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Oliver Heaviside

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Oliver Heaviside (1850–1925), physicist and electrical engineer

1850 Born on 18 May at 55 King Street, Camden Town, London, the youngest of four sons of Thomas Heaviside (1813–1896), a wood-engraver from Stockton-on-Tees, and his wife, Rachel Elizabeth (1818–1894), the daughter of John Hook West of Taunton.

Charles Wheatstone had married Rachel's sister in 1847 - through him, Oliver and his brother Arthur West Heaviside (1844–1923) were drawn into work on telegraphy.

Educated at his mother's "dame-school", then at the High Street, St Pancras, and Camden House grammar school, where he came first in natural sciences in 1865.

1867 Went to Newcastle to join his brother Arthur in the telegraph business - working for the Danish Cable Co., one of the companies which later became the Great Northern Telegraph Co.

1868 Oliver took a job as an operator on the Anglo-Danish cable, first at Fredericia in Denmark and later back in Newcastle.

1873 he sent the Philosophical Magazine a mathematical analysis of the sensitivity of the Wheatstone bridge that drew praise from both William Thomson and James Clerk Maxwell.

1874 In order to devote himself fully to scientific work, Heaviside left the cable company.

For the next fifteen years he lived with his parents in London and worked full time on electrical theory.

1874-81 Published a series of highly mathematical papers revising and extending Thomson's theory of signal transmission with particular reference to telegraphic signals. Published regularly in The Electrician, whose editor, C. H. W. Biggs, was his chief supporter.

1884 His greatest advance was to discover that, on Maxwell's theory, energy flows through the electro-magnetic field along paths perpendicular to the lines of both electric and magnetic force. Heaviside revolutionized the way Maxwell's theory was understood and expressed. He produced 4 equations which captured the fundamental electromagnetic relations, now known as the "Maxwell's equations".

1887 Helped his brother Arthur, an engineer in the Post Office telegraph system, to write a paper on the new "bridge system" of telephony. He showed how to eliminate distortion on the line but this conflicted with the published views of W. H. Preece, head of the telegraph engineers in the Post Office. Heaviside suspected Preece had blocked the publication, caused the cancellation of his articles in The Electrician, and other things to his disadvantage - he developed an abiding bitterness towards Preece.

1887 He sent the Philosophical Magazine the first of a series of articles on electromagnetic waves which gained the attention of the Liverpool physicist, Oliver Lodge (1851–1940), whose experiments on lightning conductors led to his detection of electromagnetic waves along wires.

1888 Heinrich Hertz's experiments on electromagnetic waves in air were announced which increased interest in Heaviside's work

1889 Thomson used his presidential address to the Institution of Electrical Engineers to praise Heaviside's transmission theory.

1889 Moved to Devon with his parents, where he lived above his brother Charles's music shop in Paignton

1891 elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. The Electrician began publishing his articles again in 1891

1896 Persuaded to accept a civil-list pension (organised for him by GGeorge Francis Fitzgerald and John Perry)

1893 Proposed improving telephone transmission by loading lines with inductance by inserting coils at suitable intervals along the line. Heaviside never patented the idea which proved very valuable; instead Michael Pupin secured a United States patent in 1900 and gained the financial benefit; AT&T built an extensive network of loaded lines.

1902 In an article in Encyclopaedia Britannica on telegraphy, he mentioned the possible existence of a conducting layer in the upper atmosphere which guided radio waves. After this was demonstrated in the 1920s, it became known as the "Heaviside layer".

His reputation as an eccentric grew.

1925 Died in Torquay


1925 Obituary [1]

OLIVER HEAVISIDE, F.R.S., the first Faraday Medallist of the Institution, was an eccentric genius, such as occur from time to time in the history of science and the arts, one of those who seem to have a native faculty either of understanding recondite matters or of doing things which to ordinary people are inexplicable, and yet who find it difficult to mix with their fellows, and have less than a competent grip on the ordinary affairs of life. Puzzling psychical problems are not unknown. An infant prodigy presents a problem not easy of solution. A child is sometimes found who can play a musical instrument without having gone through the drudgery of learning, or who has an innate faculty for arithmetical calculation. We can hardly tell whence such a faculty arises, nor what may be its result. That Oliver Heaviside was a prodigy of this class there is no evidence to show. Details of his youth are unknown to the public.

He would seem to have been an ordinary telegraph operator when first known, but one who developed a surprising mathematical faculty without apparently adequate cause and to whom the details of recondite electrical theory seemed simple and obvious. He had not the advantages - or, as he might have said, the disadvantages - of a Cambridge training; and his mathematics were not of the Cambridge type. It may be that they were more of the German type; but there is no reason to suppose that he learnt them in Germany, nor is it easy to say where he learnt them.

