James Clerk MaxwellMacTutor Index

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The Life of James Clerk Maxwell

3.1 The Person

James Clerk Maxwell was a quiet child. This could have been caused by the early death of his mother when he was eight, his bullying tutor who beat him, his loving but protective father or a lack of interaction with children his own age. Irrespectively, it certainly affected his school life where he was teased for his strange country dress and strong Galloway accent. He earned the name 'Dafty' and P G Tait, who was in the year below Maxwell at the time, said [24, p4]:

At school he was at first regarded as shy and rather dull. He made no friendships and spent his occasional holidays in reading old ballads, drawing curious diagrams and making rude mechanical models. This absorption in such pursuits, totally unintelligible to his school fellows, who were totally ignorant of mathematics, procured him a not very complimentary nickname.

His troubles followed him to Edinburgh University where he also struggled to fit in and it wasn't until he arrived in Cambridge that he blossomed. Despite his eccentricities, people recognised his ability, his confidence grew and he made a number of friendships (mainly students of theology). One friend wrote [24, p8]:

Among his friends he was the most genial and amusing of companions, the propounder of many a strange theory.

He became known for his quirky sense of humour and immense knowledge in every subject. One famous story tells how Maxwell, returning to Cambridge to claim his MA, set a top he had made, spinning as guests were leaving his room. The next morning on spying one of his friends approaching, he reset his top and returned to bed, pretending the top had been spinning all night. As a result of this joke his top became legendary.

However, Maxwell's humour was not always well understood. When writing about his time in Aberdeen, he said [10, p80]:

No jokes of any kind are understood here. I have not made one for two months, and if I feel one coming I shall bite my tongue.

Maxwell's greatest problem was that he often struggled to communicate about what he deemed trivial. His friend from Edinburgh and Cambridge, the Reverend Charles Hope Robertson describes Maxwell of a very kindly disposition under a blunt exterior [1, p163]. This seems a most astute description, as Maxwell seemed to struggle to keep his lively mind from wandering and although this often made him entertaining company it also made him difficult to understand. This was to haunt him not only socially but throughout his career.

3.2 The Student

Maxwell always stood out to anyone who met him as an exceptional talent. Even as a child, his father quickly realised he was special. In a letter to his sister-in-law, in 1834, he wrote of James [1, p27]:

He is a very happy man, and has improved much since the weather got moderate; 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 ...

At school Maxwell excelled, finishing top of the year in Mathematics and English, and second in Latin. He also regularly attended the meetings of the Edinburgh Royal Society where his piece on ovals was read. He then went to Edinburgh University, which was a strange choice as most young, promising mathematicians travelled to Cambridge at that time. This decision was undoubtedly influenced by Maxwell's father who worried about James going so far from home. As a result Maxwell received a more philosophical education than most, enrolling in three classes, mathematics taught by Professor Kelland, natural philosophy with Professor Forbes and logic and metaphysics with Sir William Hamilton.

Forbes and Hamilton, who rumour suggests disliked each other intensely, disagreed on just about everything. This influenced Maxwell never to assume mathematics was correct and to always question it - something that certainly aided him in later life. At Edinburgh, Maxwell successfully studied a wide variety of topics but Kelland, although a good teacher, was not an excellent mathematician and his professors soon realised that for him to fully develop, he would have to travel to Cambridge. Maxwell, Kelland, Forbes and others discussed this with his reluctant father who finally agreed.

On arriving at Cambridge Maxwell was described by his friend from school, Peter Guthrie Tait, as having [25]:

...a mass of knowledge which was really immense for so young a man, but in a state of disorder appalling to his methodical private tutor.

This was probably because Maxwell, in his eagerness to learn, often taught himself bits and pieces from many areas and would have lacked someone to bring it all together. His tutor was William Hopkins, a geophysicist and applied mathematician, who had an excellent ability to pinpoint the top talent and tried to organise Maxwell's thoughts without quelling his genius. Hopkins described Maxwell as unquestionably the most extraordinary man he had met within the whole range of his experience [4, p32]. Maxwell's friends also spoke highly of him and The Reverend H. M. Butler said [2]:

His position among us was unique. He was the one acknowledged man of genius among the Undergraduates.

Maxwell eventually graduated in 1854 as second wrangler, behind E.J. Routh. The two shared the Smith's Prize, which was based only on the more difficult maths. Unsurprisingly Maxwell had lost out on the basics.

3.3 The Lecturer

Despite being an excellent mathematician Maxwell could never be described as a great lecturer. In 1856 he took up a post in Aberdeen to be near his dying father. However despite his many achievements he lost his position in 1860 when Marischal College merged with Kings College. Aberdeen went against policy to keep the Kings professor, David 'Crafty' Thomson, the older of the two, and The Reverend Canon Abbey, a lecturer at Kings in 1868, explains why [22, p20]:

The Governors asked Clerk Maxwell to resign his professorship because he could not keep order.

He again encountered problems when applying for the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh where he was rejected in favour of his friend Peter Guthrie Tait. The newspaper the Edinburgh Courant explained the decision [10, p98]:

Professor Maxwell is already acknowledged to be one of the most remarkable men known to the scientific world ... but there is another quality which is desirable in a Professor in a University such as ours and that is the power of oral exposition proceeding on the supposition of imperfect knowledge or total ignorance on the part of the pupils.

However, Maxwell did go on to gain positions at London, and then later at Cambridge. Sir Horace Lamb, who attended some of his Cambridge lectures, said [17, p144]:

He had his full share of misfortunes with the blackboard, and one gathered the impression which is confirmed by the study of his writings, that though he had a firm grasp of essentials, and could formulate great mathematical conceptions, he was not very expert in the details of minute calculation.

Clearly Maxwell had a problem conveying his thoughts. This made him difficult to understand and undoubtedly effected his peer's opinion of him.


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Kevin Johnson May 2002