A Source Book in Physics

Author: James Clerk Maxwell  | Date: 1865

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A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field

James Clerk Maxwell

(1) The most obvious mechanical phenomenon in electrical and magnetical experiments is the mutual action by which bodies in certain states set each other in motion while still at a sensible distance from each other. The first step, therefore, in reducing these phenomena into scientific form, is to ascertain the magnitude and direction of the force acting between the bodies, and when it is found that this force depends in a certain way upon the relative position of the bodies and on their electric or magnetic condition, it seems at first sight natural to explain the facts by assuming the existence of something either at rest or in motion in each body, constituting its electric or magnetic state, and capable of acting at a distance according to mathematical laws.

In this way mathematical theories of statical electricity, of magnetism, of the mechanical action between conductors carrying currents, and of the induction of currents have been formed. In these theories the force acting between the two bodies is treated with reference only to the condition of the bodies and their relative position, and without any express consideration of the surrounding medium.

These theories assume, more or less explicitly, the existence of substances the particles of which have the property of acting on one another at a distance by attraction or repulsion. The most complete development of a theory of this kind is that of M. W. Weber, who has made the same theory include electrostatic and electromagnetic phenomena.

In doing so, however, he has found it necessary to assume that the force between two electric particles depends on their relative velocity, as well as on their distance.

This theory, as developed by MM. W. Weber and C. Neumann, is fully is exceedingly ingenious, an wonderfully comprehensive in its application to the phenomena of statical electricity, electromagnetic attractions, induction of currents and diamagnetic phenomena; and it comes to us with the more authority, as it has served to guide the speculations of one who has made so great an advance in the practical part of electric science, both by introducing a consistent system of units in electrical measurement, and by actually determining electrical quantities with an accuracy hitherto unknown.

(2) The mechanical difficulties, however, which are involved in the assumption of particles acting at a distance with forces which depend on their velocities are such as to prevent me from considering this theory as an ultimate one, though it may have been, and may yet be useful in leading to the coordination of phenomena.

I have therefore preferred to seek an explanation of the facts in another direction, by supposing them to be produced by actions which go on in the surrounding medium as well as in the excited bodies, and endeavouring to explain the action between distant bodies without assuming the existence of forces capable of acting directly at sensible distances.

(3) The theory I propose may therefore be called a theory of the Electromagnetic Field, because it has to do with the space in the neighbourhood of the electric or magnetic bodies, and it may be called a Dynamical Theory, because it assumes that in that space there is matter in motion, by which the observed electromagnetic phenomena are produced.

(4) The electromagnetic field is that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric or magnetic conditions.

It may be filled with any kind of matter, or we may endeavour to render it empty of all gross matter, as in the case of Geissler’s tubes and other so-called vacua.

There is always, however, enough of matter left to receive and transmit the undulations of light and heat, and it is because the transmission of these radiations is not greatly altered when transparent bodies of measurable density are substituted for the so-called vacuum, that we are obliged to admit that the undulations are those of an aethereal substance, and not of the gross matter, the presence of which merely modifies in some way the motion of the aether.

We have therefore some reason to believe, from the phenomena of light and heat, that there is an aethereal medium filling space and permeating bodies, capable of being set in motion and of transmitting that motion from one part to another, and of communicating that motion to gross matter so as to heat it and affect it in various ways.

(5) Now the energy communicated to the body in heating it must have formerly existed in the moving medium, for the undulations had left the source of heat some time before they reached the body, and during that time the energy must have been hail in the form of motion of the medium and half in the form of elastic resilience. From these considerations Professor W. Thomson has argued, that the medium must have a density capable of comparison with that of gross matter, and has even assigned an inferior limit to that density.

(6) We may therefore receive, as a datum derived from a branch of science independent of that with which we have to deal. the existence of a pervading medium, of small but real density, capable of being set in motion, and of transmitting motion from one part to another with great, but not infinite, velocity.

Hence the parts of this medium must be so connected that the motion of one part depends in some way on the motion of the rest; and at the same time these connexions must be capable of a certain kind of elastic yielding, since the communication of motion is not instantaneous, but occupies time.

Tile medium is therefore capable of receiving and storing up two kinds of energy, namely, the "actual" energy depending on the motion of its parts, and "potential" energy, consisting of the work which the medium will do in recovering from displacement in virtue of its elasticity.

