Oliver Heaviside

A summary of the life of Oliver W Heaviside, the self taught man who discovered much about improving telegraph cables, invented coax cable and postulated the presence of the ionosphere.

The name of Oliver Heaviside may not be heard as much these days but he made many major contribution to radio communications and wireless technology in his day.

In fact the ionospheric layers were often called the Heaviside layers in honour of the fact using mathematical methods he postulated the existence of an ionised layer above the Earth from which radio waves could be reflected or refracted back to ground.

However he made many more valuable discoveries using his mathematical methods, explaining many of the problems that affected signal transmission in his day. He even invented coaxial cable back in 1880, and this is at the heart of modern radio communications, RF and wireless technology.

As a person Oliver Heaviside 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.

Oliver Heaviside

Early years

Oliver Heaviside was born on 18th May 1850 in Camden Town, Middlesex which is now within Greater London. He was the youngest of four sons born to Thomas Heaviside and his wife Rachel (nee West).

Interestingly Rachel's sister married Sir Charles Wheatstone, another pioneer within the electrical and telegraph industry.

Thomas Heaviside was a wood engraver and Rachel was a governess who taught the Spottiswoode family - one of her pupils was William Spottiswoode (later Sir William) who became President of the Royal Society.

At the time of Oliver Heaviside's birth, Camden was a notoriously crime ridden area. Also, physically Oliver Heaviside as short and he was also a red-head. Life was not easy in Camden Town and the young Oliver had a difficult time. This was made worse by the fact that he suffered from scarlet fever and this left him partially deaf - an impairment that had a major impact on his life. Also the family were poor and this had a lasting influence on the young Oliver.

Heaviside was intelligent. He did not attend a neighbouring school, but rather attended a school for girls run by his mother. Although this protected him from the influence of the local boys it did not develop his social skills and coupled with his hearing impairment he was unable to make friends easily.

Later Oliver was taught by Mr F R Cheshire at the Camden House School. Despite being a good student, Oliver Heaviside decided to leave school at the age of sixteen.

After leaving school Oliver Heaviside did not stop his studies. He undertook further studies with his uncle, Sir Charles Wheatstone and learned German and Danish as well as learning some things about mathematics, electricity and the telegraph.

First job

With his understanding of telegraphy and Danish, Heaviside managed to secure a job as a telegraph operator in Denmark. Here not only did he devote himself to his job as a telegraph operator, but he also undertook some investigations of his own.

He noticed that the speed at which traffic could be sent varied according to the direction. This had been thought by many to result from some unknown properties of the undersea cable.

However Heaviside looked at the problem from a different perspective and he deduced mathematically that the difference must have resulted from a different resistance at either end of the cable.

In simple terms one end had a lower resistance and was able to put more current into the capacitance of the cable, and as a result data could be sent more swiftly.

Heaviside left Denmark, moving to the Great Northern Telegraph Company in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in 1868 and here he started an analysis of electricity.

In 1874 he left the company to continue his researches on his own at his parent's house in Paignton, Devon where he could focus better on the topic in hand. His deafness had been causing him significant problems and he felt he could work better on his own. Although effectively a self-taught mathematician with a very good understanding of calculus Oliver Heaviside studied Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism which he found particularly interesting.

Heaviside makes discoveries

Using mathematics, Heaviside applied Maxwell's theories to telegraph lines, and in particular to ones which travelled long distances such as underwater cables where the speed and shape of the signals were impaired by the effects of the inductance in the cable. Contrary to the belief of many, Heaviside correctly showed that the level of distortion could be reduced by adding induction coils to 'load' the cable.

In this way Heaviside managed to solve one of the greatest problems affecting telegraph systems of the time. In addition to this the same solution was applied to early telephone systems which were unable to send voice signals over any distance because the low and high frequencies traveled at different speeds rendering the audio garbled over any distance. By adding small inductors along the length of the cable, the problem could be solved.

In 1880 Heaviside came up with the concept of coaxial cable for use as a transmission line. He patented the invention and design that same year.

Heaviside gained little recognition for his work. In the first instance his papers were very difficult to read. Secondly, his manner was very difficult, and he was often sharp and his comments lacked any form of tact or diplomacy. As a result he created many enemies in the scientific community and as a result his work was often suppressed or ridiculed. It took 20 years and a rediscovery of the inductance idea by Silvanus Thompson. Only at this point were long distance telephone calls able to become a reality.

Latter years

As he grew older Heaviside continued working on electromagnetic theory and its applications. One of his major legacies of this time was that he developed the concept of "operators" in the calculus equations and this reduced complication of the mathematics. It actually results in a technique known as the "Laplace Transform."

Also during his latter years, Heaviside introduced the concept of reactance. He further postulated the concept of an ionised layer above the Earth that reflected or refracted radio signals. Although this is now known as the ionosphere, the regions in the ionosphere were for many years known as the Heaviside layers or the Heaviside-Kennelly Layers because Kennelly also proposed the idea of the layers.

As on old man, Oliver Heaviside spent his final years relatively comfortably but poor, although his mental powers diminished. "I have become as stupid as an owl," he once bluntly stated.

In early 1925, Heaviside was climbing a ladder at his house and fell off. An ambulance was called to take him to a nursing home to recover. It was the first time he had ever been in a motor vehicle and he told the ambulance driver that he had enjoyed the ride.

Heaviside died about a month later in the home on 3rd February 1925 - he was 74 years old.

He was buried in Paignton, Devon, UK alongside his parents. His grave stone and the plot was refurbished in 2014.

Oliver Heaviside - the man

Heaviside was never interested in fame or recognition and awards. He also never made any money from his inventions, and had little money.

Living alone in his last property, he found it difficult to heat the house, which was also in a terrible mess, the inside was untidy - it was even said he had large lumps of granite for chairs. He also could not cook, and relied on a generous friendly policeman to bring in food for him.

With increasing age, Heaviside became progressively more eccentric:- he was known to paint his fingernails pink, and he even dyed his hair black and put a tea cosy on his head while it dried.

Even though Heaviside was not interested in receiving honours he was very pleased to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891. He was also awarded a £120 a year Civil List pension by the UK government and this helped is lack of money. However he had to be encouraged to take this as he had rejected other charitable gifts from the Royal Society.

In 1908 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the Institution of Engineering & Technology, IET), and in 1918 Honorary Membership of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. In 1921 he was the first person to be honoured with the Faraday Medal from the IEE.

Oliver Heaviside facts

A summary of some of the chief facts about Oliver Heaviside:

Key Heaviside Facts
Fact Details
Birth date 18 May 1850
Birth place Camden Town, Middlesex (now within Greater London).
Death 3 February 1925 (aged 74).
Major work Coaxial cable
Heaviside / Kennelly-Heaviside layer in the ionosphere (now known as E layer)
Heaviside cover up method
Heaviside step function
Vector analysis

Oliver Heaviside quotes

There are several memorable Oliver Heaviside quotes that have been captured and make interesting reading;

  • Shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion?
  • Mathematics is of two kinds, Rigorous and Physical. The former is Narrow: the latter Bold and Broad. 
  • We do not dwell in the Palace of Truth. But, as was mentioned to me not long since, "There is a time coming when all things shall be found out." I am not so sanguine myself, believing that the well in which Truth is said to reside is really a bottomless pit.

More Famous Scientists in Electronics and Radio:
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