[This essay, which the The James Clerk Maxwell Foundation site has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web, is based on a talk given at the conference Scotland's Mathematical Heritage: Napier to Clerk Maxwell held at Royal Society of Edinburgh on 20/21 July 1995. GPL edited it for The Victorian Web and added lnks. Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Here are two examples of Maxwell's pawky [sly or coy] humour: When he was an undergraduate he had a brush with the Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, John Alexander Frere, who had sent him a note upbraiding him for insufficient attendance at Chapel. The letter which Clerk Maxwell drafted to send back to J.A. Frere was as follows — although it is not clear it was ever sent:
Looking back on the past week I find I have kept only seven chapels. I have no excuse to offer. The reason, however, for the deficiency is this. Unaware that a Saint's Day would occur in the course of the week I parted with my surplice on Monday in order to have it washed. I was thus prevented from appearing in chapel on the evenings of Wednesday and Thursday as otherwise I would have done. I might even after this have completed the requisite number but, unfortunately, reading until a late hour on Friday night I found myself unable to attend chapel on Saturday morning.
I can but hope that more forethought on my part may prevent the recurrence of such accidents.
I have also to acknowledge receipt of a small paper from you relative to the observance of Sunday. I have read it, and will keep it in mind.
Trusting that my past and future regularity may atone for my present negligence. I remain
Maxwell wrote the following poem (only three verses quoted) shortly before the same J. A. Frere left Trinity to go to the parish of Shillington. It is written in the style of Robert Burns' "John Anderson."
John Alexander Frere, John
When we were first acquent
You lectured us as Freshmen
In the holy term of Lent;
But now you're getting bald, John
Your end is drawing near
And I think we'd better say 'Goodbye
John Alexander Frere'
The Lecture Room no more, John
Shall hear thy drowsy tone
No more shall men in Chapel
Bow down before thy throne
But Shillington with meekness
The oracle shall hear
That set St. Mary's all to sleep
John Alexander Frere
Then once before we part, John
Let all be clean forgot
Our scandalous inventions
Thy notelets prized or not
For under all conventions
The small man lived sincere
The kernel of the Senior Dean
John Alexander Frere.
- James Clerk Maxwell: Maker of Waves
- J. C. Maxwell's Heritage: the Ancestral Origins of his Genius
- James Clerk Maxwell: his qualities of mind and personality as judged by his contemporaries
Brown, I. G. The Clerks of Penicuik. Penicuik House Preservation Trust, Edinburgh, 1987.
Last modified 24 March 2006