Archives biographies: Oliver Heaviside 1850-1925

Biographical information on Oliver Heaviside and his predictions concerning the Ionosphere, the existence of sub-atomic particles and the idea that the mass of an electric charge increases with its velocity.

Oliver Heaviside

Oliver Heaviside was born in Camden Town, London on 18 May 1850, the youngest of four sons born to Thomas Heaviside and his wife Rachel West, whose sister Emma had married Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1847. 

Thomas Heaviside was a wood engraver and his wife was a governess and had taught the Spottiswoode family, including Sir William Spottiswoode who became President of the Royal Society. However, the family were very poor and the poverty of those early years had a lasting influence on Oliver.

His education began at a girls' school run by his mother, but when this failed he was taught by Mr F R Cheshire at the Camden House School. He did not go to university but became a telegraph clerk for the Anglo Danish Telegraph Company, later the Great Northern Telegraph Company, in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1868. In 1874 he retired from work due to increasing deafness. 

He then began work on a series of problems in telegraphy and signal transmission using experimentation, mathematics and vector analysis. He worked on James Clerk Maxwell's equations concerning the electromagnetic theory of light. 

Heaviside's prediction:

He predicted the existence of an ionised reflective layer in the atmosphere which would bounce radio signals back to earth - the ionosphere - which is known as the Heaviside layer in his honour, and also predicted the existence of sub-atomic particles and the idea that the mass of an electric charge increases with its velocity.

Heaviside was a difficult and eccentric man, partly caused by his deafness, who cared nothing for the opinions of other scientists, but was convinced of the correctness of his workings using mathematical notation (vector algebra) which was almost impossible to understand by his contemporaries but which forms the basis of important areas of electrical engineering theory to this day. 

He had long and famous disagreements with Sir William Henry Preece over the introduction of inductance to long distance communication cables to improve the transmission of signals, and with Lord Kelvin over the process by which electricity travelled down wires, leading to the production of Heaviside's transmission line equations, and over Kelvin's use of heat diffusion theory to calculate the age of the earth. However, Kelvin remained a lifelong friend of Heaviside.

Page from Heaviside's notebooks showing his calculations

Heaviside moved to Paignton in Devon with his parents to live near his brother Charles and his family. His parents died in 1894 and 1896 and in 1897 Heaviside moved to Newton Abbott where he lived until 1908 when he moved in with his sister in law's sister, Miss Mary Way in Torquay. 

He lived there until his death on 3 February 1925. He was awarded the Institution's Faraday Medal and was an Honorary Member of the AIEE (American Institution of Electrical Engineers). His published works include numerous papers and articles, Electromagnetic Waves (1889), Electrical Papers (1892) and Electromagnetic Theory (3 vols 1893-1912).

For more information relating to the history and development of telegraphy, including the Heaviside papers, see the IET Archives Telegraphy research guide.