Oliver Heaviside and Newton Abbott

A sketch by Alan Heather:

When I moved to Paignton in 1959 I had no idea that buried near my new home was a famous forebear of mine, Oliver Heaviside. My family on my mother's side - she was a Heaviside - would speak of Oliver, but until I went to school and learned about a Heaviside Layer around the Earth off which radio signals 'bounced', I knew little of him, except he was deaf, and had bright red hair and piercing eyes which frightened children.

When Oliver Heaviside moved in 1897 to Bradley View, 2 Totnes Road, few people in Newton Abbot would have known they had an eminent scientist living there. An outstanding physicist and mathematician, in a few years he would explain in a now world-famous prediction why wireless waves were able to travel around the Earth and not be lost in space.

Oliver, then 47 years old, was already well known for his work on the science of long distance telegraphy and telephone systems, and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was to stay in Newton until 1909 when he was forced by ill health to move nearer relatives in Torquay.

An 'oddity' rather than an eccentric, he was a bachelor with an impish sense of humour. He spent much time studying and writing scientific papers in complete solitude. As a result he was often not understood by local people and his time at Bradley View was sometimes fraught. Youngsters threw stones at windows in the house and wrote unpleasant remarks on the front gate. As they played in nearby Bakers Park they often trespassed in the garden to steal from fruit trees. Hampered by deafness, he suffered from gout and was constantly plagued with bouts of jaundice, one of which was to cost him his life.

His time at Newton was not always unhappy. He derived much satisfaction from his scientific and mathematical work and spent many happy hours cycling around the Devon lanes on his new 'safety bicycle' - a new concept then in cycling. It had no freewheel and only a spoon brake, which pressed on the front tyre!

One of his favourite destinations was Berry Pomeroy Castle. He also cycled to Little Haldon and to Babbacombe, and to his brother Charles who ran a music shop in Torwood Street, Torquay. The family was musical and Oliver played the Aeolian harp and his ocarina, a small egg-shaped porcelain wind instrument. So much for a personal sketch, though there are many other stories I could tell of his days at Bradley View.

It was during his sojourn there that Marconi first sent radio signals across the Atlantic, though he could not explain why they were not stopped by the curvature of the Earth.

A year later, in 1902, Oliver made his famous prediction that wireless waves might be 'caught' by a layer in the atmosphere, which later became the Heaviside Layer. (Now we know it as the E layer.) He made the prediction in an article contributed to the tenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In it he suggested that waves travelling around the Earth
might accommodate themselves to the surface of the sea in the same way as waves follow wires.
Further on he suggested that
there may possibly be a sufficiently conducting ionised layer in the upper air. If so the waves will, so to speak, catch on to it more or less. Then the guidance will be on the sea on one side and the upper layer on the other.

It was not until 1924, one year before his death at Torquay, his prediction was finally proved to be correct. Subsequent work carried out by Heaviside added greatly to our knowledge of the relationship between the sun and the Earth. His work in which he produced theories to try to correlate electromagnetism with gravitation still fits in with modern research into high energy physics.

Before he arrived at Newton Abbot from Paignton, where he had lived with his parents, he already had 'apostles' in the world of electronic engineering. His earlier visionary idea to insert loading coils at intervals along long-distance telephone and telegraphy circuits was one of the great milestones in the development of telephony.

He made brilliant and original contributions to mathematics, developing in the process his own operational calculus now successfully applied in different branches of pure mathematics. He invented words in common use today by radio amateurs and electrical engineers working with AC circuits - words such as impedance, inductance and attenuation.

A lot of publicity has been given to the later years of his life when he lived like a recluse at Torquay, but much of his work was done in London, Paignton and Newton Abbot. The town should be proud of its famous resident who now lies buried with his parents in Colley End Road cemetery, Paignton, just a quarter of a mile from my former home.

He was a nephew of Charles Wheatstone, of the Wheatstone Bridge fame, known to many pupils learning about electromagnetism at school.

Heaviside was awarded the first Faraday Medal to be presented, which can now be seen at the London HQ of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. His main work, three volumes titled Electromagnetic Theory and a fourth volume incomplete and unpublished at the time of his death, has a great deal of humour mixed up with philosophy. It is sobering to think that my illustrious forebear's work on the constitution of the atom led to the use of atomic energy!

The above article was written initially for for a magazine issued to members by the Torbay Amateur Radio Society. The club has its HQ in Newton Abbot, hence the Newton Abbot slant.

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Last Updated January 2000