The propagation of undulations consists in the continual transformation of one of these forms of energy into the other alternately, and at any instant the amount of energy in the whole medium is equally divided, so that half is energy of motion, and half is elastic resilience.

(7) A medium having such a constitution may be capable of other kinds of motion and displacement than those which produce the phenomena of light and heat, and some of these may be of such a kind that they may be evidenced to our senses by the phenomena they produce.

(8) Now we know that the luminiferous medium is in certain cases acted on by magnetism; for Faraday discovered that when a plane polarized ray traverses a transparent diamagnetic medium in the direction of the lines of magnetic force produced by magnets or currents in the neighbourhood, the plane of polarization is caused to rotate.

This rotation is always in the direction in which positive electricity must be carried round the diamagnetic body in order to produce the actual magnetization of the field.

M. Verdet has since discovered that if a paramagnetic body, such as solution of perchloride of iron in ether, be substituted for the diamagnetic body, the rotation is in the opposite direction.

Now Professor W. Thomson has pointed out that no distribution of forces acting between the parts of a medium whose only motion is that of the luminous vibrations, is sufficient to account for the phenomena, but that we must admit the existence of a motion in the medium depending on the magnetization, in addition to the vibratory motion which constitutes light.

It is true that the rotation by magnetism of the plane of polarization has been observed only in media of considerable density; but the properties of the magnetic field are not so much altered by the substitution of one medium for another, or for a vacuum, as to allow us to suppose that the dense medium does anything more than merely modify the motion of the ether. We have therefore warrantable grounds for inquiring whether there may not be a motion of the ethereal medium going on wherever magnetic effects are observed, and we have some reason to suppose that this motion is one of rotation, having the direction of the magnetic force as its axis.

(9) We may now consider another phenomenon observed in the electromagnetic field. When a body is moved across the lines of magnetic force it experiences what is called an electromotive force; the two extremities of the body tend to become oppositely electrified, and an electric current tends to How through the body. When the electromotive force is sufficiently powerful, and is made to act on certain compound bodies, it decomposes them, and causes one of their components to pass towards one extremity of the body, and the other in the opposite direction.

Here we have evidence of a force causing an electric current in spite of resistance; electrifying the extremities of a body in opposite ways, a condition which is sustained only by the action of the electromotive force, and which, as soon as that force is removed, tends, with an equal and opposite force, to produce a counter current through the body and to restore the original electrical state of the body; and finally, if strong enough, tearing to pieces chemical compounds and carrying their components in opposite directions, while their natural tendency is to combine, and to combine with a force which can generate an electromotive force in the reverse direction.

This, then, is a force acting on a body caused by its motion through the electromagnetic field, or by changes occurring in that field itself; and the effect of the force is either to produce a current and heat the body, or to decompose the body, or, when it can do neither, to put the body in a state of electric polarization,—a state of constraint in which opposite extremities are oppositely electrified, and from which the body tends to relieve itself as soon as the disturbing force is removed.

(10) According to the theory which I propose to explain, this "electromotive force" is the force called into play during the communication of motion from one part of the medium to another, and it is by means of this force that the motion of one part causes motion in another part. When electromotive force acts on a conducting circuit, it produces a current, which, as it meets with resistance, occasions a continual transformation of electrical energy into heat, which is incapable of being restored again to the form of electrical energy by any reversal of the process.

(11) But when electromotive force acts on a dielectric it produces a state of polarization of its parts similar in distribution to the polarity of the parts of a mass of iron under the influence of a magnet, and like the magnetic polarization, capable of being described as a state in which every particle has its opposite poles in opposite conditions.

In a dielectric under the action of electromotive force, we may conceive that the electricity in each molecule is so displaced that one side is rendered positively and the other negatively electrical, but that the electricity remains entirely connected with the molecule, and does not pass from one molecule to another. The effect of this action on the whole dielectric mass is to produce a general displacement of electricity in a certain direction. This displacement does not amount to a current, because when it has attained to a certain value it remains constant, but it is the commencement of a current, and its variations constitute currents in the positive or the negative direction according as the displacement is increasing or decreasing. In the interior of the dielectric there is no indication of electrification, because the electrification of the surface of any molecule is neutralized by the opposite electrification of the surface of the molecules in contact with it; but at the bounding surface of the dielectric, where the electrification is not neutralized, we find the phenomena which indicate positive or negative electrification.

