Gearing up for Lagrangian dynamics

Research paper by Cameron Lazaroff-Puck

Indexed on: 02 Jul '15Published on: 02 Jul '15Published in: Archive for History of Exact Sciences


James Clerk Maxwell’s 1865 paper, “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field,” is usually remembered as replacing the mechanical model that underpins his 1862 publication with abstract mathematics. Up to this point historians have considered Maxwell’s usage of Lagrangian dynamics as the sole important feature that guides Maxwell’s analysis of electromagnetic phenomena in his 1865 publication. This paper offers an account of the often ignored mechanical analogy that Maxwell used to guide him and his readers in the construction of his new electromagnetic equations. The mechanical system consists of a weighted flywheel geared into two independently driven crank wheels in what amounts to a mechanical differential. I will demonstrate how Maxwell made use of the analogy between his flywheel system and electromagnetic induction to ground his study of electromagnetism in clear mechanical conceptions and to structure the derivation of the equations that together are now recognized as Maxwell’s equations for electrodynamics. By reconceiving specific components of his model in electromagnetic terms, while at the same time retaining many of the relations between concepts in the mechanical case, Maxwell gradually assembled increasingly generalized equations for electromotive force. Maxwell thus realized a much sought after balance between physical analogy and abstract mathematics in this, the last of his three seminal papers on electromagnetism.