James Clerk Maxwell

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James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was born in Edinburgh. In 1841 he became a pupil at the Edinburgh Academy and in 1847 entered the University of Edinburgh, attending lectures on mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, and mental philosophy. In October 1850 he became an undergraduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, transferring to Trinity College in December of that year. He graduated in 1854 and in 1855 was elected a fellow of Trinity. During the next year he was appointed professor of natural philosophy in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in 1858 married Katherine Mary Dewar, the daughter of the principal. In 1860 he became professor of natural philosophy in King's College, London. He resigned the post in 1865, returning to private life at Glenlair, but in 1871 was induced to come forward as a candidate for the new chair of experimental physics at Cambridge, to which he was elected unopposed. The work of the professorship occupied Maxwell for the next five years. He died on 5 November 1879, following an illness.

Maxwell carried out research into the effects of combinations of colours by means of the rapid rotation of discs coloured differently in different parts. This became known as his colour-top. His conclusions on primary colours and colour-blindness led to him being awarded the Rumford medal of the Royal Society in 1860. Maxwell also examined the question of the distribution of velocity in a gas and was involved in research and experiments concerning electricity and magnetism, on which he wrote a number of important papers.

From the guide to the James Clerk Maxwell: Correspondence and Papers, c.1871-1951, (Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives)

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