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James Clerk Maxwell

Renowned physicist and color photography pioneer James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland to John Clerk and Frances Maxwell on June 13, 1831. Mrs. Maxwell presided over her son's early education until contracting the illness that claimed her life on December 6, 1839. Two years' later, the lad entered Edinburgh Academy, which he would attend until 1847. At the age of 14, young Maxwell read a geometry paper at Edinburgh's Royal Society, and in 1846, his analytical prowess was revealed when he developed a method for drawing a perfect oval shape. While a student at Edinburgh University, he conducted several experiments on light polarization, which continued when he entered Cambridge University in 1850. At Cambridge, he focused on color vision, and made important contributions to the research of English physicist Thomas Young and German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz. He determined that all colors were combination of red, green, and blue primary colors, a hypothesis he proved by spinning disks.

One year after graduating from Cambridge University, Dr. Maxwell published "On Faraday's Lines of Force," in which his formula of statistic mechanics appeared. In this paper, Dr. Maxwell successfully proved that the motion of molecules is responsible for generating heat. Also in 1855, Dr. Maxwell began experimenting with color photography through the application of his three-color theory. Six years' later, he demonstrated through additive synthesis that taking three black-and-white photographs through red, green, and blue filters, making positive transparencies, and projecting each through their respective filters, a full-color reproduction could be created. Although an extremely tedious and expensive process at the time - and therefore highly impractical - Dr. Maxwell's efforts nevertheless uncover the potential for color photography at a time when the art of photography was in its infancy. Interestingly, he never patented his color photography method because he regarded it as a scientific discovery rather than a technological breakthrough. His research pioneered the development of dyes that could produce light-sensitive negatives in the late nineteenth century. Color film processes continued in earnest in the early 1900s.

As Professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College, Dr. Maxwell calculated electromagnetic equations that illustrated how light is an energy source that travels in electric and magnetic waves. He published his findings in the 1873 text, Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. The following year, he returned to Cambridge to establish the Cavendish Laboratory and to become the university's first Professor of Experimental Physics. Dr. Maxwell remained there for the next five years until becoming ill with cancer forced him into early retirement. James Clerk Maxwell died in Cambridge on November 5, 1879 at the age of 48. In a poll of 100 most influential physicists in history, he was ranked third behind Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.


Ref:
2010 Chromatic Cinema: A History of Screen Color (West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.), p. 120.

2007 Focal Encyclopedia of Photography (Burlington, MA: Focal Press/Elsevier), p. 129.

2006 Growing Up with Science (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Corporation), pp. 926-927.

1983 Introduction to Light: The Physics of Light, Vision, and Color (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.), pp. 196-197.

1882 The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan & Co.), pp. i, 2, 15, 32, 472.

2010 The Visual Dictionary of Photography (Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA), p. 160.


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