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Physics Colloquium: Prof. Bruce J. Hunt
Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 04:00pm

Prof. Bruce J. Hunt, Department of History, UT-Austin

"To Rule the Waves: Victorian Cable Telegraphy and the Making of 'Maxwell's Equations'"

Abstract: James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field is rightly regarded as one of the greatest achievements of 19th century science, and “Maxwell’s equations” have long held an honored place in textbooks and on T-shirts. How and why did the theory come to be cast into this now canonical form of four vector equations, and how and why was this done not by Maxwell himself in his great Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, but by Oliver Heaviside in the pages of a London electrical trade journal? The answer, I will argue, lies in the demands and opportunities presented by the global network of submarine telegraph cables, one of the characteristic technologies of the British Empire in the second half of the 19th century. Heaviside, himself a former telegrapher, was steeped in the problems facing cable telegraphy, particularly the distortion or “retardation” signals suffered in transmission. It was Heaviside’s search for effective tools with which to tackle such problems that led him to take up Maxwell’s theory in the 1870s and to recast it into the four “Maxwell’s equations” in 1885.

Location: Zoom (Meeting ID: 965 866 4374)