Maxwell's contrived analogy: An early version of the methodology of modeling

Giora Hon, Bernard R. Goldstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The term "analogy" stands for a variety of methodological practices all related in one way or another to the idea of proportionality. We claim that in his first substantial contribution to electromagnetism James Clerk Maxwell developed a methodology of analogy which was completely new at the time or, to borrow John North's expression, Maxwell's methodology was a "newly contrived analogue". In his initial response to Michael Faraday's experimental researches in electromagnetism, Maxwell did not seek an analogy with some physical system in a domain different from electromagnetism as advocated by William Thomson; rather, he constructed an entirely artificial one to suit his needs. Following North, we claim that the modification which Maxwell introduced to the methodology of analogy has not been properly appreciated. In view of our examination of the evidence, we argue that Maxwell gave a new meaning to analogy; in fact, it comes close to modeling in current usage.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)236-257
Number of pages22
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2012


  • Action at a distance
  • Electromagnetism
  • George Stokes
  • Lines of force
  • Michael Faraday
  • William Thomson

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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