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I’m writing a book chapter for a new edited volume on James Clerk Maxwell.  On a recent visit to the archives in Cambridge University Library I came across his original letter of application for the new Chair of Experimental Physics at Cambridge [1] (which is not included in Harman’s Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell) , together with the voting slips of the electors [2].

In their biography of Maxwell, Campbell and Garnett claimed that Maxwell was persuaded to stand, “on the understanding that he might retire at the end of a year, if he wished to do so.”[3]  This may have been an informal understanding that he reached with his supporters, but there is no formal indication of it in his letter of application. It reads:

Glenlair,
Dalbeattie,
23 Feb 1871
The Revd The Vice Chancellor
Sir,
It is my intention to stand as a candidate for the Professorship of Experimental Physics, the election for which is announced for the 8th March.
I am
Your obedient servant
James Clerk Maxwell

He was elected unopposed on 8 March 1871 (we knew that). Theoretically anyone on the university electoral roll (ie. the 300 or so resident members of Senate) could vote . In practice, those who bothered to go and vote for him were:

William Pike, Downing
Henry Sidgwick, Trinity
Mr Trotter, Trinity
T.G.Bonney, St John’s
Sedley Taylor, Trinity
R.C.Jebb, Trinity
A. Cayley, Trinity
James Porter,  Peterhouse
E.A. Swainson, Christs
Joseph Wolstenholme, Christs
R. Kalley Miller, Peterhouse
N M Ferrers,  Gonville & Cauis
William H Thompson, Trinity

[1] Cambridge University Library VCCorr VI 2.2 (Maxwell’s letter of application)
[2] Cambridge University Library O.XIV.39 (the voting slips)
[3] Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (London: Macmillan, 1882) p348

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