David Nightingale - Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925)

Nov 30, 2012

   Oliver Heaviside received not much more than a middle school education, leaving school at 16 -- yet became one of the most famous mathematical physicists of his time [ref.1.].

   In a short biography by Appleyard [ref.2, p.218-9] there are a few drawings of horses by the 11 yr old Oliver, perhaps because his own father was an artist. as well as a wood engraver. The family lived in an impoverished part of Camden Town, London. Nevertheless, his mother's sister was the wife of Charles Wheatstone, famous for the Wheatstone Bridge circuit used in telegraphy.

   Perhaps due to Wheatstone he obtained a job as a telegrapher in Newcastle-on-Tyne, also doing a brief stint in Denmark, but at 24 he gave up employment and moved in with his parents, to begin experimenting with microphones, relays and so on.

   As a young man he looked a little like D.H.Lawrence, with piercing eyes and a serious look. He was slightly deaf (his 'scarlet fever' ears, he said) and not very sociable. In his parents' house he took up a strenuous intellectual regimen – retiring to his room around 10pm, closing the door, lighting his oil lamp, allowing the air to become hot and stifling [p.215] and would then work until the early hours. He studied also during the day, in seclusion, and his parents would leave food outside his door. For exercise he enjoyed walking and bicycling.

   “Sit down and work,” he advised a friend [p.229].“All that books can do is show the way.” Thus he taught himself mathematics. By the time he was 30 he was publishing papers on vectors, on the propagation of electrical disturbances, [p.232, top],and on electromagnetic induction. Not bad for a boy whose schooling had stopped at trigonometry. In his 30s he had calculated that the severe distortions on long-distance cables could be eliminated by the addition of coils, or inductances – and there are photographs of such in the book by Sir George Lee.

   He scorned masqueraders of science, whom he called “scienticulists” [p.217, ref.2]

   When he was 52, Heaviside predicted a layer of ionized gas roughly 50 miles above the earth. Many people have heard of the Heaviside layer (now called the Kennelly-Appleton-Heaviside layer) loosely known as the ionosphere. Radio waves, which travel in straight lines like light, can get reflected and thus reach around the earth.

   Heaviside wrote three volumes on Electromagnetic Theory between 1893 and 1912, and I even found these books, in 1971 editions, in the regular stacks at SUNY New Paltz.

   Aside from rescuing Maxwell's abstruse quaternion equations and putting them into the differential form commonly used today – no small feat – Heaviside also calculated, among many things, that cables, such as those under the Atlantic which suffered from horrendous distortions, could be made distortion-free by the addition of coils. These inductances were to be put in, he suggested, every mile or so, but the idea was not taken up. It was Professor Pupin at Columbia University who wrote [p.488,Vol.1, ref.3]: “Mr Oliver Heaviside, to whose profound researches most of the mathematical theory of wave propagation is due, was the originator and advocate of wave conductors of high inductance... [but] his counsel did not prevail in his own country.” Sadly however, it was Pupin who obtained a patent which he then sold to AT&T for $500,000 – while Heaviside himself worked on in seclusion and poverty.

   Although Heaviside had been given a small Civil Pension in his 40s, Honors did come to him later in life. In 1921, when he was 72, he became the (p.29) first recipient of the Faraday Medal.The president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers himself traveled down to Devon to present it, writing “...Heaviside lived in a [pleasant] house in Torquay, decaying from long neglect. I found him waiting in the weed-covered drive in an old dressing-gown, armed with a broom, trying to sweep up fallen leaves... He was in all ways competent and still preserved his power of impish criticism... I tried to improve his menage and especially his food supply, which was inadequate... he was [quite] content to live as an old-world hermit. He criticised the wasteful expense of the leather-covered vellum document which accompanies the Medal, but was consoled by the Medal being of bronze and not gold.”[p.30, ref.1]

   In his final years Heaviside's taxes were in arrears and he couldn't pay his bills, especially to what he referred to as the 'Gas Barbarians'[p.31, ref.1]. He spent the cold months in his bed under piles of blankets.

   Friends ultimately took him to a nursing home in Torquay, where ,after a few months, he died. He was 75.


1.  “Oliver Heaviside, and the Mathematical Theory of Communications”, by Sir George Lee; Longmans, Green & Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1947.

2.  “Pioneers of Electrical Communication”, by Rollo Appleyard;originally published by MacMillan and Co., Limited, NY, 1930. [Chapter 8]

3.  “Electromagnetic Theory”, Vols. 1,2,3, by Oliver Heaviside; 1893-1912 (re-printed 1971, Chelsea Publishing Company, USA.)