A visit to James Clerk Maxwell's house

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You can see a full biography of James Clerk Maxwell.

On a grey November day we [JOC and EFR] made the 50 mile train journey from St Andrews to Edinburgh to visit James Clerk Maxwell's house.

The house where James Clerk Maxwell was born is at 14 India Street, Edinburgh about a fifteen minute walk from the railway station which is in the centre of Edinburgh. The house is now owned by the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation who have restored it almost to its original state by removing partitions which had been erected by previous owners. The International Centre for Mathematical Sciences shares the building and organises mathematical meetings there. The Director of Development of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, Professor David S Ritchie, showed us the house and the historical documents and other items owned by the Foundation.

You can see a map of the area at the time Maxwell was there and a picture of the house as it is now and the sign outside marking it as Maxwell's birthplace.

The hall of the house is impressive with two marble pillars giving an instant impression of grandeur. The room, entered from a door on the right, is the former dining room. On the wall facing you as you enter are two large portraits, the rightmost one of James Clerk Maxwell, the left most one being a portrait of his school friend P G Tait.

You can see a picture of the hall, a picture of the dining room and the portrait of Maxwell and the portrait of Tait.

Between the portraits is a notice giving a brief history:-

James Clerk Maxwell was born on 13th June 1831 in Edinburgh at 14 India Street, a house built for his father in that part of Edinburgh's elegant Georgian New Town which was built after the Napoleonic Wars. Although the family moved to their estate at Glenlair, near Dumfries, shortly afterwards, James returned to Edinburgh to attend school at The Edinburgh Academy. He continued his education at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge.

The room is surrounded by portraits of James Clerk Maxwell's family and a Display Cabinet near the windows contains a fine collection of items associated with Maxwell. In this article we describe Maxwell's early life in Edinburgh and Glenlair and illustrate it with references to items in the house.

James Clerk Maxwell's father, John Clerk Maxwell, had one brother and one sister.

You can see the family tree of James Clerk Maxwell.

His brother Sir George Clerk inherited one part of the families property at Penicuik, south of Edinburgh, while John Clerk Maxwell inherited the Maxwell estate at Middlebie near Dumfries. There were conditions laid down which prevented the holder of the Middlebie estate also holding the property at Penicuik and the brothers had agreed this split of the property while still schoolboys. John Clerk Maxwell's sister Isabella married James Wedderburn and they were living at 31 Heriot Row in Edinburgh. You can see a picture of this house as it is now. When George Clerk moved to the Penicuik estate, John Clerk Maxwell was left at home with his mother in Edinburgh. He arranged to have a house built at 14 India Street so that they could be nearer to Isabella. The substantial terrace house was built in 1820 and documents relating to the purchase of the house are in the Display Cabinet.

After John Clerk Maxwell's mother died, he married Frances Cay. He had met Frances through a friendship with her brother John Cay with whom he shared an interest in designing machinery and attending meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. John Clerk Maxwell and Frances now chose to move to their estate at Middlebie and they had a house built for them at Glenlair on the estate. Their son James Clerk Maxwell was born in the house at 14 India Street and he would eventually inherit the house on the death of his father, retaining the house throughout his life.

You can see a picture of Glenlair as it was when Maxwell finally left it in 1884.

James Clerk Maxwell's mother, Frances, had a sister Jane Cay who lived at 6 Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh. You can see a picture of this house as it is now. A portrait of Jane and Frances as young girls, painted by their mother Elizabeth Cay, now hangs in 14 India Street. Both sides of the family had remarkable artistic talent. Frances's father was Robert Hodsham Cay LLD (1758-1810), a judge to the High Court of Admiralty of Scotland. His portrait hangs on the wall of the former dining room opposite the window.

John Clerk Maxwell's sister Isabella and her husband James Wedderburn had a daughter Jemima Wedderburn who was an outstanding artist. She was eight years older than James Clerk Maxwell and she painted pictures of the family almost every day, some of which are now displayed in 14 India Street. This pictorial diary records many of the events in James Clerk Maxwell's childhood and some of the pictures and events will be described later.

James was born in the first floor room overlooking the stables. Here is the view from the window of this room taken on the day of our visit. By a remarkable coincidence, the family now living in the house above the former stables is descended from Maxwell's friend P G Tait. Shortly after James's birth, the family moved to their house at Glenlair. The earliest sketch of James is today on view in the Display Cabinet. A letter describing the Boy, as he was called by his family, was written to Jane Cay at 6 Great Stuart Street on 25 April 1834 containing this description:-

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 ...

Here is a picture of James aged six, clearly more interested in the violin bow than in the dance. Another picture shows him sitting on the table making a basket. At Glenlair James played with Toby the dog, who he also called by a variety of variants of the name Toby such as Tobin, Tobs or Tobit. This picture of James with Toby is when James was slightly older.

As a child James had toys which would prove important as some would later play a role in deep scientific studies he would make. One of these toys was a stroboscope which rotated in front of a mirror and simulated moving pictures from figures drawn in it which he had from about age eight. He also had a stick, his leaping pole, which he took everywhere with him using it to cross streams, jump over rocks and he quickly learnt to use it with amazing dexterity.

There is a watercolour by his cousin Jemima of him at about this age showing him with his father riding a horse.

James Clerk Maxwell's mother died when he was 9 years old and a 16 year old boy was employed as a tutor to James. Here is a picture which shows Jemima holding James's leaping pole, James is sailing in a tub on the duck pond trying to avoid the tutor who has a garden rake and is trying to stop James. Toby looks on.

The arrangement with the tutor did not work well, probably the tutor was unsuitable for such a talented child as James, filled with curiosity at the world around him. It was decided that James should attend the Edinburgh Academy and in November 1841 the family travelled from Glenlair, stopping a few days at his uncles house in Penicuik, and at other relations at Newton, before reaching Isabella Wedderburn's house at 31 Heriot Row on 18 November. James was mostly to live here, but sometimes at Aunt Jane's in Great Stuart Street, while he attended the Edinburgh Academy.
You can see a picture at Glenlair, the stop at Newton and the arrival in Edinburgh all taken from watercolours by Jemima Wedderburn.
You can see an engraving of Edinburgh Academy as it was when James went there.

Tait [5] relates James Clerk Maxwell's early days at the Edinburgh Academy:-

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 then totally innocent of mathematics, of course procured him a not very complimentary nickname...

This nickname was "Dafty" and it must have been given to him largely on account of his appearance. At 14 India Street, in the Display Cabinet, we [JOC and EFR] studied newspaper cuttings with the headline "They called him Dafty". James Clerk Maxwell's father had prepared his son well for education in many ways but, to send him to the Academy dressed in the country clothes he would have worn at Glenlair, shows a lack of understanding of how James's fellow pupils would react. The way they reacted on his first day at school was clear from the state in which he arrived back at 31 Heriot Row [1]:-

... with his tunic in rags ... his neat frill rumpled and torn; himself excessively amused by his experiences, and showing not the smallest sign of irritation.

Progress at school was reasonable in these first years but nothing spectacular. He spent his summers back at Glenlair and, by Jemima's pictures drawn in the summer of 1843, he seems to have slotted back into his old pastimes.

You can see several pictures from this period.

About this time he was given a "devil - on - two - sticks", a toy which he always had with him from that time on when he was on holiday at Glenlair, on holiday in Glasgow, and he even took it with him when he went to study at Cambridge University. James quickly became an expert at making the devil do wonderful tricks, which almost seemed to defy the laws of physics. This toy, and others he was given as a child, must have had a profound effect on Maxwell. Later he was to apply his mathematical skills to a study of the dynamical top, doubtless still trying to understand the behaviour that had filled him with so much wonder as a child.

You can see a photograph of his "diabolo" and of some of his other toys.

Back in Edinburgh James was taken by his father to a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 18 December 1843. In October 1844 both James's father and Mrs Wedderburn were ill and James lived at Aunt Jane's house. Here is a picture of James doing his homework at 6 Great Stuart Street and a picture of his Aunt Jane seated in an adjacent room. The chair in which James sat to study while at 31 Heriot Row is now in the former dining room at 14 India Street, recovered with a material with a pattern depicting the digital nature of light waves, to honour one of Maxwell's great pieces of work.

At the Edinburgh Academy things were about to change [4]:-

The highest position he achieved in class was fourteenth - until he reached Mr Gloag. Then it became obvious that this boy had a brain for mathematics, and his self-confidence grew so much that he also began to do well in Latin and Greek.

James Gloag was the Master of the Arithmetical and Geometrical School. He had a reputation for discipline and Tait describes how Mr Gloag put his mathematical knowledge to practical use:-

To use a well-known cricketing phrase, Gloag could get 'more work' on the tawse than any of the other masters. His secret was in great part a dynamical one.

Magnusson [4] speaks highly of Mr Gloag:-

Mr Gloag took the most intense pride and delight in his former pupil's successes; but unlike many masters who concentrated almost exclusively on the cleverest boys and let the other languish, Mr Gloag's sense of duty impelled him to try and make mathematicians out of even the most backward. In a way his tyranny was a sign that he cared about them all - the constant vigilance that ensured that he never missed a turn of the head and could switch his attention in a twinkling from a problem in Higher Mathematics at the top of a class to a boy struggling with vulgar fractions on the lowest bench.

Maxwell began to comment on mathematical topics in his letters. He wrote on 19 June 1844:-

I have made a tetrahedron, a dodecahedron and two more hedrons that I don't know the right names for.

By July 1845 Maxwell had won the Mathematics Medal. Tait writes [5]:-

About the middle of his school career however he surprised his companions by suddenly becoming one of the most brilliant among them, gaining prizes and sometimes the highest prizes for scholarship, mathematics, and English verse composition. From this time forward I became very intimate with him, and we discussed together, with schoolboy enthusiasm, numerous schoolboy problems, among which I remember particularly the various plane sections of a ring or tore, and the form of a cylindrical mirror which should show one his own image unperverted.

If Maxwell's progress in mathematics had been outstanding, better was to come. By early 1846 he was working on his own researches on ovals. John Clerk Maxwell writes in his diary for Thursday 26 February 1846:-

Call on Prof. Forbes at the College and see about James's ovals and 3-foci figures and plurality of foci. New to Prof. Forbes, and settle to give him the theory in writing to consider.

It appears that two accounts of this work on ovals by James Clerk Maxwell were written. One by his father, as he states in his diary entry and this is now in the possession of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the other by James himself and this copy is on view in the Display Cabinet at 14 India Street. The paper was accepted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and read to the Society on 6 April 1846. The paper was printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and here is Plate XI as it appears in the paper

Tait writes [5]:-

I still possess some of the manuscripts we exchanged in 1846 and early 1847. Those by Maxwell are on 'The Conical Pendulum', Descartes' Ovals', 'Meloid and Apioid', and 'Trifocal curves'. All are drawn up in strict geometrical form, and divided into consecutive propositions. The three latter are connected with his first published paper, communicated by Forbes to this Society and printed in our Proceedings, vol. ii, under the title 'On the description of Oval Curves, and those having a plurality of Foci' (1846). At the time when these papers were written he had received no instruction in mathematics beyond a few books of Euclid and the merest elements of algebra.

On our [JOC and EFR] visit to 14 India Street, we were fascinated when we were given the chance to examine the notebook containing the manuscripts to which Tait referred. The notebook contains work which was written with differing degrees of care.

Here is a page from it.

Much of the manuscripts are written in beautiful calligraphy. Great care has been taken with these parts and pencil lines have been drawn in and then removed to ensure that all lines are straight and are perfectly left justified. Most of the manuscripts are by Tait and signed 'fecit P G Tait' with a date. Some, in particular the ones that Tait refers to above, are by Maxwell and signed and dated by him. For example the manuscript on the Conical Pendulum is signed by Maxwell and dated 25 May 47. There are some parts of the notebook written in ordinary handwriting rather than the calligraphy of much of the notebook.

Other than the topics of Maxwell's described above by Tait, there are also manuscripts by Tait on Vanishing Fractions which is l'Hôpital's rule, a manuscript on Maclaurin's Theorem and On the imaginary roots of negative quantities by the Rt Rev Terrot. This last manuscript is signed and dated by Tait - 27 May 47, this being two days after Maxwell's Conical Pendulum manuscript. There is a manuscript on Fagnano's property of the Ellipse and Finding the mass of Saturn's rings. This last manuscript is particularly interesting given that Maxwell would produce his prize winning Adams prize essay on Saturn's rings ten years later. Other surprises which we noticed looking through the notebook were that e is given to 7 decimal places and π is given to 36 decimal places. With π it looks as if Tait has only stopped writing down the decimal places when he has reached the edge of the page.

You can see a model of Saturn's rings that Maxwell made.
The Display Cabinet in the former dining room contain many other interesting items. There is a fine collection of biographies of Maxwell. Some books are open at a page which shows a portrait of him. Here are a number of further portraits.

Portrait of Maxwell as a child
Portrait as a young man
Watching dancing

There is also a copy of one of Maxwell's most famous papers with the remarkable words highlighted:-

This velocity is so nearly that of light, that it seems we have strong reasons to conclude that light itself (including radiant heat, and other radiations if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electromagnetic field according to electromagnetic laws.

Maxwell had his lighter side too. He was fond of writing poetry. For example [1] he wrote The Song of the Edinburgh Academy in 1848:-

If ony here has got an ear,
He'd better tak' a hand o' me
Or I'll begin, wi' roarin' din,
To cheer our old Academy.

Dear old Academy,
Queer old Academy,
A merry lot we were, I wot,
When at the old Academy.

There's some may think me crouse wi' drink,
And some may think it mad o' me,
But ither some will gladly come
And cheer our old Academy.

Some set their hopes on Kings and Popes,
But, o' the sons of Adam, he
Was first, without the smallest doubt,
That built the first Academy.

Let Pedants seek for scraps of Greek,
Their lingo to Macadamize;
Gie me the sense, without pretence,
That comes o' Scots Academies.

Let scholars all, both grit and small,
Of Learning mourn and sad demise;
That's as they think, but we will drink
Good luck to Scots Academies.

Maxwell also wrote mathematical poetry. While in his final year of study for the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge he wrote a poem A Problem in Dynamics [1] which begins:-

An inextensible heavy chain
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K.

Let ds be the infinitesimal link,
Of which for the present we've only to think;
Let T be the tension, and T + dT
The same for the end that is nearest to B.

Let a be put, by common convention,
For the angle at M 'twixt OX and the tension;

In the Display Cabinet one book of poems is open at the following poem which has been written in a style similar to many poems written by Maxwell himself:-

Energies through the ether flow,
Waves travel to and fro,
And with a ratio
Their speed you measure.
Colours yield their secret hue,
And Saturn's rings subdued by you
Suggest that gases
Might be measured too.

Science you freed
From cramping mechanistic creed,
And by your theory brought
The elastic solid ether to naught,
And changed the axiomatic basis
Of scientific thought.

Oh Maxwell! How can I declaim
On such a genius, such a fame,
And speak of one so very wise
Who saw the world through splendid eyes,
And though of such a subtle mind
Was yet so humorous and kind?
Yours was a mind unique and rare
That, nurtured in a northern air,
Struck out new paths in many ways
Through all too short, yet fruitful days.
How can one capture in a line
Something so great, so pure, so fine?

Give thanks,
That such a man drew breath,
And lament with all the world
His early death.

One final comment must be made about our visit to 14 India Street. There is on display the Stairway Gallery of framed engraved portraits of famous mathematicians and physicists. These begin at the bottom of the stairs and are arranged in chronological order as one ascends the two flights. You can see the view looking down the staircase in this picture. Many of these engravings are from the personal collection of Sir John Herschel which was sold at a Sotheby auction on 3-4 March 1958.

We end this article with some quotes concerning the importance of James Clerk Maxwell's work. The first, by Richard P Feynman, is displayed between the portraits of Tait and Maxwell in the former dining room of Maxwell's house:-

From a long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.

Also displayed at the same location is the quote by Albert Einstein:-

One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.

Another quote, this time by Sir J J Thomson, concerns one of Maxwell's discoveries [6]:-

The discovery of electrical waves has not merely scientific interest though that alone inspired it. ... it has had a profound influence on civilization; it has been instrumental in providing the methods which may bring all inhabitants of the world within hearing distance of each other and has potentialities social, educational and political which we are only beginning to realize.

Actually this quote by Sir J J Thomson, written as long ago as 1931, is remarkable in almost predicting the Internet.

Sir James Jeans wrote [3], also in 1931 on the centenary of Maxwell's birth:-

... many think that Maxwell's study of the particles of Saturn's rings led him directly and inevitably into the realm of the kinetic theory of gases, in which so much of his life was spent. However this may be, when he crossed the bridge from Astronomy to Physics he left behind him for ever the prospect of becoming a great astronomer - but only to become the greatest mathematical physicist the world has seen since Newton.

References used in this article

Further references on Maxwell and his work.

You can see a full biography of James Clerk Maxwell and a biography of P G Tait.

References (6 books/articles)

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

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JOC/EFR November 1997

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