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Oliver W Heaviside
Oliver W Heaviside.
1850 - 1925.

Oliver W Heaviside was born on May 18, 1850, in Camden Town, London. He was the youngest of 4 children.

His father, Thomas, was a wood engraver and water colour artist. His mother was Rachel Elizabeth West. Scarlet fever left him partially deaf, making his childhood unhappy with relations between himself and other children difficult. He compensated for the deafness with shyness and sarcasm.

Oliver did not attend a neighbouring school, but attended a school for girls run by his mother. Oliver finished his only schooling in 1865, aged 15. He was a top student, ranked 5th out of 500, but he'd failed at geometry. He was more disillusioned with school than with learning because he continued to study after leaving school, in particular he learnt Morse code, studied electricity and studied other languages, in particular Danish and German. He was aiming for a career as a telegrapher and in this he was advised and helped by his uncle, Charles Wheatstone (yes, that Charles Wheatstone).

As a person Oliver lacked many social skills. He was opinionated, and impatient with those less intelligent than himself. However his intelligence could not be questioned, and it was all the more remarkable as a result of the fact that he was largely self taught.

In 1868 Oliver went to Denmark to work as a telegrapher. He progressed quickly in his profession and returned to England in 1871 to take up a post in Newcastle upon Tyne in the office of Great Northern Telegraph Company which dealt with overseas traffic. Oliver became increasingly deaf but he worked on his own researches into electricity. While still working as chief operator in Newcastle he began to publish papers on electricity, the first in 1872. His second paper, in 1873, was of sufficient interest to Maxwell that he mentioned the results in the second edition of his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Maxwell's treatise fascinated Heaviside and he gave up his job as a telegrapher and devoted his time to the study of the work.

In 1880 Oliver researched the skin effect in telegraph transmission lines and he patented, in England, the co-axial Cable. In 1884 he recast Maxwell's mathematical analysis from its original cumbersome form (20 equations in 20 variables) and greatly simplified them to four differential equations in two variables. Today we (still) call these "Maxwell's equations" forgetting that they are, in fact, "Heaviside's equations". Between 1880 and 1887 Oliver developed the operational calculus (involving the D notation for the differential operator, which he is credited with creating), a method of solving differential equations by transforming them into ordinary algebraic equations which caused a great deal of controversy when first introduced. He famously said, "Mathematics is an experimental science, and definitions do not come first, but later on." He was replying to criticism over his use of operators that were not clearly defined. On another occasion he stated somewhat more defensively, "I do not refuse my dinner simply because I do not understand the process of digestion."

In 1887 Oliver proposed that induction coils (inductors) should be added to telephone and telegraph lines to increase their self-induction in and correct the distortion from which they suffered. Due to political reasons this was not done. The importance of Oliver's work remained undiscovered for some time. AT&T later employed one of its own scientists and an external investigator to determine whether Oliver's work wascorrect. In their research they extended on Oliver's work, and AT&T applied for patents covering not only their research, but also the technical method of constructing the coils previously invented by Oliver. AT&T later offered Oliver money in exchange for his rights. He refused the offer, declining to accept any money unless the company were to give him full recognition. At this time Oliver was very poor, making his refusal of the offer even more striking.

In 1902 (after radio waves had been transmitted across the Atlantic by Marconi in 1901) he suggested the existence of a layer in the upper atmosphere responsible for altering the path of certain radio waves and thus making possible long distance transmission of signals. The same conclusion was reached independently by Arthur E. Kennelly and the existence of the ionosphere was confirmed in 1923. It is now known both as the Kennelly-Heaviside layer and as the Heaviside layer. Oliver's predictions, combined with Planck's radiation theory, probably discouraged further attempts to detect radio waves from the Sun and other astronomical objects. For whatever reason, there seems to have been no attempt for 30 years, until Jansky's development of radio astronomy in 1932.

In his later years Oliver's behavior became quite eccentric. Though he had been an active cyclist in his youth, his health seriously declined when he was in his 60s. During this time Oliver would sign letters with the initials "W.O.R.M." after his name though the letters did not stand for anything. Oliver also, reportedly, started painting his fingernails pink and had granite blocks moved into his house for furniture.

Oliver W Heaviside died at Torquay in Devon, on February 3, 1925 at the age of 74, in total poverty and as a recluse. He is buried in Paignton cemetery. Most of the recognition for his work was gained posthumously.

Oliver Heaviside coined, among others, the following terms:

Honours bestowed on Oliver Heaviside:

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