The forgotten scientist

Another former Edinburgh resident worthy of remembrance is James Clerk Maxwell. I regularly pass his home and his (relatively) newly erected statue on George Street, but his name was out of public consciousness for quite a time.

James Clerk Maxwell

Born in 1831 in an upstairs bedroom (now called the Motorola Room!) of a fine Georgian terraced house at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, Maxwell was the son of a solicitor who had also inherited the estate of Glengair in Galloway, Scotland. At the age of 10 he attended Edinburgh Academy and then went on to study at Edinburgh University from 1847-1850. He later studied at Cambridge


University and, at the very young age of 25, became the Professor of Physics at Marischal College – now part of Aberdeen University.

Whilst at Aberdeen, Clerk Maxwell studied the composition of Saturn’s rings. Scientists had been trying for many years to understand why they did not simply break up as they appeared to be solid, or crash into or move away from the planet. In 1859 he wrote an essay “On the stability of Saturn’s Rings” which won him the Adam’s prize and £130 from St. Johns College, Cambridge. He contended that the rings were made of many small parts orbiting Saturn as opposed to one solid ring. This could not be proved at the time, but was later confirmed by the Voyager space probe in the 1980’s.

After this his knowledge and expertise was sought from universities around the UK. Clerk Maxwell continued his research in a number of fields, including astronomy and mathematical physics.

His work played a key role in Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity and Einstein said “The work of James Clerk Maxwell changed the world forever.” From the understanding of electromagnetic waves – which helped the development of radio, television and modern telephony – and discoveries in telescopes and photography Clerk Maxwell was a truly great man.

But it took until 2008 for him to be recognised by his home city with a statue in the splendid New Town of Edinburgh, not too far from where he was born.


The plinth has his four equations of electromagnetic theory thereon. The statue itself shows Clerk Maxwell sitting, holding a rotating disc of colours which he used for the understanding of our vision and light. His dog Toby sits beneath him. I’m not sure which dog this is as he reportedly had several dogs in his lifetime, all called Toby.

If you join one of our walks – see – you can find out more about this fascinating man that was forgotten by his home city for so long.