The relation between the electromotive force and the amount of electric displacement it produces depends on the nature of the dielectric, the same electromotive force producing generally a greater electric displacement in solid dielectrics, such as glass or sulphur, than in air.

(12) Here, then, we perceive another effect of electromotive force, namely, electric displacement, which according to our theory is a kind of elastic yielding to the action of the force, similar to that which takes place in structures and machines owing to the want of perfect rigidity of the connexions.

(13) The practical investigation of the inductive capacity of dielectrics is rendered difficult on account of two disturbing phenomena. The first is the conductivity of the dielectric, which, though in many cases exceedingly small, is not altogether insensible. The second is the phenomenon called electric absorption, in virtue of which, when the dielectric is exposed to electromotive force, the electric displacement gradually increases, and when the electromotive force is removed, the dielectric does not instantly return to its primitive state, but only discharges a portion of its electrification, and when left to itself gradually acquires electrification on its surface, as the interior gradually becomes depolarized Almost all solid dielectrics exhibit this phenomenon, which gives rise to the residual charge in the Leyden jar, and to several phenomena of electric cables described by Mr. F. Jenkin.

(14) We have here two other kinds of yielding besides the yielding of the perfect dielectric, which we have compared to a perfectly elastic body. The yielding due to conductivity may be compared to that of a viscous fluid (that is to say, a fluid having great internal friction), or a soft solid on which the smallest force produces a permanent alteration of figure increasing with the time during which the force acts. The yielding due to electric absorption may be compared to that of a cellular elastic body containing a thick fluid in its cavities. Such a body, when subjected to pressure, is compressed by degrees on account of the gradual yielding of the thick fluid; and when the pressure is removed it does not at once recover its figure, because the elasticity of the substance of the body has gradually to overcome the tenacity of the fluid before it can regain complete equilibrium.

Several solid bodies in which no such structure as we have supposed can be found, seem to possess a mechanical property of this kind; and it seems probable that the same substances, if dielectrics, may possess the analogous electrical property, and if magnetic, may have corresponding properties relating to the acquisition, retention, and loss of magnetic polarity.

(15) It appears therefore that certain phenomena in electricity and magnetism lead to the same conclusion as those of optics, namely, that there is aa aethereal medium pervading all bodies, and modified only in degree by their presence; that the parts of this medium are capable of being set in motion by electric currents and magnets; that this motion is communicated from one part of the medium to another by forces arising from the connexions of those parts; that under the action of these forces there is a certain yielding depending on the elasticity of these connexions; and that therefore energy in two different forms may exist in the medium, the one form being the actual energy of motion of its parts, and the other being the potential energy stored up in the connexions, in virtue of their elasticity.

(16) Thus, then, we are led to the conception of a complicated mechanism capable of a vast variety of motion, but at the same time so connected that the motion of one part depends, according to definite relations, on the motion of other parts, these motions being communicated by forces arising from the relative displacement of the connected parts, in virtue of their elasticity. Such a mechanism must be subject to the general laws of Dynamics, and we ought to be able to work out all the consequences of its motion, provided we know the form of the relation between the motions of the parts.

(17) We know that when an electric current is established in a conducting circuit, the neighbouring part of the field is characterized by certain magnetic properties, and that if two circuits are in the field, the magnetic properties of the field due to the two currents are combined. Thus each part of the field is in connexion with both currents, and the two currents are put in connexion with each other in virtue of their connexion with the magnetization of the field. The first result of this connexion that I propose to examine, is the induction of one current by another, and by the motion of conductors in the field.

The second result, which is deduced from this, is the mechanical action between conductors carrying currents. The phenomenon of the induction of currents has been deduced from their mechanical action by Helmholtz and Thomson. I have followed the reverse order, and deduced the mechanical action from the laws of induction. I have then described experimental methods of determining the quantities L, M, N, on which these phenomena depend.

(18) I then apply the phenomena of induction and attraction of currents to the exploration of the electromagnetic field, and the laying down systems of lines of magnetic force which indicate its magnetic properties. By exploring the same field with a magnet, I shew the distribution of its equipotential magnetic surfaces, cutting the lines of force at right angles.

