Monday, February 18, 2013

Oliver Heaviside: A Geek's Geek

     If all you ever knew about Oliver Heaviside was that he was the second name in "Kenelly-Heaviside Layer," or even that he put Maxwell's Equations in their best-known form, you'd probably  figure he was a dusty academic with a long string of degrees to his name. 

     Um, not so much.  Largely self-educated, he was, simply, eccentric in the grand British tradition, described by friends as "a first-rate oddity," predicting ionospheric reflection of radio waves 22 years before it could be proved, patenting coaxial cable in 1880 (!) and inventing the method of inductive loading telegraph and telephone lines to increase the distance signals could travel without suffering distortion.  --And he loved "scorching," pushing a bicycle as fast as possible on hilly roads, often at considerable risk to himself.

     He predicted Cherenkov radiation in the 19th century and engaged in what can only be described as flame wars in the scientific press; despite living in poverty, he passed up several awards and offers of payment when he felt his contribution was misunderstood or misrepresented.

     In short, he was a proto-geek, often socially isolated, who chose to spend great slabs of time alone, working out things that only a few other people really understood at the time.  If you work in electronics, you've encountered the terms and concepts impedance, admittance, reluctance, conductance, permeability, permittance and electret* -- all of the words (as terms of art) and most of the concepts first used by Heaviside.

     Slightly deaf, with bright red hair and intense eyes, Oliver Heaviside was a geeks' geek, a solitary genius of the kind rarely seen.  He helped build your world and it's likely you've barely heard of him.
* Yet another Heaviside notion that no one managed to put to work until decades later, when Gerhard Sessler and the real James West (!) invented the first practical electret microphone in 1962. There's probably one in your telephone right now.


Tam said...

What an awesome name he had!

og said...

In the Arthur C Clarke book "How the World Was One" he has a whole chapter on Heaviside. If you have not read the book, you absolutely must, it is a trip down memory lane for all communications geeks.

Stranger said...

Largely self taught, and both a telegraph operator and in later years a CW man. Besides developing two mathematical disciplines he predicted that bane of the communications engineer, the skin effect.

The Royal Society did not cover itself with glory with Heaviside.


Old NFO said...

+1 on Og...