James Clerk Maxwell: Correspondence and Papers

Scope and Content

I. Correspondence between Maxwell and Peter Guthrie Tait

(a) Tait (and William Thomson) to Maxwell, 1865-1879.

(b) Maxwell to Tait, 1859-1879.

II. Correspondence between Maxwell and writers other than Tait, 1849-1879

III. Miscellaneous letters

(a) Modern copies of correspondence dated 1849-1879.

(b) Letters regarding Maxwelliana, 1881-1951.

(c) Letters to John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, etc., 1880-1887.

(d) Various items before or after Maxwell's lifetime, c.1781-1897.

IV. Final drafts of books

1. Maxwell, Theory of Heat (London, 1871).

2. Maxwell, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1873).

3. Maxwell, ed., The Electrical Researches of the Honourable Henry Cavendish (Cambridge, 1879).

4. Maxwell, Elementary Treatise on Electricity (Oxford, 1881) (posthumous - William Garnett, ed.).

V. Notes and Papers

(a) Astronomy

(b) Colour and Optics

(c) Electricity and Magnetism

(d) Geometry

(e) Mechanics and Dynamics

(f) Molecular Physics and Gases

(g) Properties of matter

(h) General Physics

(i) Miscellaneous

(j) Laboratory Administration

(k) Examinations

(l) Literary

(m) Undergraduate Lecture Notebooks

(n) Experimental Notebooks

Administrative / Biographical History

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was born in Edinburgh. In 1841 he became a pupil at the Edinburgh Academy and in 1847 entered the University of Edinburgh, attending lectures on mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, and mental philosophy. In October 1850 he became an undergraduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, transferring to Trinity College in December of that year. He graduated in 1854 and in 1855 was elected a fellow of Trinity. During the next year he was appointed professor of natural philosophy in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in 1858 married Katherine Mary Dewar, the daughter of the principal. In 1860 he became professor of natural philosophy in King's College, London. He resigned the post in 1865, returning to private life at Glenlair, but in 1871 was induced to come forward as a candidate for the new chair of experimental physics at Cambridge, to which he was elected unopposed. The work of the professorship occupied Maxwell for the next five years. He died on 5 November 1879, following an illness.

Maxwell carried out research into the effects of combinations of colours by means of the rapid rotation of discs coloured differently in different parts. This became known as his colour-top. His conclusions on primary colours and colour-blindness led to him being awarded the Rumford medal of the Royal Society in 1860. Maxwell also examined the question of the distribution of velocity in a gas and was involved in research and experiments concerning electricity and magnetism, on which he wrote a number of important papers.


On receipt at the Library the collection was mainly in a series of envelopes and in some confusion. The main body of papers (section V) has been grouped under subject headings and arranged so far as possible chronologically under each heading.

Access Information

Open for consultation by holders of a Reader's Ticket valid for the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Acquisition Information

Transferred from the Cavendish Laboratory, 1964.


Description compiled by Robert Steiner, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. The biographical history was drawn from Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XIII (London, 1909), pp.118-121.

Other Finding Aids

A catalogue is available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

Custodial History

The papers were bequeathed to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, along with Maxwell's scientific books, by his widow, who died in 1886. A few additions were made to the collection subsequently from various sources, before its transfer to Cambridge University Library.

Related Material

Cambridge University Library holds other papers relating to Maxwell, MSS.Add.8375 and 8385.


W.D. Niven, ed., The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1890); P.M. Harman, ed., The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Vol. 1, 1846-62 (Cambridge, 1990), nos. 1-196, and Vol.II, 1862-73 (Cambridge, 1995), nos. 197-490.