Oliver Heaviside

Apr 04, 2021

In today's fast-moving world, change is the only constant. It would have been rather strange if it wasn’t this way! The pace of the world we know today has been sped up largely due to the advances in telecommunication, but one often forgets that just a few decades ago, telecommunication was a feat man could only dream about. “Witchcraftery!”, a man would convince himself when entertained with such an outlandish idea. This, however, became a living reality with the invention of the first telephone in the late 19th century, during the Victorian era. But, it is only those who dream, observe the world through a different lens and have the conviction to follow through with their ideas that are at the forefront of all revolutions in the world. Change is the only way an equilibrium can be disturbed, setting into motion a series of events that change the fate of the universe forever with the fall of every domino. Entropy never dies, strangeness always lingers. The eminent Victorian electrical engineer, physicist, and mathematician, Oliver Heaviside FRS was one such oddity.

The first-rate oddity, Oliver Heaviside

His contributions to the field of electrical engineering, physics, and mathematics have been astounding with far-reaching consequences that are felt to this day. His intuitive differential equation solving techniques, complex analysis of circuits, vector calculus, and redefinition of Maxwell's equations in the form we know today to name a few are a small fraction of the myriad of achievements Heaviside produced during his lifetime. Sadly, he was at odds with the rest of the scientific community for most of his life, and a majority of his work’s worth was only realized posthumously.

Coming from humble beginnings, Heaviside spent his early childhood in Camden Town, a gloomy and decaying locality in northern London. He was born into a working-class family, with his father being a wood engraver and his mother a former governess who used to run a small school for the neighboring children. Due to the rapid advances in technology at the time, business was beginning to run dry, forcing the Heavisides to constantly live on the ragged edge of poverty. However, fate had better plans for young Oliver. The family later moved to a better part of the town thanks to a small inheritance, which enabled Oliver’s formal education to begin before coming to an abrupt end at the age of 16. He was a brilliant student who could immediately grasp complex concepts taught to him.

Coincidentally, Oliver’s uncle was none other than Charles Wheatstone, the co-inventor of one of the very first telegraphs, and a celebrated expert “electromagnetician” (yes, that’s what they called themselves those days). Due to Charles being a professor of physics at the Kings College London, the Heaviside boys looked to him for help in finding a career, to which he obliged. Oliver immediately left for Newcastle after dropping out of school to assist his brother, Arthur, and then later in 1868 landed a job on the Anglo-Danish telegraph cable. With the well-equipped cable testing rooms, and cutting-edge technology at his disposal, Oliver naturally developed a new-found interest in the transmission and measurement of signals. In the following days, he researched the problem of finding the most sensitive arrangement of a Wheatstone bridge and published his findings in the Philosophical Magazine in the year 1873. The work of course gained a lot of attention from other fellow engineers and people within the telecommunications industry and to one’s surprise, this included Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) who, intrigued by the young man’s work, sought out to personally congratulate him.

William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), one of the first people to recognise Heaviside's genius

Though a valuable engineer for the Danish company, Oliver quickly grew tired of carrying out mundane tasks assigned to him and eventually decided to quit his job to further delve into his research, an exercise he had come to like at this point. At first, his endeavors were supported by his brother Arthur, frequently collaborating with him as well. Later the duo decided to work independently, with Oliver continuing his research in his parent’s spare room. It was in this very room that Heaviside would surpass himself and would push the boundaries of the field of telecommunication and electromagnetism single-handedly for years to come.

While in Newcastle, Oliver continued his dive once again into the academics by first taking up Thomson’s 1855 theory of telegraphic transmission. Thomson had derived equations that explained diffusion as the reason behind the passage current and voltage along a cable and his theory was extended by Oliver by taking into account self-induction and leakage current. Through this work, he showed that by taking up the right relative values of resistance, capacitance, and inductance one could make signals move back and forth as waves.

After further contributions to the field of linear circuits, Heaviside’s newest foray would be in the physics of electromagnetism. Maxwell's Treatise had just come out during the year 1873 and Heaviside couldn’t make head or tail of it until he rewrote it himself! Originally, the equations were rewritten in Cartesian coordinates, making the ideas behind the importance of curl and divergence unintuitive, hidden and hard to understand. To simplify the theory and make it more applicable, the scientific community proposed different changes to the way the theory was to be presented. Many debates raged on as to decide which was the best possible way to represent Maxwell’s theory. Out of the many ideas, the two gained traction and split the community into 2 factions: the quaternionists and the vectorists. The vectorists however triumphed, with Heaviside and J. Willard Gibbs as leaders of the movement. This movement brought about the various changes that we see in Maxwell’s 4 equations today!

Maxwell's equations, the four equations that redefined electromagnetism

During the 1870s, Oliver was finding a new place to publish his research when he finally decided upon The Electrician, a weekly trade journal owned by cable interests and home to articles on advanced electrical theories and practices. After writing a few pieces for the journal, Heaviside was soon invited by its editor, Charles H. W. Biggs to become a regular contributor. In the following 2 decades, it was estimated that Oliver published approximately1700 pages worth of material in his collected work. His work, however, paid him just enough to get by. Heaviside himself said so for years that he had “earned less than a hodman”- though his needs were modest, and money, while welcome, was less important to him than having a steady outlet for his writings. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Heaviside lived a rather isolated and frugal life, devoting most of his time to his work. He hated donations and turned away all interested patrons. In fact, it was only when his friends insisted that the governor increase his pension that he accepted any form of monetary compensation.

