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Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field

Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field

by James Clerk Maxwell

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Scanned, proofed and corrected from the original hardcover edition for enjoyable reading. (Worth every penny spent!)


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(1) The most obvious mechanical phenomenon in electrical and magnetical experiments is the mutual action by which bodies in certain states set each other in


Scanned, proofed and corrected from the original hardcover edition for enjoyable reading. (Worth every penny spent!)


An excerpt from:


(1) The most obvious mechanical phenomenon in electrical and magnetical experiments is the mutual action by which bodies in certain states set each other in motion while still at a sensible distance from each other. The first step, therefore, in reducing these phenomena into scientific form, is to ascertain the magnitude and direction of the force acting between the bodies, and when it is found that this force depends in a certain way upon the relative position of the bodies and on their electric or magnetic condition, it seems at first sight natural to explain the facts by assuming the existence of something either at rest or in motion in each body, constituting its electric or magnetic state, and capable of acting at a distance according to mathematical laws.

In this way mathematical theories of statical electricity, of magnetism, of the mechanical action between conductors carrying currents, and of the induction of currents have been formed. In these theories the force acting between the two bodies is treated with reference only to the condition of the bodies and their relative position, and without any express consideration of the surrounding medium.

These theories assume, more or less explicitly, the existence of substances the particles of which have the property of acting on one another at a distance by attraction or repulsion. The most complete development of a theory of this kind is that of M.W. Weber, who has made the same theory include electrostatic and electromagnetic phenomena.

In doing so, however, he has found it necessary to assume that the force between two particles depends on their relative velocity, as well as on their distance.

This theory, as developed by MM. W. Weber and C. Neumann, is exceedingly ingenious, and wonderfully comprehensive in its application to the phenomena of statical electricity, electromagnetic attractions, induction of current and diamagnetic phenomena; and it comes to us with the more authority, as it has served to guide the speculations of one who has made so great an advance in the practical part of electric science, both by introducing a consistent system of units in electrical measurement, and by actually determining electrical quantities with an accuracy hitherto unknown.

(2) The mechanical difficulties, however, which are involved in the assumption of particles acting at a distance with forces which depend on their velocities are such as to prevent me from considering this theory as an ultimate one though it may have been, and may yet be useful in leading to the coordination of phenomena.

I have therefore preferred to seek an explanation of the fact in another direction, by supposing them to be produced by actions which go on in the surrounding medium as well as in the excited bodies, and endeavouring to explain the action between distant bodies without assuming the existence of forces capable of acting directly at sensible distances.

(3) The theory I propose may therefore be called a theory of the Electromagnetic Field, because it has to do with the space in the neighbourhood of the electric or magnetic bodies, and it may be called a Dynamical Theory, because it assumes that in that space there is matter in motion, by which the observed electromagnetic phenomena are produced.

(4) The electromagnetic field is that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric or magnetic conditions.

It may be filled with any kind of matter, or we may endeavour to render it empty of all gross matter, as in the case of Geissler’s tubes and other so called vacua.

There is always, however, enough of matter left to receive and transmit the undulations of light and heat, and it is because the transmission of these radiations is not greatly altered when transparent bodies of measurable density are substituted for the so-called vacuum, that we are obliged to admit that the undulations are those of an ethereal substance, and not of the gross matter, the presence of which merely modifies in some way the motion of the ether.

We have therefore some reason to believe, from the phenomena of light and heat, that there is an ethereal medium filling space and permeating bodies, capable of being set in motion and of transmitting that motion from one part to another, and of communicating that motion to gross matter so as to heat it and affect it in various ways.

(5) Now the energy communicated to the body in heating it must have formerly existed in the moving medium, for the undulations had left the source of heat some time before they reached the body, and during that time the energy must have been half in the form of motion...

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Publication date:
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London , #155
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Barnes & Noble
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Meet the Author

James Clerk Maxwell of Glenlair(1831 –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, namely 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.

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