A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873.

First edition, first issue, and a wonderful association copy, of Maxwell’s presentation of his theory of electromagnetism, advancing ideas that would become essential for modern physics, including the landmark “hypothesis that light and electricity are the same in their ultimate nature” (Grolier/Horblit). “This treatise did for electromagnetism what Newton’s Principia had done from classical mechanics. It not only provided the mathematical tools for the investigation and representation of the whole electromagnetic theory, but it altered the very framework of both theoretical and experimental physics. It was this work that finally displaced action-at-a-distance physics and substituted the physics of the field” (Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, p. 2539). “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” (R. P. Feynman, in The Feynman Lectures on Physics II (1964), p. 1-6). “[Maxwell] may well be judged the greatest theoretical physicist of the 19th century ... Einstein’s work on relativity was founded directly upon Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory; it was this that led him to equate Faraday with Galileo and Maxwell with Newton” (PMM). “Einstein summed up Maxwell’s achievement in 1931 on the occasion of the centenary of Maxwell’s birth: ‘We may say that, before Maxwell, Physical Reality, in so far as it was to represent the process of nature, was thought of as consisting in material particles, whose variations consist only in movements governed by [ordinary] differential equations. Since Maxwell’s time, Physical Reality has been thought of as represented by continuous fields, governed by partial differential equations, and not capable of any mechanical interpretation. This change in the conception of Reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton’” (Longair).

Provenance: The Wheatstone Collection, King’s College, London (ink stamps ‘King’s College London’ on recto, ‘Kings College London withdrawn’ on verso, of title of both volumes, bookplates of the Wheatstone Collection on front paste-downs, shelf-mark in pencil on half-titles). Maxwell was Professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s from 1860 to 1865. This was probably the most productive period of his career, during which he displayed the world's first light-fast colour photograph, further developed his ideas on the viscosity of gases, and proposed a system for defining physical quantities, now known as dimensional analysis. But this time is especially noteworthy for the advances Maxwell made in the fields of electricity and magnetism. He examined the nature of both electric and magnetic fields in his two-part paper ‘On physical lines of force,’ which was published in 1861. In it he provided a conceptual model for electromagnetic induction, consisting of tiny spinning cells of magnetic flux. In two subsequent parts, published in 1862, he introduced the concept of displacement current and gave an explanation for the Faraday effect, the rotation of the plane of the polarization of light in a magnetic field. These researched culminated in the publication of his greatest work, ‘A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field,’ in 1865. “According to a famous passage in its preface, the Treatise (1873) represented the outcome of this programme” (Landmark Writings, p. 569). Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) was Maxwell’s colleague at King’s in the 1860s, having been appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy there in 1834. He was responsible for a number of inventions but is perhaps best known today for the ‘Wheatstone bridge,’ a device that accurately measured electrical resistance and became widely used in laboratories. He was knighted in 1868.

“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” (Longair).

The 1865 paper “provided a new theoretical framework for the subject, based on experiment and a few general dynamical principles, from which the propagation of electromagnetic waves through space followed without any special assumptions … In the Treatise Maxwell extended the dynamical formalism by a more thoroughgoing application of Lagrange’s equations than he had attempted in 1865. His doing so coincided with a general movement among British and European mathematicians about then toward wider use of the methods of analytical dynamics in physical problems … Using arguments extraordinarily modern in flavor about the symmetry and vector structure of the terms, he expressed the Lagrangian for an electromagnetic system in its most general form. [George] Green and others had developed similar arguments in studying the dynamics of the luminiferous ether, but the use Maxwell made of Lagrangian techniques was new to the point of being almost a new approach to physical theory—though many years were to pass before other physicists fully exploited the ground he had broken …

“In 1865, and again in the Treatise, Maxwell’s next step after completing the dynamical analogy was to develop a group of eight equations describing the electromagnetic field … The principle they embody is that electromagnetic processes are transmitted by the separate and independent action of each charge (or magnetized body) on the surrounding space rather than by direct action at a distance. Formulas for the forces between moving charged bodies may indeed be derived from Maxwell’s equations, but the action is not along the line joining them and can be reconciled with dynamical principles only by taking into account the exchange of momentum with the field” (DSB).

"Maxwell once remarked that the aim of his Treatise was not to expound the final view of his electromagnetic theory, which he had developed in a series of five major papers between 1855 and 1868; rather it was to educate himself by presenting a view of the stage he had reached in his thinking. Accordingly, the work is loosely organized on historical and experimental, rather than systematically deductive, lines. It extended Maxwell’s ideas beyond the scope of his earlier work in many directions, producing a highly fecund (if somewhat confusing) demonstration of the special importance of electricity to physics as a whole. He began the investigation of moving frames of reference, which in Einstein’s hands were to revolutionize physics; gave proofs of the existence of electromagnetic waves that paved the way for Hertz’s discovery of radio waves; worked out connections between electrical and optical qualities of bodies that would lead to modern solid-state physics; and applied Tait’s quaternion formulae to the field equations, out of which Heaviside and Gibbs would develop vector analysis” (Norman).

DSB IX, p.198; Grolier/Horblit 72; Norman 1666 (second issue); PMM 355; Poggendorff III, p. 889; Wheeler Gift Catalogue 1872. Achard, ‘James Clerk Maxwell, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, First Edition (1873),’ Chapter 44 in Landmark Writings in Western Mathematics 1640-1940, Grattan-Guinness (ed.), 2005. Malcolm Longair, ‘. . . a paper. . . I hold to be great guns’: a commentary on Maxwell (1865) ‘A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field’. Philosophical Transactions A 373, No. 2039, 13 April 2015.



Two volumes, 8vo (223 x 140 mm), pp. xxix, [3], 425, [5] and 13 plates (errata slip before leaf B1); xxiii [1], 444, [2] and 7 plates, 15 [1] (advertisements). Original publisher’s blind-stamped plum cloth, small paper tear with loss to lower outer corner of p. xxiii/xxiv of volume 1, lacks errata slips, inner hinges broken, rubbed, some corner wear, volume 1 torn at head of spine without loss, volume 2 frayed on joints. This first issue can be distinguished from the second from the eight leaves of publisher’s advertisements in the rear of volume 2; the entry for Maxwell’s Treatise itself states “just published.”.

Item #4308

Price: $18,500.00

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