worked. Or, as he put it: “What’s the go of this?” If the explanation did not satisfy him he would persist with his question: “But what’s the particular go of it?” Colour also fascinated James: “How d’ye know it’s blue?” His father wrote proudly of his son’s activities to James’s aunt, Miss Cay in Edinburgh. “He is a very happy little man; he has great work with doors, locks, keys, etc., and ‘show me how it doos’ is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden courses of streams…the way water gets from the pond, though the wall…and down a drain into the Water of Urr…As to the bells, they will not rust for he stands sentry in the kitchen, and Mag runs through the house ringing them all by turns or he rings, and sends Bessy to see and shout to let him know…”
On one occasion someone gave the boy a shiny tin plate to play with and he was soon calling for his parents to come and see how he had managed to bring the sun into the room as he made its reflection shine on the walls. This early amusement with light and its tricks was a preoccupation which continued into his adult life when he was able to unlock many of the secrets which had long baffled scientists.
James’s, mother, Frances, was diagnosed as having abdominal cancer and underwent an operation – without anaesthetic – which was unsuccessful and she died in 1839. Her son was only eight years old and her death must have been devastating for him. His misery was further compounded when his father employed a private tutor, a 16-year-old boy, who possibly knew little more than his pupil and who had no idea how to teach such a bright child. After a year of learning by rote, James rebelled and his father took him to Edinburgh to stay with his sister, Isabella Wedderburn, and enrolled him in Edinburgh Academy.
James may not have thought this much of an improvement to begin with. He joined a class of 60 boys, all older than he, who had already formed friendships and who were not inclined to welcome the new boy. Poor James, dressed in peculiar clothes his father had made him – including a loose tunic and square-toed shoes when the fashion was for tight jackets and narrow shoes – was an easy target for mockery, especially when he opened his mouth and spoke, not in the posh Edinburgh tone of his school fellows but in a broad Galloway accent. He was nicknamed Dafty and teased unmercifully, until eventually he retaliated and did a bit of beating up of his own, which seemed to earn him a degree of respect. With the long summer holidays spent back at Glenlair with his old friends, he retained his Galloway accent throughout his life.
In 1847, at the age of 16, James entered Edinburgh University where he spent three years studying, amongst other subjects, polarised light, galvanism, rolling curves and the compression of solids. Even before then, when only 14 he wrote his first scientific paper on the drawing of ovals. His father showed his work to James Forbes at Edinburgh University who read the paper on James’s behalf – he was considered too young to read it himself – to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. After three years in Edinburgh, James went on to Cambridge in 1850 where he took the mathematical Tripos – a horrific exam lasting six hours a day over seven days. He passed, coming second only to E J Routh, a specialist mathematician, with whom he shared the Smith prize.
Once his exams were over, Maxwell continued at Trinity teaching scholars and was awarded a Fellowship in 1855. He was still only 24 years old and now began to focus on his work on vision and how we see colours – determined to find the answer to his early question: “How d’ye know it’s blue?” He sent his results in a paper, Experiments on Colour, as Perceived by the Eye to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in which he presented a three-component theory of colour vision, and, using a colour top he had made, demonstrated some results to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. Colour television works on the same three-component theory Maxwell devised, though he is rarely attributed as the pioneer in this field.
In early 1856 Maxwell’s father’s health was failing and James applied for the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He and his father spent the Easter vacation at Glenlair. His father died on 3 April shortly before James learned of his appointment to the Aberdeen post at Marischal College. During his first two years there, his research focussed on the motion of Saturn’s rings. He demonstrated that the rings’ stability could only be achieved if they existed of numerous small particles. His essay won the St John’s College Cambridge Adams Prize about which the Astronomer Royal, Airy wrote: “It is one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.” Voyager spacecraft has since confirmed Maxwell’s theory.
In 1859 James married Katherine Mary Dewar, whose father was the Principal of Marischal College. Katherine, at 34, was seven years older than James. She seems to have been his first romantic attachment since five years earlier, when he and his cousin Lizzie Cay had fallen in love. James was so happy when Lizzie accepted his proposal of marriage he walked the 50 miles from Carlisle to Glenlair. It was not to be, however. The family, concerned about consanguinity, persuaded the young couple not to marry. Katherine and James were devoted to each other and she worked alongside him on many of his experiments.
A year after his marriage Maxwell found himself out of a job when Marischal and King’s College amalgamated and only one Professor of Natural Philosophy was to be retained. It was not long before he secured another post, this time in London at King’s College where, over the next few years, he engaged on a tremendous amount of work before returning to Glenlair to write up his treatise on electricity and magnetism. In 1871 he was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics in Cambridge, founded by the Duke of Devonshire and Maxwell’s first task was to create the Cavendish Laboratory.
