Book of the Week — A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism

QC518-M46-vol1-fig1“The fact that certain bodies, after being rubbed, appear to attract other bodies, was known to the ancients. In modern times, a great variety of other phenomena have been observed, and have been found to be related to these phenomena of attraction.” — James Clerk Maxwell

A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873
First edition, first issue
QC518 M46

QC518-M46-vol1-fig3James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh. At age 25 he became Professor of Physics at Aberdeen University’s Marischal College, where he began to study the composition of Saturn’s rings. In 1859, he published “On the Stability of Saturn’s Rings.” A century later, the Voyager space probes confirmed many of Clerk Maxwell’s conclusions.

In 1860, Clerk Maxwell moved to King’s College London. In 1871 he returned to Cambridge where he helped establish and design Cavendish Laboratory and became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics. In 1873 he developed his four equations which played a key role in Albert Einstein’s work on his theory of relativity. “The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell Equations of the electromagnetic field,” wrote Einstein, who later equated Faraday with Galileo and Maxwell with Isaac Newton.

QC518-M46-vol1-fig7Clerk Maxwell’s work forms the basis of much of modern technology, including radio, television, satellite communications and cell phones. Twentieth century physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.”


The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), built in 1987, is in Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.


QC518-M46-vol2-fig18Treatise is Clerk Maxwell’s most detailed and comprehensive work, advancing ideas that would become essential for modern physics.

Treatise “extended Maxwell’s ideas beyond the scope of his earlier work in many directions, [demonstrating] the special importance of electricity to physics as a whole. He began the investigation of moving frames of reference, which in Einstein’s hands were to revolutionize physics; gave proofs of the existence of electromagnetic waves that paved the way for Hertz’s discovery of radio waves; worked out connections between the electrical and optical qualities of bodies that would lead to modern solid-state physics; and applied Tait’s quaternion formulae to the field equations, out of which Heaviside and Gibbs would develop vector analysis” (Norman).“Maxwell most clearly prefigures 20th-century physics” (Simmons).


Copies of the first issue have been found both with and without a publisher’s catalog bound in Volume II (the text of which contains an issue point). Rare Books copy bound with catalog in volume 2 and errata in volume 1.


My thanks to Dean Henry S. White for bringing this classic to my attention. ~ LP

View the original article on the OpenBook Blog

No Comments

Post A Comment