13th June 1831

Inventor of colour photography is born

James Clerk Maxwell was a renowned physicist and mathematician whose discoveries and inventions have had a profound and long-lasting effect on society.

Most notably, he was able to demonstrate that magnetic fields travel through space at the speed of light which, naturally, suggested the existence of radio waves: a technology that we still use to this day in wireless communication of all kinds, including mobile phones and Wi-Fi networks.

In a poll of 100 leading physicists, conducted by Physics World magazine in November 1999, Maxwell was named the third greatest physicist of all time, after Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

Colour photography

The first photograph taken using the three colour method that Maxwell had suggested was of a tartan ribbon. It was taken in 1861 – six years after Maxwell’s suggestion – by Thomas Sutton. Sutton was the inventor of a panoramic camera, which used a glass sphere filled with water to project a 120-degree scene onto a curved plate, and of the single lens reflex (SLR) camera.

The tartan ribbon photograph is an interesting – and important – curiosity, but is fairly primitive when compared to modern photographs, as it is dominated by blue and green tones, and lacks reds. Maxwell’s suggested process involved taking three monochrome photos, using a blue, green and red filter in turn to only record those parts of the colour spectrum. The individual negatives were then combined to produce the colour result. The lack of red tones in the finished image is due not to a fault in the process, but the relative inability of the red medium to detect tones within that part of the colour spectrum.

Although Sutton’s photograph wasn’t the first colour image ever captured, it was the only one produced using an image that enabled permanent fixing of the result. The earlier images faded when exposed to natural light.

Early life and education

James Clerk Maxwell was born in India Street, Edinburgh. He attended the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge, at the latter of which he started his experiments with colour and colour combination, which would likely have had an influence on his later work with photography. He later ‘proved’ that Saturn’s rings were not solid but made of billions of tiny orbiting fragments. More than 100 years later, his hypothesis was proven correct by direct observation from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft.

He took teaching posts at three universities – Marischal College in Aberdeen, King’s College in London, and Cambridge – but died in November 1879, aged just 48, of abdominal cancer. He was buried at Parton Parish Church, close to his home at Glenlair.



Other events that occured in June

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