The Victorian Cable Empire and the Making of ‘Maxwell's Equations’

Bruce J. Hunt

American Institute of Physics

Wednesday, November 15, 2023 3:00 pm EST

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James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field is rightly regarded as one of the great achievements of 19th century science, and “Maxwell’s equations” have long held an honored place in physics textbooks and on physicists’ T-shirts. How and why did the theory come to be cast into this now canonical form of four vector equations, and how and why was this done not by Maxwell himself in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, but by Oliver Heaviside in the pages of a London electrical trade journal? The answer, I will argue, lies in the demands and opportunities presented by the network of submarine telegraph cables that spread around the globe in the second half of the 19th century, forming, as was often said, the “nervous system” of the British Empire. Heaviside, himself a former telegrapher, was steeped in the problems facing cable telegraphy, particularly the distortion signals suffered in transmission. It was Heaviside’s search for effective tools with which to tackle such problems that led him to take up Maxwell’s theory in the 1870s and to recast it into the four “Maxwell’s equations” in 1885.
Speaker Bio
Bruce J. Hunt is a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in the history of science and technology. He holds bachelor’s degrees in history and physics from the University of Washington and a PhD in the history of science from Johns Hopkins University, and is a fellow of the American Physical Society. He is the author of Imperial Science: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in the Victorian British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2021), Pursuing Power and Light: Technology and Physics from James Watt to Albert Einstein (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and The Maxwellians (Cornell University Press, 1991/2005), as well as many articles on the history of 19th century physics and technology.