Oliver Heaviside

A summary of the life of Oliver W Heaviside, the self taught man who discovered much about improving telegraph cables 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 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.

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.

Early years

Oliver Heaviside was born on 18th May 1850 in Camden Town which is now in London. At the time it was a notoriously crime ridden area, 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.

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. 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 was fortunate to have a learned uncle, Sir Charles Wheatstone - the inventor of an early telegraph and the man who gave his name to the Wheatstone Bridge. Under Wheatstone, the young Heaviside studied 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, and here he started an analysis of electricity. Then in 1874 he left the company to continue his researches on his own at his parent's house where he could focus better on the topic in hand. Although effectively a self-taught mathematician with a 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.

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. Kennelly also proposed the idea of the layers.

As on old man, Oliver Heaviside spent his final years comfortably, although his mental powers diminished. "I have become as stupid as an owl," he once bluntly stated. Heaviside died at the age of 74 on 3rd February 1925.



More Famous Scientists in Electronics and Radio:
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