James Clerk Maxwell-Katherine Maxwell-1869

James Clerk Maxwell

(1831-Edinburgh, Scotland; 1879-Cambridge, England)

Mathematician and theoretical physicist of Scottish nationality.


Electrolysis of Water

James Clerk Maxwell.  Any number of solutions for the purpose of electrolysis might have interested Maxwell in his scientific observations. However, Maxwell’s observations, as recorded in the following excerpt from his lecture found in “Molecules” (circa 1873), demonstrate what awesomely grasped his concentration: the unseen tumult of the separation of oxygen and water on a molecular level in the process of the electrolysis of acidulated water.


“We have no time to do more than mention that most wonderful molecular motion which is called electrolysis. Here is an electric current passing through acidulated water, and causing oxygen to appear at one electrode and hydrogen at the other. In the space between, the water is perfectly calm, and yet two opposite currents of oxygen and of hydrogen must be passing through it. The physical theory of this process has been studied by Clausius, who has given reasons for asserting that in ordinary water the molecules are not only moving, but every now and then striking each other with such violence that the oxygen and hydrogen of the molecules part company, and dance about through the crowd, seeking partners which have become dissociated in the same way. In ordinary water these exchanges produce, on the whole, no observable effect, but no sooner does the electromotive force begin to act than it exerts its guiding influence on the unattached molecules, and bends the course of each toward its proper electrode, till the moment when, meeting with an unappropriated molecule of the opposite kind, it enters again into a more or less permanent union with it till it is again dissociated by another shock. Electrolysis, therefore, is a kind of diffusion assisted by electromotive force.”


Even today, the words of Maxwell’s lectures stun us with the rare and structured eloquence of his articulation. We have inherited his axiomatic integrity, his enduring legacy, and his model of scientific practice. The success of our current technologies rely on such an inheritance. Is it any wonder that Einstein kept on his study wall a photograph of his predecessor?


As documented, herein, with respect to the electrolysis of acidulated water, technological applications from the twenty-first century rely upon nineteenth century science.


For information on recent developments and applications in this scientific field click here.