On October 27th, 1864 a Scottish laird and polymath delivered a scientific paper to th e venerable Royal Society in London. In keeping with tradition, it was read to the society’s distinguished members at a meeting convened a month later. The contents of this paper would forever change our understanding of the world, unifying electricity and magnetism. It would, more than any other idea before or after, also unify the world, unshackling communication from earth-bound wires and suffusing the skies with thoughts, hopes, desires, and TikTok videos ricocheting at the speed of light itself. But on the day of its reading, and for nearly twenty years after, its impact was virtually unnoticed. The math was considered complex and difficult, the equations an impenetrable thicket of all known notation. For an era steeped in the Newtonian mathematics and metaphors of “one-fluid” and “two-fluid” theories, and of storing currents in Leyden jars, it was simply too far ahead of its time.
It was only two decades later when electromagnetic waves were detected for the very first time, finally proving his predictions, that James Clerk Maxwell’s equations would win universal acclaim and acceptance.