Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics, October 25th, 1871.

London & Cambridge: Macmillan, 1871.

First edition, extremely rare, of Maxwell's inaugural lecture as Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, which marks the beginning of the tradition of experimental research at the Cavendish Laboratory, a tradition which was to lead to 29 Nobel Prizes being awarded to members of the Cavendish between 1904 and 1989. This lecture was delivered just two years before Maxwell published his famous Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, which “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). “[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). Amongst many eloquent statements in Maxwell’s inaugural lecture, perhaps the most famous is the following: “the history of science shews that even during that phase of her progress in which she devotes herself to improving the accuracy of the numerical measurement of quantities with which she has long been familiar, she is preparing the materials for the subjugation of new regions, which would have remained unknown if she had contented with the rough guide of the earlier pioneers”. Also notable are Maxwell’s discussion of ‘Experiments of Illustration’ and ‘Experiments of Research’, and the Baconian ‘Experiments in Concert’, i.e., collaborative global measurement projects, especially into terrestrial magnetism. Maxwell also introduces his ‘statistical method’ in a discussion of molecules in motion, and ends on a visionary note regarding the ultimate nature of atoms, citing William Thomson (Lord Kelvin): “what if these molecules,” he writes, “indestructible as they are, turn out to be not substances themselves, but mere affections of some other substance?” The Cavendish Laboratory was opened in 1874, just three years after Maxwell’s appointment as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics. OCLC lists five copies of Maxwell’s inaugural lecture in the UK (BL, Cambridge, Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Oxford), one in the US (Huntington), and one in Amsterdam. We have been unable to trace any other copy having appeared in commerce.

Provenance: John Henry Michell (1863-1940), Australian mathematician (small stamp to rear cover). Born in Maldon, Victoria, Michell studied at the University of Melbourne and then Trinity College, Cambridge; he was bracketed Senior Wrangler (a distinction denied even to Maxwell) with three others in the Mathematical Tripos in 1887. He was appointed a fellow of Trinity College in 1890, but returned to Australia in the same year, and went on to become Professor of Mathematics at the University of Melbourne. He was one of the earliest graduates of an Australian university to be elected to the Royal Society, becoming FRS in 1902.

The scientific knowledge built up before the 1870’s was the result of individual work in essentially private laboratories. The wealthy amateur physicist, such as Joule or Cavendish, would have a laboratory at his home, while the academic scientist would work in his college rooms. The great contributions to science produced by, for example, Isaac Newton, Thomas Young, and George Gabriel Stokes were all accomplished in College rooms and largely unaided. Around the middle of the nineteenth century a great deal of discussion arose about the practical training of scientists and engineers at all levels. The British Association, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and the Science Museum all arose out of this enthusiasm for spreading scientific knowledge. The only university to have anything like an organised laboratory was Glasgow, where, in the 1840s, William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, established a makeshift laboratory in his predecessor’s house, but students worked only as the Professor’s assistant, not on any organised course.

Twenty-five years later pressure for the establishment of organised practical teaching was irresistible. In Cambridge, the Senate formed a committee to look into the question. When, in 1869, the committee reported, it was clearly in favour of creating a Cambridge Physics Laboratory, recommending the “founding of a special Professorship, and of supplying the Professor with the means of making his teaching practical – in other words, of giving him a demonstrator, a lecture-room, a laboratory, and several class-rooms, with a sufficient stock of apparatus.” However, the report had to be shelved due to lack of finance. This changed 18 months later when the then Chancellor, William Cavendish, seventh Duke of Devonshire, offered to meet the estimated cost of £6,300, on condition that the Colleges provided the funding for a Professorship of Experimental Physics.

Regarded as the most distinguished British physicist of his day, Thomson was the most obvious choice for the Cavendish Chair but, on being approached in private, he refused in order to stay in Glasgow. Hermann von Helmholtz was also approached, but he was too well established in Berlin. The electors then turned to Maxwell. After resigning his chair at King’s College, London in 1865 on grounds of ill health, he returned to his family seat at Glenlair in Scotland, and started work on the Treatise. “Maxwell was well known in Cambridge and no one doubted his originality and brilliance. He had acted as an examiner for the Mathematical Tripos in the period 1866 to 1870 and, in an effort to make some inroads into the reform of the Tripos, he had introduced questions on heat, electricity and magnetism into the examinations. His revolutionary researches into the kinetic theory, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism and his demonstration that light is electromagnetic radiation were all relatively recent … Maxwell was ideally matched to the requirements of the new professorship, although that was not necessarily apparent to the Cambridge academic community at the time. His excellence in mathematics was beyond doubt, having been second wrangler and joint Smith’s Proze winner with the senior wrangler Edward Routh in 1854. In 1857 he won the Adam’s Prize for his remarkable essay on the stability of the rings of Saturn. In addition, he had demonstrated his outstanding experimental ability, for example, in his studies of colour vision and his demonstration of the dependence of the viscosity of gases on pressure and temperature. His letters and papers are full of sketches for experiments in all branches of physics” (Longair, pp. 49-50). Maxwell’s appointment was announced on March 8, 1871.

“In October 1871, Maxwell delivered his inaugural lecture, not in the Senate House as expected, but in an ‘out of the way lecture room.’ The lecture was preceded by only one announcement and only ‘a score or so of students’ attended. In this lecture, Maxwell described the Cavendish Laboratory’s future role in the scientific life of Cambridge, as he intended it to be. After stating his optimistic assessment of the future of science, he outlined his views on experimental physics, and then presented his guidelines for the Laboratory:

‘Le me say a few words on these two classes of experiments – Experiments of Illustration and Experiments of Research. The aim of an experiment of illustration is to throw light upon some specific idea so that the student may be enabled to grasp it. The circumstances of the experiment are so arranged that the phenomenon which we wish to observe or to exhibit is brought into prominence, instead of being obscured and entangled among other phenomena, as it is when it occurs in the ordinary course of nature …

‘In an experiment of research, on the other hand, this is not the principal aim. It is true that an experiment, in which the principal aim is to see what happens in the certain condition, may be regarded as an experiment of research by those who are not yet familiar with the result, but in experimental researches, strictly so called, the ultimate object is to measure something which we have already seen – to obtain numerical estimate of some magnitude.

Experiments of this class – those in which measurement of some kind is involved, are the proper work of a Physical Laboratory, In every experiment we have first to make our sense familiar with the phenomenon, but we must not stop here, we must find out which of its features are capable of measurement, and what measurements are required in order to make a complete specification of the phenomenon. We must then make these measurements, and deduce from them the result which we require to find’ [pp. 7 & 8-9]

“Maxwell here clearly expressed his intention that, under his directorship, the Cavendish Laboratory would not be used solely as a teaching laboratory for ‘Experiments of Illustration,’ but would also become a serious research center for carrying out precise measurement, something the University lacked. Maxwell was well aware f the tension that existed between members of the University who emphasized teaching and those who emphasized research. He saw one of his responsibilities, as director of the Laboratory, as achieving a balance between these two aims that had been the focus of many lively discussions among Cambridge dons. In a letter to his wife just after his appointment, Maxwell noted the existence of the tension and gave his view of how to resolve the problem:

‘There are two parties about this professorship. One wants popular lectures, and the other cares more for experimental work. I think there should be a graduation – popular lectures and rough experiments for the masses; real experiments for real students; and laborious experiments for the first rate men …’

“What kind of ‘real and ‘laborious’ experiments did Maxwell have in mind? Although Maxwell agreed that the main task of the future Cavendish Laboratory would be to arrive at precise measurements, in his inaugural address he envisioned a wider goal:

‘The characteristic of modern experiments – that they consist principally of measurements – is so prominent, that the opinion seems to have got abroad, that in a few years all the great physical constants will have been approximately estimated, and that the only occupation which will then be left to men of science will be to carry on these measurements to another place of decimals.

‘If this is really the state of things to which we are approaching, our Laboratory may perhaps become celebrated as a place of conscientious labour and consummate skill, but it will be out of place in the University, and ought rather to be classed with the other great workshops of our country, where equal ability is directed to useful ends.

