Early life, 1831–1839
James Clerk Maxwell was born on 13 June 1831 at 14 India Street,
John Clerk Maxwell of Middlebie, an advocate, and Frances Cay
 daughter of
Robert Hodshon Cay and sister of
John Cay. (His birthplace now houses a museum operated by the
James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.) His father was a man of comfortable means
 of the Clerk family of
Penicuik, holders of the
Clerk of Penicuik. His father's brother was the
 He had been born "John Clerk",
adding the surname Maxwell to his own after he inherited (as an infant in 1793) the Middlebie country
Corsock, Kirkcudbrightshire, from connections to the Maxwell family, themselves members of the
 James was a first cousin of both the artist
 (the daughter of his father's sister) and the civil engineer
William Dyce Cay (the son of his mother's brother). Cay and Maxwell were close friends and Cay acted as his best man when Maxwell married.
Maxwell's parents met and married when they were well into their thirties;
 his mother was nearly 40 when he was born. They had had one earlier child, a daughter named Elizabeth, who died in infancy.
When Maxwell was young his family moved to
Glenlair House, which his parents had built on the 1,500 acres (610 ha) Middlebie estate.
 All indications suggest that Maxwell had maintained an unquenchable curiosity from an early age.
 By the age of three, everything that moved, shone, or made a noise drew the question: "what's the go o' that?"
 In a passage added to a letter from his father to his sister-in-law Jane Cay in 1834, his mother described this innate sense of inquisitiveness:
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....
Recognising the potential of the young boy, Maxwell's mother Frances took responsibility for James's early education, which in the
Victorian era was largely the job of the woman of the house.
 At eight he could recite long passages of
Milton and the whole of the
119th psalm (176 verses). Indeed, his knowledge of
scripture was already detailed; he could give chapter and verse for almost any quotation from the psalms. His mother was taken ill with
abdominal cancer and, after an unsuccessful operation, died in December 1839 when he was eight years old. His education was then overseen by his father and his father's sister-in-law Jane, both of whom played pivotal roles in his life.
 His formal schooling began unsuccessfully under the guidance of a 16 year old hired tutor. Little is known about the young man hired to instruct Maxwell, except that he treated the younger boy harshly, chiding him for being slow and wayward.
 The tutor was dismissed in November 1841 and, after considerable thought, Maxwell was sent to the prestigious
 He lodged during term times at the house of his aunt Isabella. During this time his passion for drawing was encouraged by his older cousin Jemima.
Edinburgh Academy, where Maxwell was schooled.
The 10 year old Maxwell, having been raised in isolation on his father's countryside estate, did not fit in well at school.
 The first year had been full, obliging him to join the second year with classmates a year his senior.
 His mannerisms and
Galloway accent struck the other boys as rustic. Having arrived on his first day of school wearing a pair of homemade shoes and a tunic, he earned the unkind nickname of "
 He never seemed to resent the epithet, bearing it without complaint for many years.
 Social isolation at the Academy ended when he met
Lewis Campbell and
Peter Guthrie Tait, two boys of a similar age who were to become notable scholars later in life. They remained lifelong friends.
Maxwell was fascinated by
geometry at an early age, rediscovering the
regular polyhedra before he received any formal instruction.
 Despite winning the school's scripture biography prize in his second year, his academic work remained unnoticed
 until, at the age of 13, he won the school's mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry.
Maxwell's interests ranged far beyond the school syllabus and he did not pay particular attention to examination performance.
 He wrote his first
scientific paper at the age of 14. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing
mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and the properties of
Cartesian ovals, and related curves with more than two
foci. His work "Oval Curves" was presented to the
Royal Society of Edinburgh by
James Forbes, a professor of
natural philosophy at the
University of Edinburgh,
 because Maxwell was deemed too young to present the work himself.
 The work was not entirely original, since
René Descartes had also examined the properties of such
multifocal ellipses in the 17th century, but he had simplified their construction.
University of Edinburgh, 1847–1850
Old College, University of Edinburgh
Maxwell left the Academy in 1847 at age 16 and began attending classes at the
University of Edinburgh.
