Did you know that the person who invented the color photograph was from Scotland? So was the inventor of the color triangle that forms the bases of the RGB color model we use in computing today. So was the man who proved the link between electricity and magnetism, as was the guy who figured out what Saturn's rings were made of, and innovated the model for a modern research laboratory. Not only did each of these developments originate from Scotland, but they came from the curiosity, intelligence and hard work of one man: James Clerk Maxwell.
Maxwell's discoveries and innovations form the foundations of our current understanding of science. Without them we would not have X-rays or radio. In fact, many in the science community consider Maxwell to be as significant a figure as Einstein or Isaac Newton. His discovery of the laws of electrodynamics has been described by leading physicist Richard Feynman as "the most significant event of the 19th century."
Yet most of us have never heard of him.
The BBC has a fascinating interactive timeline detailing the life and work of Maxwell. From his early life as a schoolboy in Edinburgh through his founding and designing of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, a facility that is thought to be the first research and experimentation lab at a higher education institution. (Previously, universities apparently focused on theory, while experiments were conducted in private work spaces.)
So why has Maxwell's name been forgotten in popular history?
Whether it was his death at a young age from stomach cancer, or that many of his discoveries were only later commercialized into technology like radio by figures like Heinrich Hertz and Guglielmo Marconi, is hard to say. It also seems that Maxwell's humility led him to focus on his work, rather than engage in self-promotion.
Still, the BBC's exploration of Maxwell's impressive legacy is a powerful reminder of both how much one individual can shape the course of history, and also just how wide-ranging and multifaceted much of the work of early scientists really was.
I wonder what stories of other great scientists and inventors have been obscured by the passage of time and our own selective, collective memory?
Check out the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation to learn more about his work.