The author's final text

MAXWELL, James Clerk. A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, edited by W.D. Niven.

Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1881.


8vo, 2 volumes. Original olive cloth, boards with blind-ruled borders, spines lettered and decorated in gilt; pp. I: xxi, [1], 464; II: xxiii, [1], 456, 36 (publisher's catalogue dated March 1887), 21 plates, those at the end of the volumes preceded by a lithographic leaf "Plates. Vol. I [... II]", diagrams in the text; light rubbing to extremities, extensive manuscript pencil notes on endpapers with occasional marginal notes, very good.

Second, revised edition. Scarce, especially in original cloth. This is one of the most influential books of nineteenth century physics. "Maxwell once remarked that the aim of his Treatise was not to expound the final view of his electromagnetic theory, which he had developed in a series of five major papers between 1855 and 1868; rather, it was to educate himself by presenting a view of the stage he had reached in his thinking. Accordingly, the work is loosely organized on historical and experimental, rather than systematically deductive lines. It extended Maxwell's ideas beyond the scope of his earlier work in many directions, producing a highly fecund (if somewhat confusing) demonstration of the special importance of electricity to physics as a whole. He began the investigation of moving frames of reference, which in Einstein's hands were to revolutionize physics; gave proofs of the existence of electromagnetic waves that paved the way for Hertz's discovery of radio waves; worked out connections between the electrical and optical qualities of bodies that would lead to modern solid-state physics; and applied Tait's quaternion formulae to the field equations, out of which Heaviside and Gibbs would develop vector analysis" (Norman).

The Treatise first appeared in 1873, and Maxwell then revised the first nine chapters, which were with the printers, in preparation for a second edition at the time of his death in 1879. As Niven explains in his preface: "Those who are familiar with the first edition will see from a comparison with the present how extensive were the changes intended by Professor Maxwell both in substance and in treatment of the subject [...] The first nine chapters were in some cases entirely rewritten, much new matter being added and the former contents rearranged and simplified" (p. xv). The remainder of the text was lightly revised by Niven, with assistance from his brother Charles Niven and J.J. Thomson, who edited the third edition of 1893.

For the first edition, cf. Norman 1466-1467; Grolier, Science 72, cf. PMM 355.