 He had the opportunity to attend the
University of Cambridge, but decided, after his first term, to complete the full course of his undergraduate studies at Edinburgh. The academic staff of the University included some highly regarded names; his first year tutors included
Sir William Hamilton, who lectured him on
Philip Kelland on mathematics, and
James Forbes on
 He did not find his classes at the University demanding,
 and was therefore able to immerse himself in private study during free time at the University and particularly when back home at Glenlair.
 There he would experiment with improvised chemical, electric, and magnetic apparatus, however his chief concerns regarded the properties of
 He constructed shaped blocks of
gelatine, subjected them to various
stresses, and with a pair of
polarising prisms given to him by
William Nicol, viewed the coloured fringes that had developed within the jelly.
 Through this practice he discovered
photoelasticity, which is a means of determining the stress distribution within physical structures.
At age 18, Maxwell contributed two papers for the
Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. One of these, "On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids", laid the foundation for an important discovery later in his life, which was the temporary
double refraction produced in
viscous liquids by
 His other paper was "Rolling Curves" and, just as with the paper "Oval Curves" that he had written at the Edinburgh Academy, he was again considered too young to stand at the rostrum to present it himself. The paper was delivered to the Royal Society by his tutor Kelland instead.
University of Cambridge, 1850–1856
In October 1850, already an accomplished mathematician, Maxwell left Scotland for the
University of Cambridge. He initially attended
Peterhouse, however before the end of his first term transferred to
Trinity, where he believed it would be easier to obtain a
 At Trinity he was elected to the elite secret society known as the
 Maxwell's intellectual understanding of his Christian faith and of science grew rapidly during his Cambridge years. He joined the "Apostles", an exclusive debating society of the intellectual elite, where through his essays he sought to work out this understanding.
Now my great plan, which was conceived of old, ... is to let nothing be wilfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Faith, whether positive or negative. All fallow land is to be ploughed up and a regular system of rotation followed. ... Never hide anything, be it weed or no, nor seem to wish it hidden. ... Again I assert the Right of Trespass on any plot of Holy Ground which any man has set apart. ... Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. ... I do not say that no Christians have enclosed places of this sort. Many have a great deal, and every one has some. But there are extensive and important tracts in the territory of the Scoffer, the Pantheist, the Quietist, Formalist, Dogmatist, Sensualist, and the rest, which are openly and solemnly Tabooed. ..."
Christianity – that is, the religion of the Bible – is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations. ...
The Old Testament and the Mosaic Law and Judaism are commonly supposed to be "Tabooed" by the orthodox. Sceptics pretend to have read them, and have found certain witty objections ... which too many of the orthodox unread admit, and shut up the subject as haunted. But a Candle is coming to drive out all Ghosts and Bugbears. Let us follow the light.
The extent to which Maxwell "ploughed up" his Christian beliefs and put them to the intellectual test, can be judged only incompletely from his writings. But there is plenty of evidence, especially from his undergraduate days, that he did deeply examine his faith. Certainly, his knowledge of the Bible was remarkable, so his confidence in the Scriptures was not based on ignorance.
In the summer of his third year, Maxwell spent some time at the
Suffolk home of the
Rev C.B. Tayler, the uncle of a classmate, G.W.H. Tayler. The love of God shown by the family impressed Maxwell, particularly after he was nursed back from ill health by the minister and his wife.
On his return to Cambridge, Maxwell writes to his recent host a chatty and affectionate letter including the following testimony,
... I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and ... if I escape, it is only by God's grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society, — but not perfectly except by committing myself to God ...
In November 1851, Maxwell studied under
William Hopkins, whose success in nurturing mathematical genius had earned him the nickname of "
In 1854, Maxwell graduated from Trinity with a degree in mathematics. He scored second highest in the final examination, coming behind
Edward Routh and earning himself the title of Second Wrangler. He was later declared equal with Routh in the more exacting ordeal of the
Smith's Prize examination.
 Immediately after earning his degree, Maxwell read his paper "On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending" to the
Cambridge Philosophical Society.
 This is one of the few purely mathematical papers he had written, demonstrating Maxwell's growing stature as a mathematician.
 Maxwell decided to remain at Trinity after graduating and applied for a fellowship, which was a process that he could expect to take a couple of years.
 Buoyed by his success as a research student, he would be free, apart from some tutoring and examining duties, to pursue scientific interests at his own leisure.
The nature and perception of colour was one such interest which he had begun at the University of Edinburgh while he was a student of Forbes.
 With the coloured
spinning tops invented by Forbes, Maxwell was able to demonstrate that white light would result from a mixture of red, green, and blue light.
 His paper "Experiments on Colour" laid out the principles of colour combination and was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 1855.
 Maxwell was this time able to deliver it himself.
Maxwell was made a fellow of Trinity on 10 October 1855, sooner than was the norm,
 and was asked to prepare lectures on
optics and to set examination papers.
 The following February he was urged by Forbes to apply for the newly vacant
Chair of Natural Philosophy at
 His father assisted him in the task of preparing the necessary references, but died on 2 April at Glenlair before either knew the result of Maxwell's candidacy.
 Maxwell accepted the professorship at Aberdeen, leaving Cambridge in November 1856.
Marischal College, Aberdeen, 1856–1860
Maxwell proved that the
Rings of Saturn
were made of numerous small particles.
The 25-year-old Maxwell was a good 15 years younger than any other professor at Marischal. He engaged himself with his new responsibilities as head of a department, devising the syllabus and preparing lectures.
 He committed himself to lecturing 15 hours a week, including a weekly
pro bono lecture to the local working men's college.
 He lived in Aberdeen during the six months of the academic year and spent the summers at Glenlair, which he had inherited from his father.
James and Katherine Maxwell, 1869
He focused his attention on a problem that had eluded scientists for 200 years: the nature of
Saturn's rings. It was unknown how they could remain stable without breaking up, drifting away or crashing into Saturn.
 The problem took on a particular resonance at that time because
St John's College, Cambridge had chosen it as the topic for the 1857
 Maxwell devoted two years to studying the problem, proving that a regular solid ring could not be stable, while a fluid ring would be forced by wave action to break up into blobs. Since neither was observed, Maxwell concluded that the rings must be composed of numerous small particles he called "brick-bats", each independently orbiting Saturn.
 Maxwell was awarded the £130 Adams Prize in 1859 for his essay "On the stability of the motion of Saturn's rings";
 he was the only entrant to have made enough headway to submit an entry.
 His work was so detailed and convincing that when
George Biddell Airy read it he commented "It is one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen."
 It was considered the final word on the issue until direct observations by the
Voyager flybys of the 1980s confirmed Maxwell's prediction.
In 1857 Maxwell befriended the Reverend Daniel Dewar, who was then the Principal of Marischal.
 Through him Maxwell met Dewar's daughter,
Katherine Mary Dewar. They were engaged in February 1858 and married in Aberdeen on 2 June 1858. On the marriage record, Maxwell is listed as Professor of Natural Philosophy in Marischal College, Aberdeen.
 Seven years Maxwell's senior, comparatively little is known of Katherine, although it is known that she helped in his lab and worked on experiments in
 Maxwell's biographer and friend, Lewis Campbell, adopted an uncharacteristic reticence on the subject of Katherine, though describing their married life as "one of unexampled devotion".
In 1860 Marischal College merged with the neighbouring
King's College to form the
University of Aberdeen. There was no room for two professors of Natural Philosophy, so Maxwell, despite his scientific reputation, found himself laid off. He was unsuccessful in applying for Forbes's recently vacated chair at Edinburgh, the post instead going to
Tait. Maxwell was granted the Chair of Natural Philosophy at
King's College, London, instead.
 After recovering from a near-fatal bout of
smallpox in 1860, Maxwell moved to London with his wife.
King's College, London, 1860–1865
Commemoration of Maxwell's equations at King's College. One of three identical
Milestone Plaques, the others being at Maxwell's birthplace in Edinburgh and the family home at Glenlair.
