Meeting Report: James Clerk Maxwell: the man who changed everything and was then forgotten

11 October 2013
Presidential Address
Dr Francis Toolis

Cumberland Street Centre was packed with an audience of 70 people for the AGM and inaugural meeting of the 2013–2014 season of Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. Dr Francis Toolis, retiring President, conducted the AGM and then introduced Liam Murray as his successor

Liam thanked Dr Toolis for his outstanding contribution to his three years as President, most notably steering the Society through its 150th anniversary year and for his management of excavations at Trusty's Hill, towards which he had acquired £35,000 of grants for advancement of the cause. He then announced the main attraction of the evening and invited the speaker, Dr Francis Toolis, to deliver his Presidential Address. The subject was James Clerk Maxwell.

Four faces of eminent scientists of the world came up on the screen: Galileo (1564–1662), Newton (1642–1727), Maxwell (1831–1879) and Einstein (1879–1955). Three of these men are world-famous. Only James Clerk Maxwell, whom Einstein rated very highly, is not so well-known, not even in his native land. Maxwell died at the age of 48 years. To quote Einstein: "The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field."

Though born at his parents' house at 14 India Street in Edinburgh, Glenlair the family property in Galloway was where he grew up. His mother encouraged his enquiring mind but, sadly, she died when he was aged eight. The extended family took him under their wing and he moved to 31 Heriot Row, Edinburgh. This enabled him to enrol at Edinburgh Academy in 1841. Initially he was scorned for his rural speech, which he retained lifelong, and he was even considered to be backward. By the third of his six years there he began to shine at Mathematics, especially Geometry. He formed a close friendship with like-minded Lewis Campbell, who wrote the biography of Maxwell three years after his death.

Such was the advanced nature of Maxwell's thinking that when he was fourteen years old a paper on ovals, written by him, was read (not by him) to the Royal Society in Edinburgh. He became a student at Edinburgh University in 1847 and thence to Cambridge in 1850. There he obtained a fellowship and graduated with a degree in Mathematics from Trinity College in 1854.

In 1856 the failing health of his father, resulting in death in April, had caused him to apply and be appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen. He married Katherine Dewar, the daughter of the Principal, in 1859, but this did not help him to retain his post when Marischal and King's Colleges combined. Maxwell also suffered rejection for the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University and later at St Andrews.

It was said of him that he "had too much learning and too much originality to be at his best in elementary teaching. For those, however who could follow him his teaching was a delight."

He succeeded in gaining the taxing appointment in 1860 to the chair at King's College, London, where he remained for six years. Subsequently he worked from Glenlair and made periodic trips to Cambridge, where he was appointed the first Cavendish Professor of Physics in 1871. He designed the Cavendish Laboratory, which opened officially in 1874.

By 1879 his health was obviously failing, advanced abdominal cancer was diagnosed and on 5th November he died. He is buried at Parton, where his wife was laid beside him seven years later.

His contribution to science is immense. As a youth he worked on polarised light and created a camera lucida. He studied colour: our colour television sets have arisen from his experimentation. His essay on The Motion of Saturn's Rings was entered for the Adam's prize at St John's College Cambridge, and won: his explanation was confirmed by the Voyager spacecraft in recent times. In photography, another of his fields of interest, he created the first colour photograph in 1861 but it was 100 years before his research was applied. His work in electricity and magnetism was revolutionary. In formulating the first ever statistical law in Physics he would have been declared great, even if he had never made another contribution to science.

In summing up Dr Toolis said of James Clerk Maxwell: "He changed everything and was promptly forgotten."

Late in the day a handsome statue of him was unveiled in George Street, Edinburgh, on 11th June 2008. It incorporates relevant symbolism and portrays a figure with an untied shoe lace.

Dr Toolis' treatment of a very complex subject was outstanding. His PowerPoint presentation was masterly and punctuated with humour. On concluding, he received a well-deserved and rapturous round of applause.