Oliver Heaviside F.R.S
electrical engineer, physicist and mathematician
personal sketch by a direct family descendant
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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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
here to insert names
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.'
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
strange I should have retired to Ridgeway Heights from where
I overlook his last home.
Heather (first cousin three times removed).
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.
written for the Torbay Amateur Radio Society based at Newton
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