His treatment of science had idiosyncrasies of its own; and he seemed to know intuitively what most able people have to spend years in learning. The result was that for some time his writings were difficult to read and were for the most part unappreciated by orthodox mathematicians; whilst to many electricians they seemed in the clouds, with no likelihood of practical application to the affairs of earth. He is not to be put on a level with Clerk Maxwell, who grasped the experimental facts discovered by Faraday and threw them into mathematical form so as to deduce from them by regular process their intimate meaning and vital and important consequences. He was rather one who absorbed the views of Clerk Maxwell, apparently without effort, and applied them in his own way with further elaboration and results.

In the "Electrical Papers," which for many years were published in the Electrician and were collected in two volumes under that title, he covered a great part of electrical science after his own manner; and in his subsequently-produced three volumes on "Electromagnetic Theory" he collected those which had a special bearing on telegraphy in its widest sense, and developed them with special attention to the new theory of electric waves.

Everything that concerned the interaction of ether and matter must have had a fascination for him. He absorbed (after his own fashion) the essence of Poynting's theorem about the way in which electric and magnetic fields were interlocked, and how their interaction inevitably resulted in locomotion - whether the free locomotion of something with the speed of light, which we are familiar with as radiation without exactly knowing what it consists of, or the more constrained locomotion of matter under electromagnetic influence, which is equally familiar in dynamos and electric motors. He knew no more than the rest of us what the etheric modifications called an electric field, on the one hand, and a magnetic field, on the other, really consist of; but he recognized an electric charge as a peculiar modification of the ether, and devoted himself to the problem of what happens when an electric charge is made to move, thereby developing or exhibiting magnetic effects.

A great part of the theory of electric waves was elaborated in more orthodox fashion by Hertz; but Heaviside pursued the subject into remarkable detail, and recognized that these waves constituted the foundation for electric telegraphy of all kinds. He drew no distinction of a fundamental kind between radio telegraphy in free space and the other kind which is guided by conductors: to him the processes were fundamentally the same, and only modified by artificial arrangements and special constructions. He thus approached telegraphy from what may be called the "wave" end, emphasizing from the beginning the vital importance of what was known as self-induction; he elaborated the influence of the two great and still unknown etherial constants, and he thus gave the theory of telegraphy in its most general and comprehensive form.

To enter into a little more detail. The achievement which first brought him into effective notice was the fact that he extended and supplemented Lord Kelvin's original theory of cable telegraphy (which so far had been conducted on the lines of Fourier's theory of the conduction of heat), by introducing the factor of inductance or self-induction, which up to that time, so far as it has been attended to at all, was regarded by practical telegraphists as a bugbear or a nuisance to be got rid of or eliminated as far as possible. He showed that Lord Kelvin's diffusion theory was very incomplete, and that by attention to the ignored factor it might be possible to attain much better results. In fact he gave the complete theory of cable and all other telegraphy, showing that in every case it depended on waves travelling through the ether, which were guided but at the same time modified, smoothed out, attenuated and distorted by material substances, especially by the conductors which were used to guide them to their destination. Fortunately, Lord Kelvin - though he never apprehended electric waves to their full extent and was doubtful about many points in Clerk Maxwell's theory - was able to recognize that his diffusion theory was incomplete and that Heaviside had made a great step in advance. He recognized fully that Heaviside's theory of cable signalling was more complete than his own; and his recognition did much to introduce Heaviside to the knowledge of the wider electric world.

Before that time only a few - such as FitzGerald and Lodge and Searle and Perry - had seen any possible useful meaning in Heaviside's rather eccentric lucubrations, Perry having been attracted to them by the ingenuity of some fractional differential operators like //(d/dt) which were known to pure mathematicians like Henrici but which had not been applied to physical problems. But Heaviside's ambition was that his work should be recognized not merely by mathematicians, with whom he probably felt himself on equal terms, but by practical telegraphists; for he saw that his mode of regarding the facts, and his completer theory, must in the long run have a revolutionary effect on telegraphic and especially telephonic transmission. So he was bitterly disappointed when British telegraphic authorities, headed by Sir William Preece, who regarded his notions as absurd, caused his papers and those of his brother A. W. Heaviside - who, still engaged in northern telegraphic enterprise, sought to put them into concrete and practical form - to be rejected by the Society of Telegraph Engineers. For what he regarded as the ridicule thus cast upon his work by practical men he never forgave Sir William Preece, and throughput his subsequent writings there occur sarcastic references to those in authority who were unable to recognize the truth of what specially concerned their art. He even managed to introduce these sarcasms, in a veiled form - so veiled as to seem inoffensive and probably unintelligible to the editor and other readers - into the concluding portion of his article on the "Theory of Telegraphy" in the tenth or supplementary edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica."

That Heaviside's theory has now been applied on an extensive scale both to sea and land telegraphy and telephony - especially perhaps in the United States under the auspices of the Western and the General Electric Companies - we all know. Among the first to take the theory up and seek to make it practical was Silvanus Thompson in this country and, with considerable success, Dr. Pupin in America. The main feature is the purposed introduction of that bugbear of old telegraphists, self-induction, in order to give momentum to the waves and thus counter the deleterious influence of resistance and capacity. Heaviside knew well enough that if the dissipation of energy by metallic resistance could be abolished, transmission would be easy and distortion reduced to zero. That is what constitutes the great advantage of radio or wireless telegraphy: the waves are there travelling in a perfectly transparent medium, without resistance or absorption of energy, nothing but mere attenuation with distance; and accordingly every feature of the wave is preserved, so that they arrive just as they were sent, waves of all lengths travelling with the same speed, and the shape or features of the waves are maintained intact, as good as new, even though the amplitude or energy might be reduced to a millionth or a billionth of what it was at the start. The essence of the problem is that the electric and magnetic energies must be maintained equal, as the essential condition for a true wave. Any absorption of current or magnetic energy, leaving one factor stronger than the other, would begin to reflect part of the wave back upon itself, would cause different harmonics to go at different rates, and the features would accordingly be smoothed out, as a coach spring smoothes out the irregularities of a road. Elasticity and friction were the deleterious elements: momentum is needed to counteract them; and this momentum, which in the ether is of a magnetic character, could be provided in cases where resistance and capacity were inevitable, by the introduction of induction coils at short enough intervals, or by the continuous increase of inductance, as by coating a copper conductor with a sufficiently permeable coat of special quality iron. In that way the lost magnetic energy could be replaced, and the two energies still kept more nearly equal.

The writer has dealt at some length with this matter, which doubtless is now fairly familiar to electrical engineers, because of its practical interest and importance; but the theory of electrical waves, as given especially in Heaviside's third volume, may ultimately turn out to have features of still more absorbing interest. It is too soon as yet to realize the bearing of his writings on the theory of the ether, a theory to which Sir Joseph Larmor, Lord Kelvin and G. F. FitzGerald have in their own way so powerfully contributed, and which has since been extended by Planck and Einstein and Eddington and Jeans, without (in some cases) explicit recognition of what the ultimate bearing of their theories will be. Meanwhile that article in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" above referred to, which is reproduced in Heaviside's third volume of "Electromagnetic Theory," is a wonderful summary of electromagnetic doctrine; a little puzzling in places, as usual, because of his mode of expression, but exhibiting a comprehensive grasp of the main features of the problem, and a clear statement of what is at present known, such as few others would have been able to put in so small a compass. Not only in this country but rather specially on the Continent and in America has Heaviside's work been appreciated, and even his reformed nomenclature often adopted. For instance, Professor H. A. Lorentz in his admirable lectures in 1906 on "The Theory of Electrons" (published in this country in 1909) says concerning Maxwell's equations: "We shall not use these formulae in the rather complicated form in which they can be found in Maxwell's treatise, but in the clearer and more condensed form that has been given them by Heaviside and Hertz." Then he goes on to approve Heaviside's crusade against what he called the eruption of 4TT'S, due to the original statement by Coulomb of the force between two charges, with r2 in the denominator instead of 4?rr2 —which would have been better, since e and m would have then given the total number of lines of force, instead of the lines through unit angle; and 4TT would have been eliminated from a great number of equations if it had been introduced in its simple and natural place. So Lorentz goes on : "In order to simplify matters as much as possible, I shall further introduce units of such a kind that we get rid of the larger part of such factors as 4TT and 1/(4TT), by which the formulae were originally encumbered. As you well know, it was Heaviside who most strongly advocated the banishing of these superfluous factors, and it will be well, I think, to follow his advice." This may seem a small matter, but a practical appreciation by so great a man as Prof. Lorentz could not fail to be gratifying, and is typical of the widespread recognition of Heaviside's work, which, delayed through many impecunious years, did ultimately begin during the later portion of his life. The facts of Oliver Heaviside's life have been recorded elsewhere, and may here be reproduced as this is an obituary notice. The writer's own personal appreciation of him will be found in the Electrician (1925, vol. 94, p. 174), and on page 186 of the same number will be found a portrait, the only one known to exist.

