The Short Circuit

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James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell

In a segment on James Clerk Maxwell, the Nature podcast narrator begins at 22:29:

A hundred and fifty years ago this month, a 30 year old Scotsman called James Clerk Maxwell wrote down the four equations that made him famous.(Nature 2011)

One problem with Nature's introduction is Maxwell's equations did not make him famous, initially.  Another is he did not write down four equations; he wrote down twenty.  It was Oliver Heaviside who simplified Maxwell's equations to the four equations we know and love (or loathe) today, as is documented in two biographies by Basil Mahon: one on James Clerk Maxwell, and the other on Oliver Heaviside.(Mahoon 2004, 2009) Wikipedia also has this documented if you do not have access to the books.

Clerk Maxwell's contribution to science was nevertheless among the greatest ever.  But much more interesting is Heaviside's contributions to Clerk Maxwell's work, as well as to vector analysis, (which was also independently invented by Josiah Willard Gibbs, who later corresponded and exchanged ideas with Heaviside).

Heaviside's advances and techniques were shunned, suppressed, and ridiculed by many in the scientific and mathematical establishment.  And even after the scientific establishment began to give the largely self-educated Heaviside due respect (eventually making him, for example, a fellow of the Royal Society--FRS),  Heaviside lost out on the 1912 Physics Nobel prize, losing to Nils Gustav Dalen, who invented a regulator for feeding gas to lighthouse lamps.(BBC 2010)

Indeed, arguably, the scientific establishment as a whole would have ridiculed Clerk Maxwell for his twenty equations unifying electromagnatism (Mahon reports that many scientists of the time privately thought Clerk Maxwell was going off the deep end), if it weren't for Clerk Maxwell's many other contributions to science.  Maxwell's equations did not make him famous--Maxwell already had a reputation for his many other contributions to science--his equations actually detracted from that reputation initially.  While the scientific establishment didn't overtly ridicule Clerk Maxwell as they did later, to Heaviside, they did pretty much ignore one of the greatest contributions to science ever, for a number of years.

Oliver Heaviside

Oliver Heaviside

Incidentally, I recently wrote a review of Mahon's book on Heaviside.  In Mahon's book, and my review of it, we see that Heaviside was a tenacious defender of his ideas, against those in the scientific establishment who sought to abuse their power and pedigree to slow down scientific progress:

It is a good book. At times, it is a tad repetitious, but it is definitely worth a read if you're interested in the history of great men in electrical engineering.

I picked up this book after reading another of the author's books on James Clerk Maxwell. This book on Heaviside is more interesting than the one on Clerk Maxwell, in some respects, because we learn more about the man. That man--Oliver Heaviside--is a very interesting character indeed (self-educated, wrote to an audience who did not yet exist, stubborn to his own detriment), whose contributions to the field of electrical engineering are under-appreciated by my generation, and those who follow.

In comparison, the book on Clerk Maxwell was more tightly presented and edited, and is also a good book, even if we do not learn as much about the man.

I give both books 4 stars, for different reasons, and these ratings are admittedly biased slightly by my appreciation of the subjects--though the author no doubt deserves most of the credit.

In this book we learn that it was not just the creation/evolution controversy that produced great and cantankerous debates among learned men.  One of my favorite quips of all time (after Wilberforce's question to Huxley as to whether it was through Huxley's mother or father Huxley claimed descent from apes) is Heaviside's snarky rebuttal of Peter Guthrie Tait, during the great vector/quaternion debate. Tait, in defense of Quaternions, was very publicly belittling Heaviside's and Willard Gibbs' use of and work on a related but ultimately competing mathematical tool, vectors.

Heaviside enjoyed a good argument as much as Tait, and referred to Tait as a "consummately profound metaphysicomathematian," and the quaternion as a "hermaphrodite monster." Heaviside also wrote:

'Quarterion' was, I think, defined by an American schoolgirl to be 'an ancient religious ceremony'. This was, however, a complete mistake. The ancients--unlike Prof. Tait--knew not, and did not worship Quaternions.--Oliver Heaviside

This last quote, I think, epitomizes Heaviside--pugnacious and cocksure yet correct and years ahead of his time.

I do recommend both of Mahon's biographies.


  • Basil Mahon (2009 ) Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity Institution of Engineering and Technology
  • Basil Mahon (2004) The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell Wiley
  • Nature (03-17-2011) Nature podcast Nature Publishing Group
  • Wikipedia (2011) Maxwell's equations
  • BBC (06-28-2010) Oliver Heaviside,


  1. I wholeheartedly endorse Mahon's biographies as well, although I thought "The Man Who Changed Everything" gave rather typical, short shrift to "the beautiful equations" in which I have special interest, and the subsequent chapters seemed if the author lacked a graceful exit strategy.

    It is disappointing here that the example of "a good argument" is merely hideously poor fallacy by Heaviside: name calling insults of a uniquely robust algebra and its advocates.

    I would submit that good argument rests upon evidence, logic, and reason. Heaviside's objections to quaternions appear largely irrational, and his efforts may have contributed more than any other factor to current crises in physics as described at

  2. Thanks for the comment Buck field. You're comment on a "good argument" was a poor word choice on my part. I meant entertaining.

  3. Where can I get Maxwell's original work and see all 20 equations before Heaviside reduced them to four?

  4. Take a look at

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