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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012




Electricity appeared to its early investigators as an extraordinary phenomenon. To draw from bodies the “subtle fire,” as it was sometimes called, to bring an object into a highly electrified state, to produce a steady flow of current, called for skillful contrivance. Except for the spectacle of lightning, the ordinary manifestations of nature, from the freezing of water to the growth of a tree, seemed to have no relation to the curious behavior of electrified objects. We know now that electrical forces largely determine the physical and chemical properties of matter over the whole range from atom to living cell. For this understanding we have to thank the scientists of the nineteenth century, Ampère, Faraday, Maxwell, and many others, who discovered the nature of electromagnetism, as well as the physicists and chemists of the twentieth century who unraveled the atomic structure of matter.

Classical electromagnetism deals with electric charges and currents and their interactions as if all the quantities involved could be measured independently, with unlimited precision. Here classical means simply “nonquantum.” The quantum law with its constant h is ignored in the classical theory of electromagnetism, just as it is in ordinary mechanics. Indeed, the classical theory was brought very nearly to its present state of completion before Planck'sdiscovery. It has survived remarkably well. Neither the revolution of quantum physics nor the development of special relativity dimmed the luster of the electro-magnetic field equations Maxwell wrote down 100 years ago.

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