Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Oliver Heaviside

By Nancy J. Farrier

It’s the time of year when kids are back to school and learning is in full swing. They’ve missed their friends and grown bored with summer. Even the tedium of the school day can be interesting. I hope. 

But school often has challenges for children. I find it fascinating to read about people who have persevered despite a handicap. Today, I’m blogging about a man who overcame odds to excel in the field of electronics and math.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons
Oliver Heaviside was born in London in 1850. As a young child he contracted scarlet fever, resulting in a hearing impairment. He struggled with interacting with other children and with school. I can only imagine the difficulty of life in the 1800’s when you had trouble hearing what people said to you. 

At 16, Oliver left school. He didn’t like the classes but continued to study on his own. He enjoyed languages, math and electricity. He learned Morse code and became a telegrapher, a field his uncle encouraged. He moved to Denmark at that time.

He continued to study electricity and eventually gave up his work to study electricity full time, especially Maxwell’s equations. Heaviside admitted he hadn’t had much math in school and had forgotten a lot of what he learned. For several
Photo by FF-UK, Wikimedia Commons
years he focused on the higher mathematics so he could understand Maxwell’s equations and his work. 

In the 1880’s through the turn of the century, Heaviside regularly published his work in trade papers such as The Electrician. Later, he put the papers together and published his works, Electromagnetic Theoryand Electrical Papers.

As his hearing continued to decline, Heaviside became more of a recluse. He still continued to publish his works but would deliver the paper to a grocery store where the publisher would go to pick it up for publication. Much of what Oliver Heaviside did and accomplished is over my head, but I can appreciate his importance in the world of math.

Photo by welcomeimages
Wikimedia Commons
In 1891 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Mathematicians of reknown stated that his operational calculus was one of the most important discoveries of the 1800’s. Heaviside also took Maxwell’s twenty equations and reduced them to four. Although Maxwell is still credited with the equations, most mathematicians recognize Heaviside’s input as being a crucial part of the work.

Another major discovery credited to Heaviside is the layer of the ionosphere that reflects radio waves. The ionosphere was not confirmed until 1923, but in 1902, Heaviside proposed the layer that is now called the Heaviside layer. Most people have not heard of this, but in the musical, Cats, there is a song taken from a T.S. Elliot poem that uses the line,  Up up up past the Russell hotel, Up up up to the Heaviside layer.

Cats Musical by Effie
Wikimedia Commons
In his later years, Oliver Heaviside became rather eccentric. He withdrew into himself and became even more reclusive. He used granite blocks for furniture in his home and didn’t bathe much at all. His slovenly state continued to deteriorate except for his fingernails which he kept clean and painted bright pink.

Heaviside died in 1925 when he fell from a ladder. Most of his acclaim came posthumously. In 1947, the Nobel prize winner won for proving the Heaviside layer truly existed. Many of the terms used today in electromagnetic theory were first coined by Heaviside. He was a brilliant mathematician who did not receive the recognition he deserved at the time. Yet, he continued to do the work that he loved.

Have you heard of Oliver Heaviside, or the Heaviside layer? Later it was called the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer. I was fascinated with this man who dropped out of school and found a way to pursue his calling despite a severe impairment. It is hard for me to imagine what he went through, but his contributions to society are amazing.

Nancy J Farrier is an award-winning author who lives in Southern Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. She loves the Southwest with its interesting historical past. When Nancy isn’t writing, she loves to read, do needlecraft, play with her cats, and spend time with her family. Nancy is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Literary Agency. You can read more about Nancy and her books on her website:


  1. I've never heard of this man and I'm positive I wouldn't be able to understand his work. Thanks for telling us about him.

    1. Connie, I am positive his work is beyond me too. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Thank you for sharing about Oliver Heaviside. I had not heard about him.