Oliver Heaviside (1850–1925)
Plaque erected in 2022 by English Heritage at 123 Camden Street, Camden, London, NW1 0HX, London Borough of Camden
Theorist of telecommunications
Engineering and Transport, Science
OLIVER HEAVISIDE 1850-1925 Theorist of Telecommunications lived here
Oliver Heaviside – physicist, mathematician and electrical engineer – is commemorated with a blue plaque at 123 Camden Street, where he lived from 1863 to 1868 and from 1874 to 1876. It was here that he began publishing on the theory of signal transmission and embarked on his interpretation of James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. He was almost entirely self-taught, and his brilliant achievements were attained without the benefit of educational or social privilege.
Education and early career
Oliver Heaviside was born on 18 May 1850 in Camden Town. He was the youngest of the four sons of Rachel (née West) and Thomas Heaviside, a wood engraver and watercolour artist. Scarlet fever had left him almost deaf in his youth, and while his hearing eventually returned, he continued to suffer ill health throughout his life. When his family could no longer afford his education – the private elementary school his mother had run in their house failed by the time he was 12 – he pursued his own studies at home. Thanks to a small legacy, in 1863 the family moved to 123 Camden Street (which was then 117 Camden Street), a place Heaviside later wrote was ‘like heaven in comparison’ to the family’s previous house.
Oliver and his brother Arthur were perhaps led into telegraphy because their mother’s sister had married Charles Wheatstone, one of the inventors of the telegraph. In 1868, Heaviside took what was to be his only job, starting as a telegraph operator in Denmark with the Danish-Norwegian-English Telegraph Company. He then transferred to Newcastle and became Chief Operator in 1871. The company’s submarine cables he worked on were the most advanced electrical technology in the world. He and Arthur developed a system that speeded up communications by sending messages in both directions at the same time.
Heaviside published his first of several papers in 1872, was elected an Associate Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (later the Institution of Electrical Engineers) in 1874. The same year, he left the cable company to live with his parents again at 123 Camden Street.
Coming back to Camden
After returning to the family home at the age of 24, Heaviside spent the rest of his active life in financial precarity, pursuing independent – and unpaid – research. He soon started publishing a series of papers revising and extending the theory of signal transmission along wires. This was of huge practical importance as Britain’s economic, commercial and military power depended on lengthy submarine cabling.
It was also on Camden Street that Heaviside began his study of James Clerk Maxwell’s 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, determined to tease out the implications of this revolutionary but notoriously difficult work. Heaviside’s resulting system of vector algebra and his set of Maxwell’s equations had become standard by the 1890s and are still used today.
In 1876 the family moved to 3 St Augustine’s Road (now demolished) in Camden, then in 1889 they relocated to Devon, where Heaviside lived until his death in a nursing home on 3 February 1925. He is buried beside his parents in Paignton cemetery.
Reputation and legacy
Although considered an eccentric and known for feuding with fellow scientists, Heaviside received major scientific accolades throughout his life in the fields of physics, electrical engineering and mathematics. In 1896 he was awarded a modest civil pension in recognition of his work.
Heaviside is credited with several discoveries and achievements, including the ground-breaking research he began while living at 123 Camden Street. He is the subject of a number of books, articles and biographical dictionary entries – and a lunar and a Martian crater are named after him.
In 1902 Heaviside posited the existence of a reflective layer in the upper atmosphere which allows radio waves to be ‘bent’ around the earth. TS Eliot refers to the so-called Heaviside layer (also known as the Kennelly–Heaviside layer) in The Family Reunion as well as in the musical Cats.
In his biography Oliver Heaviside: The Life, Work, and Times of an Electrical Genius of the Victorian Age (2002), Paul Nahin suggests Heaviside’s work on how to make a decent telephone cable plays a vastly greater role in our everyday lives than does Einstein’s work. In Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity (2009), Basil Mahon says of the self-taught scientific trailblazer:
The advance of electrical communications in the past hundred years is the greatest leap of technology in humankind’s history. On the face of it we have left Heaviside way behind. But in one important sense it was Heaviside who made it all possible. By bridging what had been a great gulf between theory and practice he brought advanced electrical science within the reach of technologists.