By Anne Locker

Early life and career

Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) was a telegraphist, self-taught mathematician and reclusive figure. He never attended meetings – he nearly turned down a nomination for Fellowship of the Royal Society over the requirement to come to London in person – and was frequently at odds with the engineering establishment, mathematicians and (in later years) the Gas Board. But his work informed our modern understanding of electromagnetism and telecommunications. He reformulated Maxwell’s equations, pioneered the use of operational calculus and made breakthroughs in coaxial and distortionless signalling. He also has a layer of the ionosphere named after him.

He did all this by challenging engineering and mathematical orthodoxy, stating that mathematics should be an ‘experimental science’. He was a voracious and critical reader, which can be seen in the extensive marginal notes he left in his personal library. His detailed theoretical work was documented in his published papers, a series of notebooks, held in the IET Archives, and his correspondence with engineers and mathematicians of the day.

Heaviside left school at 16 and spent two years at home, reading extensively in engineering and mathematics.  At the age of 18 he got a job as a telegraph clerk for the Anglo Danish Telegraph Company, thanks in part to his uncle-in-law, Sir Charles Wheatstone. Heaviside used his time as a telegraphist to conduct experiments and discovered new ways to identify faults. He retired in 1874, partly due to increasing deafness.

Oliver Heaviside with his family. Oliver is at the rear of the photograph, wearing a cap.

Heaviside and the Maxwellians

In 1873, the physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell published A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Heaviside came across this in the library of the Newcastle Philosophical Society, and was immediately hooked. The book inspired him to acquire the advanced skills he needed to understand Maxwell’s theories. Not only did he master Maxwell’s theories, he rewrote Maxwell’s original equations, simplifying them into their present form.

Although Heaviside had fastened onto the ‘hot topic’ of the day, it took the support of others to bring his work into the public arena.  His papers were published in The Electrician and other journals, but they were difficult to understand. Luckily there were other ‘Maxwellians’ to help, including Heinrich Hertz, G F Fitzgerald and Oliver Lodge.  As recognised members of the academic community, their exposition of these new ideas was more acceptable and helped the recognition of Heaviside’s work.  Lodge stated that ‘the mathematical genius of Mr Heaviside is … striking’ and Fitzgerald referred to Heaviside’s ‘extraordinarily acute and brilliant mind’.

Sir Oliver Lodge, c 1906 (SPT P 1/022/09)

Heaviside applied Maxwell’s theories to the practical problem of sending an electric signal down a wire, central to the growing telecommunications industry.  Over long distances, and especially underwater, the speed and clarity of the signal was compromised due to the effects of induction.  Heaviside described the transmission of the signal in Maxwellian terms and set out the theory of distortionless signal transmission, with the startling conclusion that induction could aid transmission if the wire were ‘loaded’ beforehand.  Sir William Preece, then Engineer in Chief at the Post Office, opposed the idea, beginning a life-long animosity between the two men.  Heaviside’s ideas were never accepted and in 1900 Professor Michael Idvorsky Pupin published a paper on the subject and patented his system.  Pupin was later bought out by American Bell for over $400 000.  Heaviside received nothing.

Journey to the Heaviside layer

The next breakthrough for telecommunications was the development of wireless telegraphy. In 1901, Marconi succeeded in sending a wireless signal over the Atlantic – a feat that should have been impossible due to the curvature of the earth. The following year, Heaviside wrote an article for the Encyclopedia Britannica on telegraphy. He mentioned this demonstration and suggested an explanation: “There may possibly be a sufficiently conducting layer in the upper air. If so, the waves will, so to speak, catch on to it more or less. Then the guidance will be by the sea on one side and the upper layer on the other.”

The existence of this ‘conducting layer’ was demonstrated by Edward Appleton in 1924, and it is now known as the ‘Heaviside-Kennelly layer’ (Arthur Kennelly also suggested its existence in the same year), or the ‘E region’ of the ionosphere.

Awards and recognition

Heaviside was elected an Honorary Member of the IEE in 1908, despite being expelled previously for not paying his membership fees. In 1922, the Institution awarded Heaviside the first Faraday medal.  Heaviside flatly refused to come to London to be presented with the medal and it took months of negotiation and three visits to his home in Devon before he would accept it.

Heaviside was not an easy man to get to know and it was virtually impossible to stay on good terms with him.  He was touchy, opinionated, and impatient with those he saw as less intelligent than himself. But towards the end of his life the importance of his work was recognised. He was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Society, an honorary doctorate from the University of Gottingen, the IEE’s Faraday Medal and a small pension.

Heaviside’s notebooks, correspondence and personal library were donated to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and can now be consulted in the IET Archives (refs: UK0108 SC MSS 005; Heaviside Library).