Posted by: whipplelib | July 13, 2016

M is for Maxwell


Does this building look familiar? To those with connections to the department it should do!!  The first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics was James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). The laboratory where he was based, and which he designed, was built between 1872-1874 and is just a few meters away from the Whipple Library. Cavendish lab plaque

The man: Maxwell worked on many aspects of physics and science including colour perception, the rings of Saturn, theory of fluids and solids, statistical mechanics, molecular theory of gases, theoretical physics, and electromagnetism. He was interested in science from a young age, attending his first scientific lecture at the age of 12. His first published work appeared in the April issue of the Royal Society of Edinburgh when he was 14.

Through looking at a number of biographies of Maxwell we can learn about the person, he wrote verse for much of his life and was very good with a Diablo spinning top when he was a child. This has been seen as leading him to create his dynamical top used to demonstrate properties of bodies in rotation. (more on this below).

The books: We are lucky to have a collection of books from Maxwell’s own library which were transferred to us from the Cavendish Laboratory. In Theory of Heat Maxwell set about explaining the second principle of thermodynamics. We have a 5th edition from 1877 which was given as a prize to Charles Chree (1860– 1928) while he was at the University of Aberdeen. Maxwell had taught at Aberdeen between 1856-60 and Chree followed in his footsteps by carrying out research at the Cavendish Lab while he was a research fellow  in the 1890’s. This book is from the Whipple Collection and Chree worked alongside Whipple at Kew Observatory.

Maxwell Thoery of Heat book prize info

Chree’s book prize

A few books in our collection have been handed down through members of the Clerk Maxwell family. Hutton’s A complete treatise on practical arithmetic and book-keeping, both by single and double entry : adapted for the use of schools (London, 1798) contains the autograph of George Clerk Maxwell and John Clerk Maxwell. And even some doodles (this of course is not encouraged these days)

Another book with an interesting provenance is Maxwell’s On a dynamical top, for exhibiting the phenomena of the motion of a system of invariable form about a fixed point : with some suggestions as to the earth’s motion (Edinburgh, 1857). Maxwell gave this offprint from the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh to his old mathematics tutor, William Hopkins (1793-1866). It was then either sold or given to James Porter (1827-1900), Master of Peterhouse. The note of the fly leaf, which can be seen below) about the books provenance is signed by J.D. Hamilton-Dickson (1849-1931) who, according to an obituary, was interested in the planned events for the centenary of Clerk Maxwell’s birth. He may have had connections to Maxwell’s family. Hamilton-Dickson’s brother-in-law was Sir James Dewar, and Maxwell’s wife was Katherine Mary Dewar (1824–1886).

The dynamical top itself, which was with this book, is housed in the Whipple Museum and  was purchased by R.S. Whipple from a “H. Dickson” on 25th August 1930 for £10.



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