Oliver Heaviside was born on 18 May, 1850 in London’s Camden Town and died on 3 February, 1925 at Torquay in Devon, and is buried in Paignton cemetery. Most of his recognition was gained posthumously.
Oliver Heaviside was a self-taught English electrical engineer, mathematician and physicist who adapted complex numbers to the study of electrical circuits, invented mathematical techniques to the solution of differential equations (later found to be equivalent to Laplace transforms), reformulated Maxwell’s field equations in terms of electric and magnetic forces and energy flux, and independently co-formulated vector analysis. Although at odds with the scientific establishment for most of his life, Oliver Heaviside changed the face of mathematics and science for years to come.
Oliver Heaviside was short and red-headed, and suffered from scarlet fever during his youth. The illness had a lasting impact on him, and Oliver Heaviside was left partially deaf. Oliver Heaviside was a good scholar (placed 5th out of 500 students in 1865). Oliver Heaviside left school at the age of 16 and to study at home in the subjects of telegraphy and electromagnetism. Oliver Heaviside’s uncle Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) was the original co-inventor of the telegraph back in the mid 1830s. Sir Charles Wheatstone was married to Oliver Heaviside’s mother’s sister in London. During the early decades of Oliver Heaviside’s life his uncle was an internationally celebrated expert in telegraphy and electromagnetism.
Between the age of 16 and 18 he studied at home. Then—in the only paid employment he ever had—he took a job as a telegraph operator with the Great Northern Telegraph Company, working in Denmark and then in Newcastle upon Tyne, and was soon made a chief operator. Oliver Heaviside’s uncle’s connections probably helped him get this job. Oliver Heaviside continued to study and at the age of 21 and 22 he published some research related to electric circuits and telegraphy. In 1874 at the age of 24 Oliver Heaviside quit his job to study full-time on his own at his parents’ home in London.
Subsequently, Oliver Heaviside did not have a regular job. Oliver Heaviside remained single throughout his life.
In 1873 Oliver Heaviside had encountered James Clerk Maxwell’s just published, and today famous, 2-volume Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. In his old age Oliver Heaviside recalled:
“I remember my first look at the great treatise of Maxwell’s when I was a young man… I saw that it was great, greater and greatest, with prodigious possibilities in its power… I was determined to master the book and set to work. I was very ignorant. I had no knowledge of mathematical analysis (having learned only school algebra and trigonometry which I had largely forgotten) and thus my work was laid out for me. It took me several years before I could understand as much as I possibly could. Then I set Maxwell aside and followed my own course. And I progressed much more quickly… It will be understood that I preach the gospel according to my interpretation of Maxwell.”
Doing full-time research from home, he helped develop transmission line theory (also known as the “telegrapher’s equations”). Oliver Heaviside showed mathematically that uniformly distributed inductance in a telegraph line would diminish both attenuation and distortion, and that, if the inductance were great enough and the insulation resistance not too high, the circuit would be distortionless while currents of all frequencies would be equally attenuated. Oliver Heaviside’s equations helped further the implementation of the telegraph.
In 1880, Oliver Heaviside researched the skin effect in telegraph transmission lines. In 1884 he recast Maxwell’s mathematical analysis from its original cumbersome form (they had already been recast as quaternions) to its modern vector terminology, thereby reducing the original 20 equations in 20 unknowns down to the 4 differential equations in 2 unknowns we now know as Maxwell’s equations. The 4 re-formulated Maxwell’s equations describe the nature of static and moving electric charges and magnetic dipoles, and the relationship between the 2, namely electromagnetic induction. In 1880 he patented, in England, the co-axial Cable.
Between 1880 and 1887, Oliver Heaviside 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, owing to the lack of rigor in his derivation of it. Oliver Heaviside famously said, “Mathematics is an experimental science, and definitions do not come first, but later on.” Oliver Heaviside 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 Heaviside 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. For political reasons, this was not done. The importance of Oliver Heaviside’s work remained undiscovered for some time after publication in The Electrician, and so its rights lay in the public domain. AT&T later employed one of its own scientists, George A. Campbell, and an external investigator Michael I. Pupin to determine whether Oliver Heaviside’s work was incomplete or incorrect in any way. Campbell and Pupin extended Oliver Heaviside’s work, and AT&T filed for patents covering not only their research, but also the technical method of constructing the coils previously invented by Oliver Heaviside. AT&T later offered Oliver Heaviside money in exchange for his rights; it is possible that the Bell engineers’ respect for Oliver Heaviside influenced this offer. However, Oliver Heaviside refused the offer, declining to accept any money unless the company were to give him full recognition. Oliver Heaviside was chronically poor, making his refusal of the offer even more striking.
In 2 papers of 1888 and 1889, Oliver Heaviside calculated the deformations of electric and magnetic fields surrounding a moving charge, as well as the effects of it entering a denser medium. This included a prediction of what is now known as Cherenkov radiation, and inspired Fitzgerald to suggest what now is known as the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction.
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Oliver Heaviside worked on the concept of electromagnetic mass. Oliver Heaviside treated this as “real” as material mass, capable of producing the same effects. Wilhelm Wien later verified Oliver Heaviside’s expression (for low velocities).
In 1891 the British Royal Society recognized Oliver Heaviside’s contributions to the mathematical description of electromagnetic phenomena by naming him a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1905 Oliver Heaviside was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Göttingen.
In 1902, Oliver Heaviside proposed the existence of the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer of the ionosphere which bears his name. Oliver Heaviside’s proposal included means by which radio signals are transmitted around the earth’s curvature. The existence of the ionosphere was confirmed in 1923. The predictions by Oliver Heaviside, 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 seem to have been no attempts for 30 years, until Jansky’s development of radio astronomy in 1932.
In later years his behavior became quite eccentric. Though he had been an active cyclist in his youth, his health seriously declined in his 6th decade. During this time Oliver Heaviside would sign letters with the initials “W.O.R.M.” after his name though the letters did not stand for anything. Oliver Heaviside also reportedly started painting his fingernails pink and had granite blocks moved into his house for furniture.
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