Maxwell's time at King's was probably the most productive of his career. He was awarded the
Rumford Medal in 1860 for his work on colour and was later elected to the Society in 1861.
 This period of his life would see him display the world's first light-fast colour photograph, further develop his ideas on the
viscosity of gases, and propose a system of defining physical quantities—now known as
dimensional analysis. Maxwell would often attend lectures at the
Royal Institution, where he came into regular contact with
Michael Faraday. The relationship between the two men could not be described as being close, because Faraday was 40 years Maxwell's senior and showed signs of
senility. They nevertheless maintained a strong respect for each other's talents.
Blue plaque, 16 Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington, Maxwell's home, 1860–1865
This time is especially noteworthy for the advances Maxwell made in the fields of electricity and magnetism. He examined the nature of both electric and magnetic fields in his two-part paper "
On physical lines of force", which was published in 1861. In it he provided a conceptual model for
electromagnetic induction, consisting of tiny spinning cells of
magnetic flux. Two more parts were later added to and published in that same paper in early 1862. In the first additional part he discussed the nature of
displacement current. In the second additional part, he dealt with the rotation of the plane of the
polarisation of light in a magnetic field, a phenomenon that had been discovered by Faraday and is now known as the
Later years, 1865–1879
The gravestone at Parton Kirk (Galloway) of James Clerk Maxwell, his parents and his wife
This memorial stone to James Clerk Maxwell stands on a green in front of the church, beside the war memorial at Parton (Galloway).
In 1865 Maxwell resigned the chair at King's College, London, and returned to Glenlair with Katherine. In his paper "On reciprocal figures, frames and diagrams of forces" (1870) he discussed the rigidity of various designs of lattice.
 He wrote the textbook Theory of Heat (1871) and the treatise Matter and Motion (1876). Maxwell was also the first to make explicit use of
dimensional analysis, in 1871.
In 1871 he returned to Cambridge to become the first
Cavendish Professor of Physics.
 Maxwell was put in charge of the development of the
Cavendish Laboratory, supervising every step in the progress of the building and of the purchase of the collection of apparatus.
 One of Maxwell's last great contributions to science was the editing (with copious original notes) of the research of
Henry Cavendish, from which it appeared that Cavendish researched, amongst other things, such questions as the
density of the Earth and the composition of water.
Maxwell died in Cambridge of abdominal cancer on 5 November 1879 at the age of 48.
 His mother had died at the same age of the same type of cancer.
 The minister who regularly visited him in his last weeks was astonished at his lucidity and the immense power and scope of his memory, but comments more particularly,
... his illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying — "unworkable" was his own word about them — and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour.
As death approached Maxwell told a Cambridge colleague,
I have been thinking how very gently I have always been dealt with. I have never had a violent shove all my life. The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.
Maxwell is buried at
Parton Kirk, near
Castle Douglas in Galloway close to where he grew up.
 The extended biography The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, by his former schoolfellow and lifelong friend Professor
Lewis Campbell, was published in 1882.
 His collected works were issued in two volumes by the
Cambridge University Press in 1890.
As a great lover of
Scottish poetry, Maxwell memorised poems and wrote his own.
 The best known is Rigid Body Sings, closely based on "
Comin' Through the Rye" by
Robert Burns, which he apparently used to sing while accompanying himself on a guitar. It has the opening lines
Gin a body meet a body
Flyin' through the air.
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? And where?
A collection of his poems was published by his friend
Lewis Campbell in 1882.
Descriptions of Maxwell remark upon his remarkable intellectual qualities being matched by social awkwardness.
Maxwell was an evangelical
Presbyterian and in his later years became an
Elder of the
Church of Scotland.
 Maxwell's religious beliefs and related activities have been the focus of a number of papers.
 Attending both Church of Scotland (his father's denomination) and
Episcopalian (his mother's denomination) services as a child, Maxwell later underwent an
evangelical conversion in April 1853. One facet of this conversion may have aligned him with an