The Man Who Change Everything
The Life of James Clerk Maxwell
By Basil Mahon
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
A COUNTRY BOY
When they had their first glimpse of the newcomer, the
boys of the second year class could scarcely contain their
hostile curiosity. He was wearing an absurd loose tweed tunic
with a frilly collar and curious square-toed shoes with brass
buckles, the like of which had never been seen at the Edinburgh
Academy. At the first break between lessons they swarmed
around the new boy, baiting him unmercifully, and when he
answered their taunts in a strange Galloway accent they let out
whoops of jubilant derision. At the end of a long day he arrived
home with clothes in tatters. He seemed to be dull in class and
soon acquired the nickname 'Dafty'. The rough treatment went
on,yet he bore it all with remarkable good humour until one day,
when provoked beyond endurance, he turned on his tormentors
with a ferocity that astonished them. They showed him more
respect after that ,but the name 'Dafty' stuck. So started the
academic career of one of the greatest scientists of all time,James
The first 8 years of his life had beenwonderfully happy. He was
born in Edinburgh but brought up at Glenlair, his father's estate
in the gently rolling Vale of Urr in the Galloway region of southwest
Scotland. His parents, John and Frances Clerk Maxwell,
had married late and their first child, Elizabeth, had died in
infancy. Frances was almost 40 when James was born. She and
John adored their son and watched over his development with
indulgent devotion. As soon as he could walk and talk a little it
became plain that he was a remarkable boy. Like all children he
was curious about everything around him, but his curiosity was
of a different order and reached into places rarely explored. For
example, it was not enough for him to discover how to ring the
house bells; he had to find out which of the bell-pulls around the
house rang which bell in the kitchen and where all the wires ran.
And he could turn everyday objects to surprising uses. One day
his nurse Maggy gave him a tin plate to play with. Perhaps he
first tried banging it with a spoon or rolling it across the floor but
soon he was excitedly calling his mother and father to come and
see how he had brought the sun into the house by reflecting its
image off the plate on to a wall.
As he grew, he played rough-and-tumble games with the local
children, climbed trees, explored the fields and woods and watched
the animals and birds with rapt attention. He enjoyed the morning
chore of fetching water from the river by cart. Nothing that
went on in the house escaped his attention. Nobody could do
anything without having young James appear, demanding a full
explanation and insisting on having a go himself. He knitted,
made baskets, took a hand in the baking and helped his father
design and plan improvements to the estate. Like all boys he
could be a little monkey at times. One evening, just after dark, he
blew out the candle as Maggy was approaching with the tea tray
and lay down in the doorway.
He quickly learnt to read and, under his mother's guidance,
began to understand the wider world. He enjoyed history and
geography and, especially, literature. Before long he was reading
everything within reach. Milton and Shakespeare were particular
favourites. What is more, he seemed to remember most of what he
For entertainment, the family would often read novels or
poetry aloud or act out a play. And religion was an important
part of the domestic routine: every day the household, including
servants, met for prayers and every Sunday they went to Parton
church, five miles to the west. His father's background was
Presbyterian,his mother's Episcopalian, but both took a tolerant
view of doctrinal matters. The Clerk Maxwells played their full
part in the social life of the area; there were fairs and dances and
visits exchanged with other leading families. There were also
visits to and from relations in Edinburgh and Penicuik, the estate
of James' uncle.
Life at Glenlair was harmonious, stimulating and gently
bustling. It was also full of jokes and banter. There was no
pomposity whatever-no person, institution or topic was above
some gentle debunking. The spirit of these times stayed with
James all his life. We shall see this demonstrated time and again
but, even so, let us cheat a little by taking a glimpse now at a poem
he wrote when he was 26,teasing his friend William Thomson,
who was consultant to the Atlantic Telegraph Company, when
its cable-laying ran into difficulties.
Under the sea, under the sea,
No little signals are coming to me.
Under the sea, under the sea,
Something has surely gone wrong,
And it's broke, broke, broke;
What is the cause of it does not transpire
But something has broken the telegraph wire
With a stroke, stroke, stroke,
Or else they 've been pulling too strong.
