Self-taught Victorian physicist celebrated with English Heritage blue plaque

  • Oliver Heaviside, 'theorist of telecommunications', commemorated with plaque in Camden

The physicist, mathematician and electrical engineer, Oliver Heaviside, has been commemorated with a blue plaque, English Heritage announced today (22 April 2022). Heaviside’s biographer, Paul Nahin, once noted that his work on how to make a decent telephone cable plays a vastly greater role in our everyday lives than does the work of Einstein. The plaque marks the terrace house on Camden Street that Heaviside once described as "heaven in comparison" to his family’s previous house. It was here that the budding Victorian scientist continued with his self-education after leaving school at 16 and where he later worked on his ground-breaking interpretation of James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, bridging the gulf between the theory of telecommunciations and its practice.

Heaviside would later be name-checked in the musical Cats: "Up up up to the Heaviside layer" is a reference to his discovery not of a feline heaven but of a reflective layer in the upper atmosphere which allowed radio waves to be 'bent' around the earth. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given that they were attained without the benefits of a higher education or social privilege; Heaviside was mostly self-taught and had been left almost entirely deaf by scarlet fever suffered in childhood. His one notable advantage was that the scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone was his uncle by marriage, which gave him an entry into the world of telegraphy.

Howard Spencer, Senior Historian at English Heritage, said: "Oliver Heaviside was a physicist whose theories framed one of the biggest recent technological leaps of humankind – the development and advancement of electrical communications. Both the mobile phone in your pocket and the old-school landline at home owe plenty to Heaviside’s work. He is a great example of the incredible achievements to have come from London’s ordinary working people and English Heritage is delighted to honour him with a blue plaque."

Heaviside joins Charles Darwin, Rosalind Franklin, Abdus Salam and Alan Turing among the scientists with blue plaques. However, only around 15% of the 950 plus official blue plaques across the capital are dedicated to scientists. English Heritage is therefore calling on the public to nominate more notable London-based scientists from the past and to help the charity increase the number of scientists honoured by the blue plaques scheme.

As well as Oliver Heaviside, English Heritage is unveiling several other blue plaques this year that also recognise stories of working class and non-elite experience, including plaques commemorating the Match Girls' Strike of 1888 and the Ayahs’ Home for stranded South and East Asian nannies in Hackney.

The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.

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