James Clerk Maxwell: Letters to George Chrystal and other papers

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The collection is comprised of papers relating to James Clerk Maxwell, George Chrystal, Prof. William Garnett (Maxwell's Demonstrator at the Cavendish Laboratory), and John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh. A typed note states '5.10.67: Presented by Professor Mott, these were found among the possessions of his late Father, who worked in the Cavendish Laboratory for two years in the early days'. The miscellaneous items, nos. 22-26, are in Maxwell's hand.

1-21. Letters from Maxwell to Chrystal and Garnett, 1874-1879. Maxwell was writing from Glenair and the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, with the exception of one letter from 11 Scroop Terrace, Cambridge.

22. Unaddressed testimonial on behalf of Chrystal, 1879 (enclosed with no. 21).

23. Page of bridge calculations, with a sketch.

24. Page of a dynamometer sketch, with data.

25. Reference to Peter's Recherches sur la parallaxe des toiles fixes.

26. Instructions for an experiment entitled 'Unit of Resistance by Wippe and Differential Galvanometer'.

27. Continuation of no. 26, with calculations.

28-33. Letters from Lord Raleigh to Chrystal, 1880-1885.

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.

Conditions Governing Access

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

Acquisition Information

Received from the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, 1980.


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

Other Finding Aids

Additional Manuscripts Catalogue.

Related Material

Cambridge University Library holds other correspondence and papers of Maxwell, MSS.Add.7655 and 8385.