This source (I believe it's in Ukrainian) claims that Maxwell came very close to creating the relativity theory, however, it was the fact that he was adhering to the traditional scientific frame of thinking of his time that prevented him from doing that. Einstein, on the contrary, was free from any kind of traditions and, therefore, he was the one who became the author of the relativity theory even though he drew a lot from Maxwell's groundwork.

The author of the source mentions that only in passing without elaborating much.

Can anyone here provide some details on that? What exactly did Maxwell not do that Einstein did?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ He did not. No more than Newton "fell short" of Maxwell or Einstein, even the first Michelson's experiment happened 2 years after Maxwell's death. If anything, the description might apply to Lorentz more than to Maxwell, and even that with the "benefit" of hindsight. The rest is too broad for SE, you are better off just reading Wikipedia's History of special relativity and Relativity priority dispute. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 4:23
  • $\begingroup$ You should specify what exactly you are talking about (I suppose, it is special relativity). Einstein did a lot of other things beside that, including the thing for which he is most famous (general relativity). $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 4:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your source is in Russian, not Ukrainian. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 8, 2019 at 4:28
  • $\begingroup$ I think Maxwell "fell short" because he died aged 48, Gentura. That doesn't warrant an answer though. By the way, I'm a big fan of both Maxwell and Einstein. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 11, 2019 at 20:43

1 Answer 1


Einstein, on the contrary, was free of any kind of traditions ...

This I think really says a great deal more about the author, his preconceptions, the Einstein hagiographical industry and the fetishisation of a free-floating and heavily romanticised libertarianism in Western culture than about Einstein himself. And I mean romanticism in the technical sense of the word, that absurd Nietzschean picture of man so proud, so free, so overcoming his mortal nature that he stands by himself in a kind of exponentiated freedom without duties, without responsibilities, without obligations - to others, I mean - but only to himself. The historical record shows that this is just plain wrong.

Einstein was heavily involved with the physical tradition, not only did he read Maxwell closely, he read Hertz, Helmholtz, Kirchhoff, Lorentz and Mach closely. It’s because he was steeped in the physical tradition that he could make the leaps that he did.

It’s also important to recognise that his ideas did not come from nowhere, there were others in pursuit of the same goals, broadly speaking. It’s usually said, for example, that whilst any number of others could have made the correct conceptual leap to Special Relativity - Poincare, for example; that only Einstein could have made the conceptual leap to GR.

This turns out to be wrong. For example, the English mathematician Clifford made the right guess over fifty years before Einstein having learnt of Riemanns theory of geometry, the same theory that Einstein relied upon with GR. Moreover, the Scandinavian physicist, Nordstrom came out with a geometric theory of gravity that Einstein was aware of and also had the right terms in it - aka the stress-energy tensor and the Riemann curvature - (but he had reduced the terms to scalars rather than kept them as tensors) - and Einstein congratulated him upon his great discovery; even more, he discovered the possibility - which Einstein did not, although Einstein immediately recognised its significance - that a fifth dimension (physically, an additional degree of freedom) helped unify EM & gravity. This was rediscovered twenty years later but didn’t really become part of mainstream physics until the 70s when QFT was reformulated in geometric language. For example, the physicist Yang said that he hadn’t understood the deep geometrical reasoning behind the generalisation of Maxwell’s EM he had worked out with Mills, aka Yang-Mills, until it was explained to him by Chern.

What Maxwell did, was to come up with Maxwell’s equations, and this was enough because deep within them lay a symmetry of motion that was different from that of Galileo and Newton - this had to be explained.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.