The Long Road to Maxwell’s Equations

Giving Electromagnetism Its Due

When James Rautio was building up his company, Sonnet Software, in the mid-1990s, he needed some noncopyrighted imagery to use in his marketing materials. A friend lent him an 1882 copy of a biography of physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Rautio scanned a portrait in the book, and that image of Maxwell became the fledgling company’s emblem.

Rautio picked the picture of Maxwell largely because it was in the public domain. But it was also a fitting choice: His software, which is used to design radio-frequency circuitry, relies on the four equations, known as Maxwell’s equations, that describe the fundamental rules of electromagnetism.

Rautio says he knew little about Maxwell himself at the time. But he read up on Maxwell’s life and was soon hooked. He began visiting relevant sites, including one in Dublin, shown above. It is the grave of George Francis FitzGerald, one of the physicists who helped put Maxwell’s theory on solid footing.

Over the past decade, Rautio has become a champion of Maxwell and his legacy. He’s given 116 talks to date on Maxwell’s life and work at conferences, workshops, and IEEE chapter meetings. In 2007, after a visit to Maxwell’s ancestral home, Glenlair, in southwest Scotland, he convinced the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society to contribute matching funds to help restore the building, which was heavily damaged in a 1929 fire.

Rautio says he’s come to realize that Maxwell’s theory is not just about “equations on a piece of paper. It’s a four-dimensional story.” That “fourth dimension” is a reference to the several dozen years it took for Maxwell’s ideas to be developed and confirmed. He describes that time in “The Long Road to Maxwell’s Equations,” in this issue.

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