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James Clerk Maxwell’s work in Optics

James Clerk Maxwell’s work in Optics

James Clerk Maxwell FRS FRSE (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish theoretical physicist. His most prominent achievement was formulating a set of equations that united previously unrelated observations, experiments, and equations of electricity, magnetism, and optics into a consistent theory. His theory of classical electromagnetism demonstrates that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field. Maxwell's achievements concerning electromagnetism have been called the "second great unification in physics", after the first one realised by Isaac Newton. In this article I have tried to write briefly about some of his great work in the field of Optics.

Maxwell contributed to the field of optics and the study of colour vision, creating the foundation for practical colour photography. From 1855 to 1872, he published at intervals a series of valuable investigations concerning the perception of colour, colour-blindness and colour theory, for the earlier of which he was awarded the Rumford Medal. The instruments which he devised for these investigations were simple and convenient to use. For example, Maxwell's discs were used to compare a variable mixture of three primary colours with a sample colour by observing the spinning "colour top".





The first permanent colour photograph, taken by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861 & Young Maxwell with his wheel (disc)


In the course of his 1855 paper on the perception of colour, Maxwell proposed that if three black-and-white photographs of a scene were taken through red, green and blue filters, and transparent prints of the images were projected onto a screen using three projectors equipped with similar filters, when superimposed on the screen the result would be perceived by the human eye as a complete reproduction of all the colours in the scene.

During an 1861 Royal Institution lecture on colour theory, Maxwell presented the world's first demonstration of colour photography by this principle of three-colour analysis and synthesis. Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single-lens reflex camera, did the actual picture-taking. He photographed a tartan ribbon three times, through red, green and blue filters, as well as a fourth exposure through a yellow filter, but according to Maxwell's account this was not used in the demonstration. Because Sutton's photographic plates were in fact insensitive to red and barely sensitive to green, the results of this pioneering experiment were far from perfect. It was remarked in the published account of the lecture that "if the red and green images had been as fully photographed as the blue," it "would have been a truly-coloured image of the riband. By finding photographic materials more sensitive to the less refrangible rays, the representation of the colours of objects might be greatly improved." Researchers in 1961 concluded that the seemingly impossible partial success of the red-filtered exposure was due to ultraviolet light. Some red dyes strongly reflect it, the red filter used does not entirely block it, and Sutton's plates were sensitive to it.

Maxwell's purpose was not to present a method of colour photography, but to illustrate the basis of human colour perception and to show that the correct additive primaries are not red, yellow and blue, as was then taught, but red, green and blue. The three photographic plates now reside in a small museum at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, the house where Maxwell was born.



Written by Abinash Barthakur.

Undergraduate student.

Department of Physics.

Cotton College, Guwahati, India






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