Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Maxwell, James Clerk

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_365


James Clerk Maxwell was born on June 13, 1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a family of comfortable means and was the only child of his parents. He is considered to be a pioneer in several fields of science. Maxwell contributed greatly to the field of optics and the study of color vision and helped lay the foundations for practical color photography. Over a period of 17 years from 1855 to 1872, he published a series of papers concerning the perception of color, color blindness, and color theory [1]. He died in Cambridge at the age of 48 of abdominal cancer in 1879 [2].

Maxwell had a keen intellect and an unquenchable curiosity from childhood. Maxwell’s formal schooling began unsuccessfully, and it is reported that he was treated harshly by his private tutor for being slow and disobedient [3]. He was then sent to the prestigious Edinburgh Academy to continue his education. At the age of 13, he won the school’s mathematical medal as well as the first prize for English and poetry. At the age of 14, he wrote his first academic paper on Oval Curves which was presented, on his behalf, at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

When 16 years old Maxwell was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. There, among many other things, he learned about disk color mixture (Fig. 1) from one of his professors, James D. Forbes (1809–1868), who was working on a color classification system. During his undergraduate studies Maxwell also examined the properties of polarized light [4]. At age 18, he contributed two papers to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. One of these, On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids, laid the foundation for an important discovery on the temporary double refraction produced in viscous liquids by shear stress [5]. In October 1950, Maxwell moved to the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College where he graduated in 1854 with a degree in mathematics. He stayed at the Trinity College after graduation until 1856 when he accepted the position of professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen [6]. In 1858 he married Katherine Mary Dewar who regularly assisted him in his experimental work. In 1860 he was granted the chair of natural philosophy at King’s College in London. He stayed there until 1865, working primarily on electromagnetism. He and his wife returned to his inherited estate in Glenlair, Scotland, until he became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, where he stayed until his untimely death. Maxwell’s famed equations on electro magnetism, “Dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field” were delivered to Michael Faraday at his residence at the Royal Society in 1864, where as a young man Faraday himself had tried on several occasions to get his work noticed. While the two men were not close, they strongly respected each other. He is considered to be the “father of electromagnetics.” He is also the inventor of a thought experiment on thermodynamics, resulting in what is known as “Maxwell’s demon.”
Maxwell, James Clerk, Fig. 1

Young Maxwell demonstrating one of his spinning color wheels

Maxwell and Color

The nature of perception of color was one of Maxwell’s interests which had begun in Scotland. Using an improved version of a disk mixture apparatus, he demonstrated that white light results from a mixture of red, green, and blue light. His paper Experiments on Colour was a fundamental study of the color-mixing principles and was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1855 [3]. In the following years he built a visual spectrometer in which he could mix and adjust spectral lights. The results of his own and his wife’s mixture data, published in 1860, demonstrated that only three primary lights are required to match any spectral or composite light. In the same year he was awarded the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal “for his researches on the composition of colours and other optical papers.”

Based on his trichromatic theory, Maxwell proposed in the late 1850s a method for practical color photography. He suggested that if a scene is photographed three times separately but using red, green, and blue filters, and the resulting black and white transparent images are then superimposed on a screen using projectors equipped with similar filters, the result would be a full color reproduction of the image as seen by the human eye. Together with the photographer Thomas Sutton, he demonstrated this in 1861 at the Royal Society. As the image of the Scottish tartan shows, due to the fact that the filters were less than optimal, the outcome was less than perfect, and commercial color photography required another 45 years of invention (Fig. 2).
Maxwell, James Clerk, Fig. 2

Reproduction of the Scottish tartan image using the photographic images and color filters employed by Maxwell and Sutton in their demonstration in 1861


  1. 1.
    Johnson, K.: Colour Vision. University of St. Andrews (2012). Retrieved 8 Oct 2014Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Harman, P.M.: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 37. Oxford University Press, Oxford (2004). ISBN 0-19-861411-XGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Tolstoy, I.: James Clerk Maxwell: A Biography. University of Chicago Press, Chicago (1982). ISBN 0-226-80787-8Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Mahon, B.: The Man Who Changed Everything – The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. Wiley, Hoboken (2003). ISBN 0-470-86171-1MATHGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Timoshenko, S.: History of Strength of Materials. Courier Dover Publications, New York (1983). ISBN 978-0-486-61187-7Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Glazebrook, R.T.: James Clerk Maxwell and Modern Physics. 811951455. OCLC 811951455 (1896)Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York (outside the USA) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Color Science and Imaging Laboratory, College of TextilesNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA