James Clerk Maxwell (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish physicist and mathematician. His most prominent achievement was formulating classical electromagnetic theory. This united all previously unrelated observations, experiments and equations of electricity, magnetism and even optics into a consistent theory.
Maxwell’s equations demonstrated that electricity, magnetism and even light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, the electromagnetic field. Subsequently, all other classic laws or equations of these disciplines became simplified cases of Maxwell’s equations. Maxwell’s achievements concerning electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics”, after the first one realised by Isaac Newton. He was the first cousin of notable 19th century artist Jemima Blackburn.
Maxwell showed that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves, and at the constant speed of light. In 1865 Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. It was with this that he first proposed that light was in fact undulations in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. His work in producing a unified model of electromagnetism is one of the greatest advances in physics.
Maxwell also helped develop the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, which is a statistical means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases. These two discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.
Maxwell is also known for presenting the first durable colour photograph in 1861 and for his foundational work on the rigidity of rod-and-joint frameworks like those in many bridges.
Maxwell is considered by many physicists to be the 19th-century scientist who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions to the science are considered by many to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein. On the centennial of Maxwell’s birthday, Einstein himself described Maxwell’s work as the “most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.” Einstein kept a photograph of Maxwell on his study wall, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and Newton.