Oliver Heaviside was also an avid bicyclist. When physicist G. F. Fitzgerald visited him in 1898, they rode together along steep and twisting Devonshire lanes. Heaviside later wrote to FitzGerald, “Idiots consider me a madman about the bike; I ride every day”. He just couldn’t get enough of the free-flowing and refreshing nature of the activity! The sensation of the early cool summer winds blowing past him reminded young Oliver how mysterious, yet fun life truly was. It was perhaps during these long bike-rides along the gentle slopes of the lush green countryside that something within Oliver clicked.

No mere bookworm, Heaviside was an avid cyclist as well

The summer of 1884 was the time when Heaviside made his greatest advances which forever changed the way we think about electromagnetic waves. Although Maxwell elegantly explained the relationship between E and H, and the distribution of the field in space, it still was unclear as to how it got from one place to another. Oliver being an engineer, realized that solving this very question was critical to understanding the transmission of signals in a distortion less form, a problem the industry was still struggling with at the time. After months of work, Heaviside came to a simple, yet remarkable conclusion: S = E x H. This implies that the flow of energy at any point in space is simply the cross product of the electric and magnetic field at the same point. The consequences of this groundbreaking finding were far-reaching. One important conclusion that was drawn was that the energy of an electric current did not flow like water within a pipe as it was thought to be, but rather it entered the wires through the sides. Therefore, Heaviside confidently concluded that the real action was occurring in the field surrounding the conducting wire and not within it. He strongly believed that this was the main essence behind the theory. He called this newly found equation the energy-flow formula and proceeded to derive the same result from the already known equations Maxwell had developed. It was after the clever manipulation of these equations that Heaviside came up with the succinct and elegant equations we know and apply today.

His work was finally over. All the pieces now neatly fell into their places. Heaviside had revealed to the world the true meaning behind the electromagnetic theory, a piece of knowledge so valuable that since its inception the world has never been the same. However, fame was never in store for Heaviside. His work on the theory went unremarked for a long time and was eventually lost amongst the sea of advertisements and countless other short pieces published by the journal every week. The strange mathematical symbols and rigour didn’t make it any easier to read either.

Alongside working on the reformulation of the electromagnetic theory, Heaviside was also involved in solving the problem pertaining to the clarity of transmission through telephone lines. Recent findings done by his brother, Arthur, revealed that adding more telephones to a circuit improved the transmission of the signals. To understand the explanation behind the phenomenon, Arthur turned to Oliver for help, who soon showed that it was due to the leakage of current through the telephones that resulted in signals with lesser distortion at the cost of the strength of the signal. Upon closely analyzing the circuitry Oliver realized that adding more inductance to the circuit at regular intervals improved the signals further. He called this new idea of his “inductive loading”, or “heavification” - a play he often made on his name. However, when the brothers approached the editor of the journal to publish the work, it was outright rejected, with the reason being that the ideas were ridiculous and absurd, due to the notion at the time being that inductance was the main culprit behind the distortions and that lesser inductance was desirable, an assumption contrary to what the brothers had proposed. The relationship between Biggs, the editor, and Oliver was already shaky to begin with, owing to Heaviside’s “repellant” personality and the bitterness due to this event only grew. Sadly, Oliver never patented his work on induction loading, an idea which was later dishonourably sold to AT&T for $500,00 by a Siberian-born American physicist.

Heaviside's work was also applicable to the transatlantic telegraph

Oliver had always been an eccentric individual whose cynicism grew along with him over time, making him an extremely unlikeable fellow. He rarely made any public appearances, attended any meetings, and never invited friends or acquaintances over. Heaviside was truly living a life of solitude that spiraled into other problems such as paranoia and narcissism. Nevertheless, Heaviside embraced the madness and continued to push the realms of possibilities in the field of telecommunication and electromagnetism before his work finally came to a complete stop when his mental and physical health deteriorated due to an affliction he described as the “hot and cold disease” in 1905. Heaviside’s health completely collapsed by the beginning of 1925 and he was shifted to a nursing home, where he passed away.

Heaviside was often described by his friends as a “first-rate oddity”. His ideas though logically sound and revolutionary were always considered unconventional, to say the least. He strongly believed that if a method produced the desired result, then it ought to be justification enough. When confronted, he would reply by saying “shall I refuse my dinner because I do not fully understand the process of digestion?”. In an era where physicists and mathematicians were motivated by fame and financial stability, Heaviside’s indifference to recognition, and acceptance of modest compensation for his work was indeed strange.

Heaviside's final resting place in Paignton Cemetery

Even after Oliver’s death a cracked blue plaque remains left on the gate of his estate (Homefield) as a reminder that someone notable once resided there. Oliver Heaviside was buried in the Paignton Cemetery, with his grave untended and name obscured by weeds for several decades. It was only in 2005, that an anonymous benefactor got the tombstone washed and set upright. While Heaviside may not be as celebrated as his contemporaries, his work and soul lives on in the form of the various advances it brought about. Even in death, his contributions to the world are still felt, reaching and flowing, and curling and diverging through the endless reaches of space and time.

On a hot summer day, cycling down a hill in a time not so long ago, a young man once thought to himself that the world was a little strange...

An article by Syed Hussain Rizvi

Disclaimer: the pictures in the article are for illustration purposes only. Neither the writer nor PHoEnix has a claim over them.

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