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Men Who Have Made Radio: James Clerk Maxwell
May 1930 Radio-Craft

May 1930 Radio-Craft

May 1930 Radio-Craft Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Craft, published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

James Clerk Maxwell's inception of the theory of electromagnetic radiation is compared in this 1930 Radio-Craft magazine article to if Christopher Columbus had conceptualized the existence of America and mapped its features based solely on observations of how the known oceans and land masses interacted. I have always been amazed at the ability of people who formulate entirely new theories of science, finance, medicine, etc., and manage to detail and support their ideas with hard data and mathematics. Einstein did so with relativity, Dalton did so with atomic structure, Darwin did so with evolution, Pasteur did so with germ theory; the list is long. There are lots of geniuses out there, but a relative few change the world.

See other "Men Who Made Radio" : Sir Oliver Lodge, Reginald A. Fessenden, C. Francis Jenkins, Count Georg von Arco, E. F. W. Alexanderson, Frank Conrad, Heinrich Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell

Men Who Have Made Radio: James Clerk Maxwell

Men Who Have Made Radio: J. C. Maxwell - RF CafeThe Eighth of a Series

"If you seek his monument, look about you," is written on the tomb of the architect of St. Paul's. The whole of earthly space, vibrant with the countless messages that are incessantly hurrying to and fro with the speed of light, has become a memorial to the scientist who first directed the attention of mankind to the unknown and unsuspected possibility of radio.

If Columbus, before he set sail from Palos harbor for the New World, had drawn a map of America - islands, coasts, rivers and mountains - which his voyage proved true in every detail, such a feat would have resembled that of Clerk Maxwell. The latter conceived, and laboriously computed, the existence and the laws governing an infinite range of electromagnetic "waves" imperceptible to our senses, except for the narrow spectrum of light. He thus declared the certainty that there must be what we today call "radio waves." Eight years were to pass after Maxwell's death before the genius of Hertz actually demonstrated the truth of Maxwell's calculations, and the world found awaiting it a new activity.

Today, fifty-seven years after their promulgation, the laws of Maxwell are still the fundamental basis of the science of radio. It is not easy to describe his work in popular language. "The object of these experiments," said the modest Hertz, announcing their striking results, "was to test the fundamental hypotheses of the Faraday-Maxwell theory, and the result of the experiments is to confirm them. I know no shorter or more definite answer to the question, 'What is Maxwell's theory?' than the following: 'Maxwell's theory is Maxwell's system of equations.' "

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, November 13, 1831. Though his eccentricities of expression as a boy were to win the nickname of "Dafty" from his schoolmates, he was yet a lad when his mathematical abilities attracted the attention of his elders. At fifteen, he devised a method of drawing certain "curves which was deemed worthy of publication by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. At sixteen, he was introduced to Nicol (the inventor of the Nicol prism) and led to make a study of light, and particularly its polarization, which was to shape his future scientific course. In 1850 he entered the University of Cambridge, noted for the long line of great mathematicians it has produced. Here he graduated; and here his post-graduate work was to be most important. In 1855 appeared his paper on "Faraday's Lines of Force," containing an analysis of the actions which take place in electrical and magnetic fields.

Maxwell became professor of natural philosophy - or, as we now say, physics - at Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1856; and after four years accepted a similar chair at King's College, London. During this time he issued a classic paper which proved that the rings of Saturn must be composed of separate solid particles. He published in 1860 a treatise on the "Kinetic Theory of Gases"; and in 1864 the "Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field," advancing the proposition that light is but a manifestation of magnetism.

In 1865 ill health caused Maxwell to retire to the family estate at Glenlair, in southwestern Scotland, where he remained until called in 1871 to Cambridge to organize the Cavendish laboratory, as the first professor of experimental physics. Here, among his other labors, he edited the notebooks of Cavendish, the eccentric chemist and physicist of the eighteenth century, who had anticipated many of the later discoveries of science, but indifferently neglected to publish them to the world. Here, too, Maxwell published "The Theory of Heat," a book for the beginner, and his great work on "Electricity and Magnetism." In this he not only united the scientific theories of light and electricity, but showed the necessity of the existence of waves both longer and shorter than those of light, in unending ranges; and thus laid upon the world of science the task of finding them.

Maxwell's own time was short. His work was interrupted by illness; and, at the early age of forty-eight, he died at his Scotch home, on November 5, 1879. Yet, brief as was his life, it had revolutionized the outlook of science upon the world; and, though his own labors were in the field of mathematics and pure science, they have led directly to the development of radio and many other applications of electricity. He is the creator of modern mathematical physics; in the words of Sir Joseph Larmor, "Maxwell unified physical science, by connecting light and radiation with electricity so as to form one interlocked, systematic whole."

The comparison which has been made most often, perhaps, is that of Maxwell and Newton. Newton advanced mankind's conception of the unity of the universe by bringing the whole of it under the scope of one physical law; Maxwell brought all the fundamental phenomena into a single law - except that the task of fitting gravitation into the electromagnetic scheme was not to be accomplished by him. Whatever modifications the science of the future may find necessary in the system of Maxwell, and whatever additions it may make to his calculations, he has, like Newton, the glory of bringing about a new era in human thought; and by those who live in the Day of Radio, he must be remembered as its Morning Star.



Posted July
(updated from original post on 8/31/2015)

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