WIBs on Saturdays

This statue of Maxwell (1831 to 1879) is dominated by the Melville Monument at the centre of St Andrew Square east George Street in Edinburgh.

It depresses me that Henry Dundas Melville, 1st Viscount  (1742 to 1811) even if he was known as the Uncrowned King of Scotland, should warrant 140 feet and 1500 tons of monument when Maxwell, who is arguably the most influential physicist and mathematician, has a smallish statue dwarfed by the privileged class! Dundas was a lawyer and politician, first Secretary of State for War and both the first and last person to be impeached in the UK.

Maxwell, on the other hand, was a theoretical physicist and mathematician. An immensely important figure – his synthesis of electromagnetic theory into his four famous equations makes him arguably the greatest influential 19th century scientist for 20th century physics. We benefit more than can be told from computer to telecommunications from his understanding of the electromagnetic field. Einstein thought he was pretty good too, considering his work continued on from Maxwell’s. Apparently Einstein had a photo of Maxwell on his desk!!

Ah! a monumental juxtaposition that highlights what impresses humanity. Power and privilege over intelligence and creativity.

I get to see Maxwell each Saturday when I take the bus to Edinburgh. I do this because I am a supporter of the Edinburgh Women in Black and we stand in Princes Street opposite the magnificent Balmoral Hotel for an hour holding anti war placards.

A cold January Afternoon

Back to Maxwell (I will talk about WIB in a later post). I contemplate the circular object in his left hand. Well, of course!! Maxwell is holding his colour top that he used for investigation of colour vision and additive colour.

From his wikipedia article:

Maxwell is credited as being the father of additive colour. He had the photographer Thomas Sutton photograph a tartan ribbon on black-and-white film three times, first with a red, then green, then blue colour filter over the lens. The three black-and-white images were developed and then projected onto a screen with three different projectors, each equipped with the corresponding red, green, or blue colour filter used to take its image. When brought into alignment, the three images (a black-and-red image, a black-and-green image and a black-and-blue image) formed a full colour image, thus demonstrating the principles of additive colour.

First permanent colour photo – a Tartan ribbon

This first colour photograph of that tartan ribbon was composed by Maxwell in 1861 when he was thirty years old.

I visited Maxwell’s house at 14 India Street in Edinburgh and signed the visitor’s book when I first arrived in Scotland in 2008. It gave me a delicious shiver of moment and history.

I wonder how many people scurrying past his statue even know who he was. And do we remember to marvel at his ability, the amazing wellspring of his mind? I doubt it. What an immense sadness that brings to me.


8 comments on “WIBs on Saturdays

  1. Michelle B says:

    I did not know the role Maxwell played in understanding color! Very informative and interesting post.

    Melville’s monument may be more massive, but artistically, Maxwell’s is way ahead and much more accessible (is that Melville’s figure on top of his very tall tower?) Perhaps many more people just waltz on by Melville’s while spending more time viewing Maxwell’s? I know I would. Sometimes, the powers-to-be are their worse enemies.

  2. Veronique says:

    If you click the link you can see the reception the unveiling of Maxwell’s statue received on 26 November 2008 – took a long time to honour him didn’t it??

    Now I don’t even see one person gaze up at the statue. So sad. I do see people stare up at the Melville monument and climb all the way to the top inside! I would guess that they don’t know who Dundas was anyway.

    History is so important and so discarded by the populace. I am glad you learned something from my miniscule article. At least there are the links to follow to round it out!!!!!

  3. Frances says:

    Very interesting – and I like the sound of WIB –

  4. Dod says:

    When I last saw the visitors book in Maxwell’s house in India Street it struck me that he seemed to be better known worldwide than here in his own country. Scientists – including well-known ones – and others from all over had signed the book and I too wondered what percentage of Scots would know of his world-changing achievements, a disappointingly small number I fear.

  5. Rosie says:

    Keeping eyes open in Edinburgh is a rich experience, with monuments and plaques at every turn, on the ground and in the air. As someone who crosses the water to stand with Women in Black as many Saturdays as possible, I have learned and discovered much about how people look at their surroundings, read placards, think and even challenge what they read. Thanks, V, for your refreshing thoughts and the reminder not to pass by our history – past and in the making…

    • Veronique says:

      Thanks Rosie. Moving around Edinburgh is one of my treats. There is so much history and people of moment that I am sure one could spend a lifetime and still not tease out all its secrets.
      I hope to find many more treasures to share on this blog.

  6. […] Banking History, Business, Fred Goodwin, Royal Bank of Scotland, Scotland Leading on from my first WIBs article that mentioned Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, I decided to take a look at Dundas House on the […]

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