In order to bring these results within the power of symbolical calculation, I then express them in the form of the General Equations of the Electromagnetic Field. These equations express— (A) The relation between electric displacement, true conduction, and the total current, compounded of both. (B) The relation between the lines of magnetic force and the inductive coefficients of a circuit, as already deduced from the laws of induction. (C) The relation between the strength of a current and its magnetic effects, according to the electromagnetic system of measurement. (D) The value of the electromotive force in a body, as arising from the motion of the body in the field, the alteration of the field itself, and the variation of electric potential from one part of the field to another. (E) The relation between electric displacement, and the electromotive force which produces it. (F) The relation between an electric current, and the electromotive force which produces it. (G) The relation between the amount of free electricity at any point, and the electric displacements in the neighbourhood. (H) The relation between the increase or diminution of free electricity and the electric currents in the neighbourhood. There are twenty of these equations in all, involving twenty variable quantities.

(19) I then express in terms of these quantities the intrinsic energy of the Electromagnetic Field as depending partly on its magnetic and partly on its electric polarization at every point.

From this I determine the mechanical force acting, 1st, on a moveable conductor carrying an electric current; 2ndly, on a magnetic pole; 3rdly, on an electrified body.

The last result, namely, the mechanical force acting on an electrified body, gives rise to an independent method of electrical measurement founded on its electrostatic effects. The relation between the units employed in the two methods is shewn to depend on what I have called the "electric elasticity" of the medium, and to be a velocity, which has been experimentally determined by MM. Weber and Kohlrausch.

I then shew how to calculate the electrostatic capacity of a condenser, and the specific inductive capacity of a dielectric.

The case of a condenser composed of parallel layers of substances of different electric resistances and inductive capacities is next examined, and it is shewn that the phenomenon called electric absorption will generally occur, that is, the condenser, when suddenly discharged, will after a short time shew signs of a residual charge.

(20) The general equations are next applied to the case of a magnetic disturbance propagated through a non-conducting field, and it is shewn that the only disturbances which can be so propagated are those which are transverse to the direction of propagation, and that the velocity of propagation is the velocity v, found from experiments such as those of Weber, which expresses the number of electrostatic units of electricity which are contained in one electromagnetic unit.

This velocity is so nearly that of light, that it seems we have strong reason to conclude that light itself (including radiant heat, and other radiations if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electromagnetic field according to electromagnetic laws. If so, the agreement between the elasticity of the medium as calculated from the rapid alternations of luminous vibrations, and as found by the slow processes of electrical experiments, shews how perfect and regular the elastic properties of the medium must be when not encumbered with any matter denser than air. If the same character of the elasticity is retained in dense transparent bodies, it appears that the square of the index of refraction is equal to the product of the specific dielectric capacity and the specific magnetic capacity. Conducting media are shewn to absorb such radiations rapidly, and therefore to be generally opaque.

The conception of the propagation of transverse magnetic disturbances to the exclusion of normal ones is distinctly set forth by Professor Faraday in his "Thoughts on Ray Vibrations." The electromagnetic theory of light, as proposed by him, is the same in substance as that which I have begun to develope in this paper, except that in 1846 there were no data to calculate the velocity of propagation.

(21) The general equations are then applied to the calculation of the coefficients of mutual induction of two circular currents and the coefficient of self-induction in a coil. The want of uniformity of the current in the different parts of the section of a wire at the commencement of the current is investigated, I believe for the first time, and the consequent correction of the coefficient of self-induction is found.

These results are applied to the calculation of the self-induction of the coil used in the experiments of the Committee of the British Association on Standards of Electric Resistance, and the value compared with that deduced from the experiments.

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Chicago: James Clerk Maxwell, A Source Book in Physics in A Source Book in Physics, ed. William Francis Magie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 528–538. Original Sources, accessed August 12, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BP4ZPMKZ5NF2KBG.

MLA: Maxwell, James Clerk. A Source Book in Physics, in A Source Book in Physics, edited by William Francis Magie, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 528–538. Original Sources. 12 Aug. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BP4ZPMKZ5NF2KBG.

Harvard: Maxwell, JC, A Source Book in Physics. cited in 1963, A Source Book in Physics, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp.528–538. Original Sources, retrieved 12 August 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BP4ZPMKZ5NF2KBG.