Concerning his work as a young man, Mr. W. Brown writes as follows: "As a junior telegraph clerk I worked with Mr. O. Heaviside in 1868. He was then a young man and was employed by the Danish Cable Co. (the Great Northern Telegraph Co.) as telegraphist. The cable was terminated in, and operated from, the office of the United Kingdom Telegraph Co. - the pioneer of the shilling rate - in Queen-street, Quayside, Newcastle-on-Tyne. Wheatstone apparatus was used, and it was on that circuit, Newcastle-on-Tyne to Jutland, where I made my first acquaintance with that system. Oliver Heaviside was the principal operator at Newcastle—appointed no doubt by the influence of his uncle, Sir Charles Wheatstone. He was usually on day duty. He was a very gentlemanly-looking young man, always well dressed, of slim build, fair hair, and ruddy complexion. I think he was there until the transfer, after which the cable company rented a room adjoining those occupied by the Post Office, wherein the combined plant of the acquired companies was concentrated. The cable telegrams were then passed through a hatch in the doorway separating the premises and the staffs, and from that time I lost sight of Oliver Heaviside. My next recollection of him was when he emerged as a mathematician."

The following biographical facts are taken from, portions of an excellent obituary notice in Nature of February 14th, 1925, by Dr. Alexander Russell: "Heaviside was born in London on May 13, 1850. After leaving school he obtained a post with the Great Northern Telegraph Co. at Newcastle-on-Tyne, which he held for several years. During this period he communicated papers to the English Mechanic, the Telegraphic Journal and the Philosophical Magazine. These papers are of more than average ability and show great promise. For example, in 1873 he showed that quadruplex telegraphy was a possibility. He published many papers, which gradually became more and more technical and more and more difficult to understand, as it became necessary, in order to avoid repetition, to assume that the reader knew some of the writer's previous work. Consequently he had difficulty in getting them published in the ordinary technical journals. He had, moreover, to run the gauntlet of a good deal of unintelligent criticism, and none of his discoveries received that immediate recognition which their merit deserved. Heaviside communicated to the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the Institution of Electrical Engineers) a paper solving the problem of the electrostatic and electromagnetic interference between overhead parallel wires, a problem which has come to the front at the present time. His methods of measuring mutual inductance, published in 1887, are of great value in themselves, and, like most of Heaviside's work, have been most fruitful in suggesting extensions to others. He was the first to solve the problem of the high-frequency resistance and inductance of a concentric main. It would probably have remained neglected for many years had not Kelvin given some of his results in his presidential address to the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1889. From the practical point of view, Heaviside's most important work was laying the foundation of the modern theory of telephonic transmission. His theory of the distortionless circuit showed clearly the lines on which telephony could be developed. Working on these lines some ten years later, Prof. Michael Pupin in the United States developed his loading coils, and long-distance telephony was born. In 1891 Heaviside was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1892 his earlier ' Electrical Papers ' were published in two volumes. The value of his work began then to be realized by electricians. He did perhaps more than any man to show the value of a knowledge of physics and of mathematical theory in the electrical industry. Pupin has said that Heaviside did much ' to introduce the living language of physics in place of the sign language of mathematical analysis.' The first volume of Heaviside's great work on 'Electromagnetic Theory' was published in 1893 and the second in 1899. His original intention was to publish the third volume in 1904 and the concluding volume in 1910, but this he found impossible, and so published the third and concluding volume in 1912.

Heaviside was the first to give the theory of the steady rectilinear motion of an electron through the ether, a theory which has been developed by others - notably by Searle - with important results. He was one of the first to predict the increase of mass of a moving charge when its speed becomes very great. To verify all Heaviside's reasoning, and especially to examine the validity of some of his mathematical methods, will provide work for many mathematicians and physicists. Many theorems given in his article on the ' Theory of the Electric Telegraph' in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica" are constantly quoted by the writers of textbooks. In particular his description of what is now called the 'Heaviside layer,' by means of which Hertzian waves are supposed to be bent round the earth, is familiar to every radio engineer. In the later years of his life Heaviside was one whom every electrical engineer delighted to honour. In 1908 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. When in 1921 the Faraday Medal was founded, it was universally considered most appropriate that Heaviside should be the first Faraday medallist. The president, Mr. J. S. Highfield, went to Torquay and presented it to him in person. He was an honorary Ph.D. of Gottingen, an honorary member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For fifty years Heaviside lived practically a hermit's life in Devon. He was a good correspondent, but very difficult to approach personally. In his later years Dr. and Mrs. Searle, of Cambridge, were practically his only friends. The Government gave him a Civil List pension, and about twenty years ago Mr. Asquith increased it. The Institution of Electrical Engineers took a filial interest in him, and it is gratifying to remember that during the last few years of his life the Institution kept in constant touch with him. In the preface to his 'Electrical Papers' he says that the question 'Will it pay?' never interested him.

He died at Torquay on Tuesday, February 3 (1925), and was buried on Friday, February 6, in the same grave as his father and mother; only relatives, and Mr. R. H. Tree representing the Institution of Electrical Engineers, being present. Thus ended the life of one who has left a record of work which has proved of great value to the world."


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