‘… But the history of science shews that even during that phase of her progress in which she devotes herself to improving the accuracy of the numerical measurement of quantities with which she has long been familiar, she is preparing the materials for the subjugation of new regions, which would have remained unknown if she had contented with the rough guide of the earlier pioneers. I might bring forward instances gathered from every branch of science, shewing how the labour of careful measurement has been rewarded by the discovery of new fields of research, and by the development of new scientific ideas. But the history of the science of terrestrial magnetism affords us a sufficient example of what may be done by Experiments in Concert, such as we hope someday to perform in our Laboratory’ [pp. 9-10]

“Thus, for Maxwell, measurement was not the ultimate goal of experimentation. Rather, precise measurement should serve as a vehicle for opening new domains of inquiry. As he observed, ‘The increase in the accuracy and completeness of magnetic observations which was obtained by the new method, opened up new fields of research which were hardly suspected to exist by those whose observations of the magnetic needle had been conducted in a more primitive manner’ [p. ???]. For Maxwell, the proper work of the future Laboratory would not be merely to carry experiments ‘to another place of decimals.’ The ‘real’ and ‘laborious’ experiments Maxwell had in mind would be aimed at more ambitious understanding based on more complicated approaches that employed theoretical study:

‘There is no more powerful method for introducing knowledge into the mid than that of presenting it in as many different ways as we can … It is therefore natural to expect that the knowledge of physical science obtained by the combined use of mathematical analysis and experimental research will be of a more solid, available, and enduring kind than that possessed by the mere mathematician or the mere experimenter …

‘We shall therefore arrange our lectures according to the classification of the principal natural phenomena, such as heat, electricity, magnetism, and so on.

‘In the laboratory, on the other hand, the place of the different instruments will be determined by a classification according to methods, such as weighing and measuring, observations of time, optical and electrical methods of observation, and so on’ [pp. 12-13 & 16]

“Maxwell’s view of experimental physics and his vision of the future Cavendish Laboratory certainly reached beyond the expectations of the two parties. He believed firmly that experimental physics could flourish in the University only through the successful synthesis of mathematical and experimental sciences. ‘The combined use of mathematical analysis and experimental research’ was not a new slogan: it had been the ideal of scientists since Francis Bacon. What was new in Maxwell’s lecture was his aim to institutionalize this ideal in Cambridge University that had hitherto recognized only mathematical physics …

“Maxwell believed it was only through this new method of inquiry that the Laboratory could breed competent researchers to carry out ‘real’ and ‘laborious’ experiments as the Germs did, and thus realize Maxwell’s ultimate dream:

Our principal work, however, in the Laboratory must be to acquaint ourselves with all kinds of scientific methods, to compare them, and to estimate their value. It will, I think, be a result worthy of our University, and more likely to be accomplished here than in any private laboratory, if, by free and full discussion of the relative value of different scientific procedures, we succeed in forming a school of scientific criticism, and in assisting the development of the doctrine of method’ [p. 16].

“Maxwell’s emphasis on ‘criticism’ and ‘method’ foreshadowed the characteristics of the Laboratory-to-be: it would not be the school of one man.

“In short, Maxwell’s inaugural lecture of 1871 unveiled the three basic guidelines of the future Cavendish Laboratory. First, the new laboratory would be a serious research center as well as a teaching laboratory. Second, a major job of the new laboratory would be precise measurement with theory in mind. Third, the new laboratory would be a ‘school of criticism’ that would embrace ‘all kinds of scientific methods,’ fostered by Maxwell’s laissez-faire policy” (Kim, pp. 10-13).

Following his appointment, Maxwell visited Thomson’s laboratory in Glasgow and Clifton’s Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford, seeking to create a state-of-the-art laboratory for teaching and research in experimental physics. The cost of the building increased to £8450, but the Duke of Devonshire was prepared to cover this cost, in addition to providing the initial complement of scientific instruments. The formal opening of the Laboratory took place on June 16, 1874.

Kim, Leadership and Creativity: A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1871–1919, 2002. Longair, Maxwell’s Enduring Legacy. A Scientific History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 2016.



8vo (140 x 220mm), pp. [5], 6-23, [1], ‘J. Clerk Maxwell’ neatly written above the title, ink stamp of John Henry Michell on final page. Saddle-stitched in original self-wrappers. A very good copy.

Item #4958

Price: $3,500.00

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