Maxwell's role in turning the concept of model into the methodology of modeling

Giora Hon, Bernard R. Goldstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This is a contribution towards a history and philosophy of modeling in its early stages in electromagnetism. In 1873, James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) hinted at the methodology of modeling at the end of his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. We focus on Maxwell's impact on physicists who immediately followed him, specifically Oliver Lodge (1851–1940) and George Francis FitzGerald (1851–1901). We begin with the role that the scientific concept of model played in the late nineteenth century, as assessed by Ludwig Boltzmann (1844–1906). We then discuss the role of hypothesis as a methodology, the appeal to (dynamical) illustration, and the way Maxwell applied model and working model in his studies of electromagnetism. We show that for Maxwell these key terms were kept distinct, but Lodge did not maintain these distinctions and, in this regard, FitzGerald followed Lodge. Notwithstanding Lodge's influence, Fitzgerald modified Maxwell's theory based on the mechanical model he designed, thereby implicitly taking the first step towards modeling. This methodology consists in drawing consequences from the (mechanical) model to the (electrodynamic) theory and modifying the latter in light of the functioning of the former. At the core of our argument is the thesis that it was a methodological novelty to move from the concept of model to the methodology of modeling. The introduction of modeling as a new methodology into physics in the late nineteenth century was a major event which deserves proper recognition.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)321-333
Number of pages13
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science
StatePublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd


  • Boltzmann
  • Electromagnetism
  • FitzGerald
  • Lodge
  • Maxwell
  • Mechanical illustration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Maxwell's role in turning the concept of model into the methodology of modeling'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this