No Schadenfreude here. Maxwell admired the transatlantic cable
project immensely and even suggested how they might lay the
cable more smoothly and economically by using an underwater
kite. He just couldn't resist poking a little fun.
James' parents were fairly new arrivals in the Happy Valley, as
the Vale of Urr was known to its residents. John Clerk Maxwell
was an advocate who had lived most of his life in Edinburgh. He
had an adequate private income and it did not matter much to
him that his practice never flourished. John's heart lay elsewhere
-in his hobby, which was what we would now call technology.
He had built up a wide range of friends in industry, agriculture
and universities and enjoyed keeping abreast of new ideas. His life
ticked away pleasantly but ineffectively until events took a turn
when he was in his late 30s. A long-standing acquaintance with
the sister of a friend blossomed into romance and she agreed to
marry him. Frances Cay was a spirited and resolute woman who
supplied the get-up-and-go he had so far lacked. Both their lives
were transformed and Glenlair was the focus. John had inherited
the estate some years before and had toyed with the idea of
going to live there and applying his ideas on farming. Now the
day-dreams changed into hard and purposeful activity-they
resolved on setting up home at Glenlair.
Previous owners of the estate had been absentee landlords and
there was no suitable dwelling there. But to John this was an
advantage: the prospect of designing and building his own family
house was irresistible. The house he designed was a modest one
for a country gentleman of that time-he planned to extend it
later. Impatient to start their new life, he and Frances moved to
Glenlair soon after building started and lived in one of the estate
cottages until the house was habitable. They launched themselves
wholeheartedly into country life, then endured the anguish when
their first child died. When Frances became pregnant for the
second time they decided to go to Edinburgh for the birth, to be
near relations and hospital if needed. Soon after James was born
they returned home and family life began.
Glenlair had belonged to John's family for only three
generations. It was the 1500 acre residue of a much larger estate
called Middlebie, which had been the seat of the fierce Maxwell
clan. John's family name was Clerk: by the normal reckoning he
was not really a Maxwell at all; neither was James. The Clerks
had acquired the Middlebie estate by marriage in addition to
their own baronetcy of Penicuik, 10 miles south of Edinburgh.
They arranged that Penicuik would be passed on to the senior
heir and Middlebie to the second, and that whoever inherited
Middlebie would add Maxwell to the family name. When John's
grandfather lost a fortune in mining investments most of
Middlebie had to be sold, leaving only Glenlair. So it came about
that James' father was John Clerk Maxwell of Glenlair while his
uncle was Sir George Clerk of Penicuik.
John and Frances came from exceptionally talented families-previous
generations of Clerks and Cays had distinguished
themselves in many fields. To do justice to this point would take
us too far from our story, but two examples from the Clerk line
will give an idea.
James' great-great-grandfather, Sir John Clerk, was the kind of
man whose easy brilliance at everything he did makes most of
us despair of our own efforts. As well as being a Baron of the
Exchequer of Scotland and a Commissioner of the Union he
wrote good music that is still performed today. He was a Fellow
of the Royal Society and an influential authority in archaeology,
architecture, history, astronomy, geology and medicine.
One of Sir John's sons, another John Clerk, was a spectacularly
successful businessman as well as a gifted artist and geologist. He
worked with his friend James Hutton and illustrated a volume of
Hutton's seminal work, Theory of the Earth. But his masterpiece
was an essay on naval tactics. It is extraordinary that a landlubber
-he never went to sea-should even think of writing such
a book, but what is more remarkable is that it became the
standard work on the subject. Nelson used several sentences
straight from the essay in his orders for the battle of Trafalgar.
