Row, row row your boat, James Clerk Maxwell (1841)

Another short post inspired by my work on my upcoming book on the history of invisibility physics!

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is rightly regarded as one of the most important physicists of the 19th century, and indeed of all time, thanks to his work on a variety of subjects: color vision, statistical mechanics, and electromagnetic theory. It was Maxwell who found the “missing link” in electromagnetic theory, a previously unknown factor in the interaction of electricity and magnetism that, when included, predicts electromagnetic waves that travel at the speed of light. From this, Maxwell correctly concluded that light is an electromagnetic wave, revolutionizing our understanding of light, electricity and magnetism all at once.

James Clerk Maxwell.png
James Clerk Maxwell, later in life.

I always enjoy stories that humanize such powerful figures, and the 1882 book The Life of James Clerk Maxwell goes into some detail about the curious and intelligent child that Maxwell was. Throughout his childhood, his repeated question about any new object was, “What’s the go o’ that? What does it do?” If the answer was insufficient, he would add, “But what’s the particular go of it?”

Young Maxwell and his mother.

Maxwell was taught in his youth by his mother Frances, but when she passed away in December of 1839 from abdominal cancer, his father and father’s sister-in-law Jane took over supervision of his education. To this end, they hired a young tutor to take over his education, though this lasted roughly only a year. Of the tutor, the biography states,

He was probably a raw lad, who having been drilled by harsh methods had no conception of any other, and had failed to present the Latin grammar in such a way as to interest his pupil. He had, in short, tried to coerce Clerk Maxwell. Not a promising attempt! Meanwhile the boy was getting to be more venturesome, and needed to be-not driven, but led.

This brings me to the delightful image I wanted to share, which includes a drawing by Jemima Blackburn, his older cousin! The description in the biography is as follows, which happened when Maxwell was only ten:

Master James is in the duck-pond, in a wash­tub, having ousted the ducks, to the amusement of the young “vassals,” Bobby and Johnny, and is paddling himself (with some implement from the dairy, belike), out of reach of the tutor, who has fetched a rake, and is trying forcibly to bring him in. Mr. Clerk Maxwell has just arrived upon the scene, and is look­ing on complacently, though not without concern. Cousin Jemima has been aiding and abetting, and is holding the leaping-pole, which has probably served as a boat-hook in this case.

I just love this image! The tutor clearly didn’t know how to properly teach someone of Maxwell’s intelligence. Fortunately, he was relieved of service very quickly and his father took over his home education until he went to school. This even included taking young Maxwell to a demonstration of electrical and magnetic machines, which likely was a significant influence on his future work.

There is lots more I can say about the early lives of great physicists, so expect more short posts like this in the future!

This entry was posted in History of science, Optics. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Row, row row your boat, James Clerk Maxwell (1841)

  1. kaleberg says:

    Maxwell was pretty amazing, but the real character in the EM show was Heaviside. His family was dirt poor, but he taught himself about electricity and developed both EM theory and the vector calculus still used in EM today. He published seminal academic level research in an amateur telegraphy magazine and only got a degree later in life. I gather it was a good day when he had two shillings to rub together.

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