Maxwell’s Ether: From Wave Optics to the Electromagnetic Theory of Light

Maxwell's Ether

The IEEE Foundation and IEEE History Center explored James Clerk Maxwell’s revolutionary unification of light, electricity and magnetism. The keynote speaker, Daniel Jon Mitchell DPhil., Senior Historian of the IEEE History Center walked the audience through the remarkable history of how Maxwell adapted the concept of an all-pervading ether to develop and ground his electromagnetic theory of light. We saw how, in Maxwell’s hands, the ether became a powerful theoretical tool to substantiate the electromagnetic field—through which he ultimately brought about a profound conceptual transformation of physical reality. A recording of the session can be found below.

As of 2023, James Clerk Maxwell’s “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” was published 150 years ago. It contained the foundational equations later simplified by Oliver Heaviside, an English electrical theorist, into what we now know as “Maxwell’s Equations.” These equations are essential to modern technology, and electrical engineers still rely on them today, 150 years later!

IEEE History Center Resources on James Clerk Maxwell (and his influence)

Interested in learning more about James Clerk Maxwell?

Daniel Mitchel, Senior Historian, IEEE History Center, recommends the following books:

  • “The Natural Philosophy of James Clerk Maxwell” by P.M. Harman
  • “Innovation in Maxwell’s Electromagnetic Theory” by Daniel M. Siegel
  • “Imperial Science” by Bruce J. Hunt
  • “Faraday, Maxwell and the ElectroMagnetic Field” by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon
  • “James Clerk Maxwell Perspectives on his Life and Work” by Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker

The Speaker, Daniel Jon Mitchell DPhil.

Dr. Daniel Jon Mitchell joined the IEEE History Center as Senior Historian in July 2022. Previously he served as the Director of the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Dr. Mitchell was educated in the U.K. He holds a B.A. in physics and a D.Phil. in modern history from the University of Oxford (2010) and an M.A. in philosophy and history of science from the University of Bristol. After teaching scientific and technological literacy for two years at the University of Hong Kong, Dr. Mitchell took up a series of research fellowships at Harvard University, the University of Cambridge in the U.K., and RWTH Aachen University in Germany. During this time, Dr. Mitchell wrote, presented, and taught widely in the history of modern physical science and technology. His recent research publications have focused on measurement and quantification in the work of early electrical pioneers, such as Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell.

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