James Clerk Maxwell

Scientist | Number 31

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) became a world renowned scientist. His discoveries led to inventions central to our lives like mobile phones, radio and television.  More broadly, they underpinned twentieth century developments in relativity and quantum physics.  Einstein said his work was “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton”.

His very early childhood years were spent at the family town house at 14, India Street, just round the corner from Heriot Row. The family then moved to Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire. James as a small child was always asking questions about how things worked. According to his father “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 course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall and a pend or small bridge and down a drain”.

When James was eight years old, his mother died.  He had been taught at home by his parents, then tutored, but he needed proper schooling. So at the age of ten he was enrolled at Edinburgh Academy.   James went to live in term time at his aunt Isabella’s house in 31 Heriot Row. He was already a regular visitor there, and close to Isabella’s youngest child Jemima. He featured regularly in her sketchbook and was at times her co-inventor. Jemima recalled that they “used to construct mechanical toys together, jumping jacks and wheels of life”. Jemima made drawings of animals in motion for them, while James made the mechanical parts. She also painted a water colour which showed James and three others trying to inflate a two storey high hot air balloon.

He found school difficult at first and acquired the nickname ‘Dafty’.  But soon his exceptional talents shone through as he carried off school prizes for mathematics, English and poetry.

When he reached fourteen, he wrote a paper entitled ‘On the description of oval curves and those having a plurality of foci’. This was read on his behalf to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a high achievement. He became a fellow of the Royal Society at the age of twenty four. He continued to break new scientific ground in his studies at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge.

His subsequent life's work spanned astronomy, electromagnetism, colour photography, and the kinetic theory of gases.  His four partial differential equations, named after him, were published in 1873, in ‘Electricity and Magnetism’ and are described as one of the great achievements of nineteenth century mathematics. One current Heriot Row resident remembers applying James' theories to his work for the European Space Agency. Even more recently, James' speculation about tiny 'demons' which could manipulate random molecules to produce directed motion, on the threshold between living and non living objects, have sparked new research.

The original family house in India Street is now kept by the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, with exhibits of his discoveries.

Einstein said his work was "the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton"