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Biography of James Clerk Maxwell

Photo of James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell was a nineteenth century Scottish scientist known for his work on magnetism and electricity.

When and Where was he Born?

13th June 1831, 14 India Street, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Maxwell Birthplace
Birthplace of James Clerk Maxwell at 14 India Street, Edinburgh (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Family Background:

James Clerk Maxwell was an only child. His father was a lawyer and his mother was forty years old at his birth.


16 year old private tutor then Edinburgh Academy. Edinburgh University. Peterhouse and Trinity Colleges, Cambridge University.

Timeline of James Clerk Maxwell:

1832: The Maxwell family move to Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire near Dumfries.

1839: Death of his Mother.

1846: Maxwell writes his first scientific paper at the age of 14 called “On the description of oval curves, and those having a plurality of foci” which was read out at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 April.

1847-50: James Clerk Maxwell attends Edinburgh University.

1850-54: He goes up to Cambridge University.

1855: He becomes a Fellow of Trinity College. He publishes “On Faraday’s lines of force” which shows that the behaviour of electricity and magnetism can be described by a few mathematical equations. This was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts in 1855 and 1856.

1856: He becomes a Fellow of Edinburgh University. Death of his father. He takes up the post as Professor at Marischal College in Aberdeen which he decided to take to be near his father before he died.

1857: He enters the Adams Prize of St John’s College Cambridge on “The Motion of Saturn’s Rings”. Maxwell showed that stability of the cloud could only be achieved if they consisted of numerous small solid particles. This has now been confirmed by the Voyager spacecraft.

1858: He becomes engaged to Katherine Mary Dewar in February.

1859: He marries Katherine Mary Dewer in Aberdeen in June. She is the daughter of the Principal of Marischal College.

1860: He is appointed to the vacant chair of Natural Philosophy at King’s College in London.

1861: Maxwell is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1862: Maxwell works out that the speed of the propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light and therefore the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.

1860-65: He becomes a Professor at Kings College, London.

1866: He is appointed as the Royal Society Bakerian lecturer. He proposes the kinetic theory of gases which said that temperatures and heat involved only molecular movement.

1871-79: He is appointed the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge.

1873: Maxwell publishes “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”. This work establishes “Maxwell’s Equations”.

1874: He opens the Cavendish Laboratory which he designed. He begins editing the papers of Henry Cavendish.

1879: James Clerk Maxwell’s health begins to fail, but he continues to lecture up to the end of the term. He returns with his wife to Glenlair for the summer. He returns to Cambridge on 8 October but can hardly walk and dies in November.

When and Where did he Die?

5th November 1879, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England of abdominal cancer.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1855: “On Faraday’s Lines of Force”
1873: “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism”.
1879: “Electrical Researches of Henry Cavendish”.
1855: “On Faraday’s Lines of Force”.
1864: “Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field”.
1879: “The Electrical Researches of the Honourable Henry Cavendish”.

James CLerk Maxwell statue, Edinburgh
Statue to Maxwell in George Street, Edinburgh (copyright Anthony Blagg)


June 1859 to Katherine Mary Dewer in Aberdeen who is the daughter of the Principal of Marischal College.

Site of Grave:

Funeral service held at Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge and then he is taken home to Glenlair, Scotland for burial in Parton Churchyard.

Places of Interest:


Glenlair and Dumfries.