A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. JAMES CLERK MAXWELL.
A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field
A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field
A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field

A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field

“From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade.” -Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol. 2, sec. I-6.


“It was at this time [1864/1865], busy as he was with experiments and College business, that Maxwell produced a paper which will remain forever one of the finest of all man’s scientific achievements, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. Its boldness, originality and vision are breathtaking...” (Basil Mahon, The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell).

“Maxwell’s great paper of 1865 established his dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field. The origins of the paper lay in his earlier papers of 1856, in which he began the mathematical elaboration of Faraday’s researches into electromagnetism, and of 1861–1862, in which the displacement current was introduced. These earlier works were based upon mechanical analogies. In the paper of 1865, the focus shifts to the role of the fields themselves as a description of electromagnetic phenomena. The somewhat artificial mechanical models by which he had arrived at his field equations a few years earlier were stripped away. Maxwell’s introduction of the concept of fields to explain physical phenomena provided the essential link between the mechanical world of Newtonian physics and the theory of fields, as elaborated by Einstein and others, which lies at the heart of twentieth and twenty-first century physics” (Malcolm Longair, “A Commentary on Maxwell's (1865) ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field’”).

“Everything came together beautifully. Maxwell showed that all aspects of the behaviour of electromagnetic systems, including the propagation of light, could, in his interpretation, be derived from the laws of dynamics. Disinclined as he was to crow about his acheivements, he could not entirely contain his elation. Towards the end of a long letter to his cousin Charles Hope Cay he wrote: ‘I also have a paper afloat, with an electromagnetic theory of light, which, till I am convinced to the contrary, I hold to be great guns.’

“Great guns indeed. The essence of the theory is embodied in four equations which connect the six main quantities. They are now known to every physicist and electrical engineer as Maxwell’s equations. They are majestic mathematical statements, deep and subtle yet startlingly simple. So eloquent are they that one can get a sense of their beauty and power even without advanced mathematical training...”

Maxwell introduced A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field “at a presentation to the Royal Society in December 1864. Most of his contemporaries were bemused. It was almost as if Einstein had popped out of a time machine to tell them about general relativity; they simply did not know what to make of it...

“One can understand these reactions. Not only was the theory ahead of its time but Maxwell was no evangelist and hedged his presentation with philosophical caution. He thought that his theory was probably right but could not be sure. No-one could until Heinrich Hertz produced and detected electromagnetic waves over 20 years later. The ‘great guns’ had been paraded but it would be a long while before they sounded. 

“It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of Maxwell’s achievement. The fact that its significance was but dimly recognised at the time makes it all the more remarkable. The theory encapsulated some of the most fundamental characteristics of the universe. Not only did it explain all known electromagnetic phenomena, it explained light and pointed to the existence of kinds of radiation not then dreamt of. Professor R.V. Jones was doing no more than representing the common opinion of the later scientists when he described the theory as one of the greatest leaps ever achieved in human thought.” (Mahon).

After being read to the Royal Society on December 8, 1864, the paper was sent to William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and others for peer review before being approved for publication here in volume 155 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society for the year 1865. 

Note: This paper shows twenty "Maxwell Equations". It wasn't until 1884 when Oliver Heaviside (with help from Gibbs and Hertz) used vector notation to simplify the equations down to the familiar four we know today.

London: Taylor and Francis, 1865. Quarto, modern half-morocco over marbled boards. The complete volume 155 offered (796 text pages, plus donor list, general title, contents, and 41 plates). Maxwell paper on pp. 459-512. Small, discreet early embossed stamp from Owens College, Manchester on general title and plates. Maxwell text with a few pages with reinforcement at the extreme outer edge (far away from text), one corner with minor repair. Binding in fine condition; text clean with exceptionally large margins.


Price: $7,500 .

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