There was little evidence in John and Frances' homely house at
Glenlair of their illustrious antecedents. No grand family silver, no
portrait gallery. Their one prized heirloom was a battered set of
bagpipes which James' grandfather, a captain in the British East
India Company's Navy, had used to keep afloat when he was
shipwrecked. The lack of formal trappings made it a wonderful
home for their son. James had a much closer relationship with
his parents than was usual among the gentry; his mother became
his tutor and his father often took him along when dealing with
estate business. This still left him plenty of time to run around
with the local children. He learnt their Galloway speech and
acquired a local accent that he would never entirely lose. No
child could have been happier, but sadness was to come.
Frances became ill and abdominal cancer was diagnosed. She
decided to have an operation without anaesthetic. The chances
of success were slim but she wanted to live longer if possible for
the sake of her husband and son and so chose to undergo this
excruciating treatment. But the operation was not successful
and Frances died soon afterwards. She was 47 years old.
Frances had been the hub of the family; without her the house
at Glenlair must have been a desolate place for a while. Heavy of
heart, John and James were glad, at least, that her suffering was
over. The loss brought them even closer together and the father
enjoyed his son's lively companionship. There was, however, the
problem of schooling. The plan had been for James to be educated
at home until he was 13, when he would go straight to university.
But John was too busy with the estate and with various county
boards and committees to teach the boy himself. There was no
suitable school within daily travelling distance and he dreaded
the loneliness that would follow if he sent James away.
He decided to engage a private tutor and chose a 16 year-old
boy from the neighbourhood. The lad had done well in exams
at school but delayed going to university so he could take the
post. No-one then or since has been able to fathom how John
Clerk Maxwell came to make such an ill-judged choice. Knowing
he had an exceptionally gifted son, how could he entrust his
education to a youth with little knowledge and no experience
of life beyond school? Whatever the reasons, the results were
The tutor used the methods by which he had himself been
taught: rote learning encouraged by physical chastisement. The
lessons became a moral and physical ordeal. James wanted to
please his father but saw no sense in the mechanical recitation of
words and numbers divorced from any meaning. No amount of
ear pulling and cuffing about the head could persuade him to
learn in that fashion. His local friends had no doubt suffered
similar treatment at school, so perhaps he thought it was simply
something that had to be endured. But eventually, after more
than a year of torment, he rebelled.
Beside a duck pond near the house was a large washtub that
James used to use as an improvised boat. In the middle of a
lesson, his tolerance exhausted, he ran out, pushed the tub into
the water, jumped in and paddled himself to the deepest part of
the pond. Ignoring the tutor's urgings, he refused to come in.
Although reproved by his father for this act of rebellion, James
had made his point.
His Aunt Jane, Frances' younger sister, who lived in Edinburgh,
was quick to understand what had been going on and persuaded
John that it was high time that 10 year-old James had proper
schooling. John's widowed sister, James' Aunt Isabella, who
also lived in Edinburgh, agreed. The Edinburgh Academy, one
of the best schools in Scotland, was only a short walk from her
house; James could stay with her during term time and return to
Glenlair for the holidays. Much as he hated the thought of parting
from his son, John could see that Jane and Isabella were right and
agreed to the plan.
Unfortunately, the first year class was full, so James had to enrol
in the second. There he would be joining a class of 60 older
boys who had already spent more than a year in the school, long
enough to have absorbed its conventions and developed their
own schoolboy culture. They were mostly from smart Edinburgh
families and spoke with refined accents. Clearly, life was not going
to be easy for the newcomer. What made things even harder was
that his father had designed and made special clothes for him. From
a logical standpoint, they were excellent: warm, hard-wearing and
comfortable, with a loose tunic and square-toed shoes. But John
seemed oblivious to the human factor: to the boys in James'
new class, in their conventional tight jackets and slim shoes, the
newcomer looked like a ridiculous peasant from a foreign land.
So it was that James arrived for his first day at the city school, a
country boy with a strange accent and wearing peculiar clothes.
As we have seen, he was tough enough to ride out his rough
reception and parry the taunts. A hard time lay ahead, but in the
end the attitude of his classmates was to turn from ridicule to
acceptance, and finally to admiration.
Excerpted from The Man Who Change Everything
by Basil Mahon
Copyright © 2003 by Basil Mahon.
Excerpted by permission.
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