OLIVER HEAVISIDE - ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING HEROES

Oliver Heaviside is unusual - perhaps even unique - among the scientists and engineers in that he had no formal education beyond leaving school at the age of sixteen. He was somewhat deaf and lived a rather solitary life, and few people could ever claim to have known him at a personal level. His name is attached to at least two phenomena - the Heaviside step function and the Heaviside layer - in common use today.

Oliver Heaviside was born on May 18, 1850, at 55 King Street in Camden Town in north London. He was the youngest of four brothers. His father, Thomas Heaviside, was a wood engraver originally from Stockton-on- Tees in north-east England, and had come to London in 1849. Camden Town in the middle of the 19th century was typical of the developing Victorian metropolitan life, with its crowded, smoke-polluted environment.

He left school at sixteen, and pursued his studies at home. Then, at the age of eighteen he took a job (the only paid employment he ever had) with the Great Northern Telegraph Company, working in Newcastle and in Denmark. There seems little doubt that Wheatstone was instrumental in getting him this job. During this time he had started to study Maxwell’s work, and began to publish articles in the Philosophical Magazine and elsewhere, on various aspects of circuit and telegraph theory.

After six years, in 1874, he left this job and returned to live with his parents. Two years later the family moved to 3 St. Augustine’s Road, a few hundred yards from Heaviside’s birthplace. The house was owned by the Midland Railway Company.

Recognition did ultimately come to Heaviside. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891. He was sent a formal notice asking him to come to London to be admitted, but wanted nothing of it.

In 1921 the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) instituted its Faraday Medal, and selected Heaviside as its first recipient. He was asked what form he thought the medal ought to take, and replied ‘about three inches in diameter, one inch thick, and made of solid gold’. Since it was out of the question for him to travel to London, the then President of the IEE, J. S. Highfield went to Torquay to present him with it.

Heaviside’s published output was quite prodigious, and he published in The Electrician and the Philosophical Magazine and elsewhere, as well as collected papers in two books: Electrical Papers (in two volumes) and Electromagnetic Theory (in three volumes).

Heaviside died on 3 February 1925, and his body is buried in Paignton Cemetery. Although there are no blue plaques in Camden commemorating his birth or where he lived, the IEE erected one in Torquay.

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