|Maxwell (māks'wěl') Pronunciation Key
Scottish physicist who developed four laws of electromagnetism showing that light is composed of electromagnetic waves. He also investigated heat and the kinetic theory of gases, and he experimented with color vision, producing the first color photograph in 1861.
Our Living Language : James Clerk Maxwell was only fourteen years old when he published his first paper—an accomplishment for anyone, but especially for one who was thought by his first tutor to be slow-witted. His precocious talents, especially in mathematics, did not go unrecognized by others, however, and he started making lasting contributions to science while still very young. In his 20s, he wrote a prize-winning essay in which he showed, based on laws of classical physics, that Saturn's rings were not a single object, but a collection of small objects—a finding not confirmed until over 120 years later, when the Voyager space probe reached the planet. His most famous work was his demonstration, done while he was in his 30s, of the existence of electromagnetic waves and his conclusion that light was also part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This set of discoveries was of fundamental importance for 20th-century physics, as it paved the road for Einstein's theories of relativity and for quantum theory. Other novel ideas of Maxwell's led to the establishment of such diverse fields as information theory and cybernetics. Little wonder, then, that Einstein said, on the centenary of Maxwell's birth in 1931, that his work had been "the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton."