Scottish mathematician and physicist. Discoverer of the theory of electromagnetism.
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A prodigious deductive mind able to formulate theories of great mathematical beauty.
Born into a middle-class family in Edinburgh, Maxwell studied at the city’s university and, subsequently, Trinity College in Cambridge. By the age of 25 he was a lecturer in Physics at Marischal College in Aberdeen. In 1861, at the age of 30, he became a member of the Royal Society. He also taught at King’s College in London and at the University of Cambridge, where he founded the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory, of which he was director until his death.
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His study of earlier work by Michael Faraday was a crucial factor in the development of his theories. Essentially, Maxwell understood that electric power and magnetic power are not independent but interrelated. Moreover, he realised that their constants also had to be related. When he divided the electric constant by the magnetic constant – two measures that, in principle, were apparently not related with light – he made a surprising discovery: the result was exactly the same as the speed of light.
Maxwell showed how a variable electric flux can generate a magnetic field as if it were a kind of electric current and demonstrated that electromagnetic waves of any frequency and wavelength are propagated in a vacuum at the speed of light (see video).
Although he made substantial contributions in various fields of science, Maxwell has gone into history as having developed a general theory of electricity and electromagnetism at a time when research in the field was still partial, and also demonstrating and mathematically simplifying the basic concepts of electromagnetism, which had then only been formulated in conceptual terms, for example the laws of electromagnetic induction and force fields anticipated by Michael Faraday, these being crucial for Maxwell’s research.
Electromagnetic theory, Newton’s laws and the laws of thermodynamics constitute the essence of classical physics.
Maxwell showed that electromagnetic waves exist.
Maxwell introduced the concept of the electromagnetic wave and formulated the famous equations that bear his name. Maxwell’s four equations demonstrate the interaction between electricity and magnetism. They describe and quantify force fields.
Some years after his death in 1887, Heinrich Herz demonstrated that, as Maxwell’s theories suggested, it is possible to generate electromagnetic waves in a laboratory. This was the beginning of fast long-distance communication. The devices in common use today, for example radio, television, radar, et cetera, came into being thanks to this discovery.
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Maxwell published his first scientific work at the age of fourteen.
Maxwell was born the same year in which Michael Faraday invented the electric generator. Faraday was one of the scientists whose work most inspired him and the first to conceive the idea of the field.
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Relationship between Maxwell’s Discovery and Generators
With his four equations, Maxwell established the relationship between electricity and magnetism. Optimal use of these equations enables good design of the alternators used in generators.