A Canadian scientist, Dr MacDonald sums up Maxwell’s achievements in his book, Faraday, Maxwell and Kelvin. “Maxwell’s equations describing electro magnetic phenomena under all sorts of possible conditions – the discovery of these laws by Maxwell is regarded by physicists all over the world as the same kind of gigantic achievement as was Newton’s discovery of his equations of motion; the three most remarkable physical scientists since the time of Galileo have been Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.”
Over the years Sam Callander has been contacted by many people researching James Clerk Maxwell’s life including Lord Reith, first Director-General of the BBC, whith whom he corresponded for a time. Lord Reith in a letter to Sam described Maxwell as “the greatest Professor Aberdeen ever had.” Amongst his vast collection of books, papers and memorabilia Sam has several foreign language – Japanese Chinese and Russian – biographies of Maxwell presented to him by the authors.
He remembers the people who have made their way to Parton to see where James Clerk Maxwell lies buried. “There was a fellow from Australia on a motor bike who was in Carsphairn. He realised he was close to James Clerk Maxwell and drove down to Parton and a Japanese student hired a taxi all the way from Carlisle,” he said, adding, “and an Egyptian professor on his way to take up his appointment at Aberdeen University made a detour to Parton. Miss Dorothy Wedderburn who was a cousin twice removed used to come up every year from bath to put flowers on the grave. She ate her sandwiches by the phone box. When it got too much for her she asked me to put the flowers on the grave.”
James Clerk Maxwell had interests and pursuits outside his search for scientific answers. He wrote poetry, when living in London he rode with Katherine most afternoons in Hyde Park and he was a master at handling the ‘diabolo’ or devil on two sticks – a top which can he spun, thrown and caught on a piece of string attached to two sticks. He was also renowned for his sense of humour. When he was a boy he added sketches and humorous poems to his letters home – which he sometimes addresses to Mr John Clerk Maxwell, Posty Knows Where, Kirkpatrick Durham, Dalbeattie. Arriving at Aberdeen, however, he found his colleagues welcoming enough but as he explained in a letter to a friend: “No jokes of any kind are understood here. I have not made one for 2 months, and if I feel one coming on I shall bite my tongue.” Sam Callander’s favourite Maxwell joke is about when he was told the church service would begin at 6am and James replied: “Oh, I think I could stay up as late as that.”
James Clerk Maxwell retained his love for Glenlair throughout his life. He became an elder at Corsock church and returned to officiate at every Communion. He died in 1879, of the same stomach cancer that killed his mother. His doctor, Dr J Lorraine write of him: “I must say he is one of the best men I have ever met, and a greater merit than his scientific achievements is his being…a most perfect example of a Christian gentleman.”
What Sam would most like, what would make him feel that James Clerk Maxwell had finally achieved the recognition he deserves, is to have a commemorative stamp issued. “I’ve written to suggest it a couple of time but so far without any success. They said for a stamp the person had to be interesting and saleable to the public. Now, I ask everyone who comes to ask me about James Clerk Maxwell to sign my visitors’ book. Maybe I can collect enough names to show the public think he is interesting enough to warrant a commemorative stamp.”
James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) is buried in Parton village churchyard, which is 7 miles from Castle Douglas on the A713. A commemorative plaque stands outside the kirkyard.
For further information:
Parton Smithy, Parton, DG7 3NE
Tel: 01644 470210
Don’t forget to sign his visitors’ book to help the campaign for a commemorative stamp.
The Ferguson family who own Glenlair have set up a trust to raise funds to stabilise the remaining ruins of Glenlair House and possibly establish a small visitor's centre and mini-museum. The website has information on the scientist and photos of the house.
SMSS University of
Basil Mahon’s biography, The Man Who Changed Everything,contains a wealth of information on Maxwell’s life and work.(John Wiley & Sons, 2003)
Click this image to see a gallery of the photos in this article
Work on electricity and magnetism, propounding the electromagnetic theory of light and that electricity travels at the speed of light.
Predicted the existence of radio waves in, paving the way for radio, TV and electronics.
His "Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism" containing the famous Maxwell equations was published in 1873.
Demonstrated the first colour photograph in 1861 – Maxwell photographed a tartan ribbon three separate times through red, green and blue filters then projected them simultaneously onto a screen.
Established the Cavendish Laboratory when he became the first professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University.