Why James Clerk Maxwell was one of science's guiding lights

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James Clerk Maxwell's first colour photograph was a harbinger of the technological age. But some argue his leading role deserves far more recognition

AT FIRST glance, it looks like an ordinary, if rather faded, colour picture of a tartan ribbon, knotted into a rosette. But this remarkable image, right, was produced not in modern times but 150 years ago by a Scottish scientist. Just a few years after the first photograph of any kind was taken by inventors in England and France, James Clerk Maxwell developed a theory which would not only transform photographic techniques, but would eventually pave the way for the creation of mobile phones and computer screens - and even the television.

The paper he wrote on the theory, presented to Edinburgh's Royal Society in 1857, was then thought to be far-fetched. But only four years later, on 17 May, 1861, Clerk Maxwell turned his idea into reality, with the help of Thomas Sutton, a colleague at King's College London, where he was then working.

Legend has it that he convinced his wife, Katherine, to lend him a brightly coloured ribbon from her hat, which he fashioned into a series of loops and then used monochrome plates with red, blue and green filters to successfully create a colour image.

His work on colour and light later led him to create the first opthalmoscope - a device, pictured left, used to inspect the inside of the eye. As a result, a rare form of colour blindness is named after him.

"Maxwell's work really was incredible," says Dr Dick Dougal, a trustee of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. "He is Scotland's best-known physicist and is still remembered throughout the world.

"The idea of the colour image was in its infancy in the 1850s, but he soon made it a reality. I think people are aware of the results of Maxwell's work, it is all around them every day," adds Dr Dougal. "But they are not aware of where it has come from.

"His photographic work was pioneering, but it was not even the main part of his life. His main legacy was his discoveries in the field of electromagnetism."

Retired physics lecturer Dr Dougal, who describes himself as an "old Clerk Maxwell obsessive", is not his only fan.

Albert Einstein once said that his famed theory of relativity "owed its origins" to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field, while A Brief History of Time author Stephen Hawking has also praised the scientist's work, saying his formulae "rank with those of Einstein as the fundamental equations of the universe".

In a recent poll, Maxwell was voted third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Isaac Newton and Einstein himself.

"If you look at his legacy overall, it is absolutely enormous," says Professor David Ritchie, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. "He died young, at the age of 48, but I have no doubt that if he had lived longer, he would have discovered relativity before Einstein."

Now music star PJ Moore, a former member of the Glasgow band The Blue Nile, has written a song in homage to the inventor, which he plans to publish online this week to mark the 150th anniversary of Clerk Maxwell's colour image achievement.

"The song is the centrepiece of some work I've been doing for some time on Clerk Maxwell," explains Moore, who graduated with a degree in electronics before joining the band in 1981 and is planning to create a piece of theatre about Clerk Maxwell's life.

"I think Maxwell is just amazing - he is like a real life Victorian Doctor Who, a wi-fi enabled magician abroad in the steam age."

Moore's fascination with the physicist began in the 1980s when he was living in India Street, just doors away from Maxwell's birthplace - then a private house. The building has since been turned into a museum by the Clerk Maxwell Foundation.

"I'd been in the studio all day, recording our second album," recalls Moore. "I went out for a walk to clear my head and to listen to what we'd recorded that day. I had my Walkman on and I was just wandering along when I spotted a plaque on one of the houses. It said 'James Clerk Maxwell was born here'. I just stopped and stared at it."

Moore had been aware of Clerk Maxwell's existence through his studies, but had never seriously considered his ongoing legacy. "I suddenly realised everything I'd been doing that day was thanks to James Clerk Maxwell. The big speakers in the studio, the headphones on my Walkman. None of that would have been possible without his discoveries. Even the electric guitar was really a Maxwell device."

Moore's song, entitled Photograph, pays homage to the image created by the scientist. Although known as the first colour photograph, there was never a hard image of the ribbon, just a projection.

"When you think about it, a projected image is much more relevant today than a colour photograph," claims Dr Dougal. "Mobile phones, digital cameras - anything that uses a non-static image - are really what Maxwell gave to the world."A statue of Maxwell and his dog was erected on George Street four years ago, following a long campaign by Maxwell supporters to gain recognition for the scientist in his home city.

Other commemorations include Edinburgh University's James Clerk Maxwell physics building, a mountain range on Venus and a telescope in Hawaii named after him. The year 2006 was designated "Maxwell Year" and a range of events were held to mark the 175th anniversary of his birth.

But Clerk Maxwell enthusiast Bruce Borthwick - who presented the scientist as one of the "top ten" Scots in a BBC Scotland TV series and was ranked fourth - believes he deserves more acclaim.

Plans pioneered by Borthwick for a square in a new development in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town to be named after Clerk Maxwell were abandoned when the developers behind the project plunged into administration during the recession.

"The statue on George Street is beautiful, but for the average person, it does not give any indication of who he is," says Mr Borthwick. "The description is in Latin. We still need to do more for him to be recognised - Scotland's people really deserve to know what legacy he has left.

"There is no question in my mind that if a Nobel Prize had existed in Maxwell's day, he would have been awarded three of them - for his work on light, electromagnetics and thermodynamics."

Born at 14 India Street, New Town, in 1831, James Clerk Maxwell became the youngest ever member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh when he was accepted at the age of 14. He studied at the Edinburgh Academy - where he earned the nickname "Dafty" - then moved on to work at Aberdeen and Cambridge universities. During his life, he created a set of theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force which led to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 20th century.

Reportedly, when he arrived at Cambridge - where he directed the newly created Cavendish Laboratory - to be told he had to attend a church service at 6am, his response was: "Well, I suppose I could stay up that late".

He created the first colour image in 1861 at the Royal Institution in London.

His work paved the way for hundreds of modern inventions, including the mobile phone, television and X-ray machines.

Clerk Maxwell died on 5 November, 1879, of a form of hereditary cancer. HOW IT WORKED

THERE was no way of permanently recording any coloured light in the time of James Clerk Maxwell.

His theory used monochrome plates and colour filters in red, green and blue to take three black and white photos of the ribbon, each of which would show light only where that particular colour was present in the ribbon. When projected using the Victorian "magic lanterns", plus the same filters used to capture them, these resulted in a red projection, a green one and a blue one.

When these three images were aligned, the full-colour image appeared, including all other hues which are a mix of the three basic colours. Although there was no permanent image recorded at that time, the image is still considered to be a forerunner of colour photography, as it uses the same principles as digital photography today, and is credited with the development of the opthalmoscope, left, to diagnose eye disease. The three plates are on display in the Clerk Maxwell House in India Street.