Oliver Heaviside F.R.S

(1850 - 1925)

Renowned electrical engineer, physicist and mathematician

A personal sketch by a direct family descendant

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Biography / Bibliography

WHEN I moved to Paignton in 1959 I had no idea that buried near my new home was a famous member of my family, Oliver Heaviside. My mother - she was a Heaviside - would speak of Oliver but until I went to school and learned about a Heaviside Layer around the Earth off which radio signals 'bounced' I knew little of him, except he was deaf and had sandy red hair and piercing eyes which frightened children.

When Oliver Heaviside moved in 1897 from Paignton to Newton Abbot, few people would have known they had an eminent scientist living there. An outstanding physicist and mathematician, in a few years he would explain in a now world-famous prediction why wireless waves were able to travel around the Earth and not be lost in space.

Oliver, then 47 years old, was already well known for his work on the science of long distance telegraphy and telephone systems, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. An 'oddity' rather than an eccentric, he was a bachelor with an impish sense of humour. He spent much time studying and writing scientific papers in complete solitude. As a result he was often not understood by local people. Hampered by deafness, he suffered from gout and was constantly plagued with bouts of jaundice, one of which was to cost him his life. But he was not always unhappy.

He derived much satisfaction from his scientific and mathematical work and spent many happy hours cycling around the Devon lanes on his new 'safety bicycle' - a new concept then in cycling. It had no freewheel and only a spoon brake, which pressed on the front tyre!

One of his favourite destinations was Berry Pomeroy Castle. He also cycled to Little Haldon and to Babbacombe, and to his brother Charles who ran a music shop in Torwood Street, Torquay. The family was musical and Oliver played the Aeolian harp and his ocarina, a small egg-shaped porcelain wind instrument.

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The family at Berry Pomeroy Castle. Oliver, always the odd one out on family occasions, can be seen at the rear wearing a cap and leaning against a pillar at the guard room above the castle entrance. The man with the white beard in the centre is his father Thomas, a wood engraver of note whose engravings were used for illustrating pictures accompanying the serialisation of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers in the Strand Magazine. Second from the right in the front is Oliver's brother Charles whose son, Charles Thomas is probably taking the picture. They were all Unitarians.

In 1901 Marconi first sent radio signals across the Atlantic, though he could not explain why they were not stopped by the curvature of the Earth. A year later, in 1902, Oliver made his famous prediction that wireless waves might be 'caught' by a layer in the atmosphere, which later became the Heaviside Layer. (We now know it as the E layer.) He made the prediction in an article contributed to the tenth edition of the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica.'

In it he suggested that waves travelling around the Earth 'might accommodate themselves to the surface of the sea in the same way as waves follow wires.' Further on he suggested that "there may possibly be a sufficiently conducting ionised 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 on the sea on one side and the upper layer on the other."

He stayed in Newton Abbot until 1909 when he was forced by ill health to move nearer relatives in Torquay. It was not until 1924, one year before his death at Torquay, his prediction was finally proved to be correct. Subsequent work carried out by Heaviside added greatly to our knowledge of the relationship between the sun and the Earth. His work in which he produced theories to try to correlate electromagnetism with gravitation still fits in with modern research into high energy physics.

Before he moved in 1889 from London to Palace Avenue, Paignton to live with his parents, he already had 'apostles' in the world of electronic engineering. His earlier visionary idea to insert loading coils at intervals along long-distance telephone and telegraphy circuits was one of the great milestones in the development of telephony.

He made brilliant and original contributions to mathematics, developing in the process his own operational calculus now successfully applied in different branches of pure mathematics. He invented words in common use today by electrical engineers working with AC circuits - words such as impedance, inductance and attenuation.

A lot of publicity has been given to the later years of his life when he lived like a recluse at Homefield in Lower Warberry Road, Torquay, but most of his work was done in London. South Devon should be proud of its famous resident who now lies buried with his parents in Colley End Road cemetery, Paignton, just quarter of a mile from my former home.

He was a nephew of Charles Wheatstone, of the Wheatstone Bridge fame, known to many pupils learning about electromagnetism at school. He was awarded the first Faraday Medal to be presented, which can now be seen at the London HQ of the Institution of Electrical Engineers.

His main work, three volumes titled 'Electromagnetic Theory' and a fourth volume incomplete and unpublished at the time of his death, has a great deal of humour mixed up with philosophy.

How strange I should have retired to Ridgeway Heights from where I overlook his last home.

Alan Heather (first cousin three times removed).

From left: me, Coun Len Howard and Mrs Howard, Mayor and Mayoress of Torbay at the unveiling in May 1967 of an Institution of Electrical Engineers plaque at Homefield, Lower Warberry Road, Torquay, Oliver's last home.

(Article originally written for the Torbay Amateur Radio Society based at Newton Abbot)

For more information: alan@alanheather.com