Today, we meet a wounded genius. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Oliver Heaviside was
born in the same London slums as Dickens was.
Scarlet fever left him partly deaf. He compensated
with shyness and sarcasm. Heaviside finished his
only schooling in 1865. He was 16 and a top
student, but he'd failed geometry. He loathed all
that business of deducing one fact from another. He
meant to invent knowledge -- not to compute it.
Heaviside went to work as a telegrapher. That drew
him into the study of electricity. Then he read
Maxwell's new Treatise on
Electricity and Magnetism, and it seemed to
have mystical beauty. It changed his life. He quit
work and sealed himself in a room in his family's
house. There he reduced Maxwell's whole field
theory into two equations. He gave electric theory
its modern shape and form. Hertz got the credit for
that. But in the fine print Hertz admits his ideas
came from Heaviside.
Next Heaviside picked up the radical new idea of
vector analysis. His most important ally was the
reclusive American genius J.
Willard Gibbs. Vector analysis won out, but
only after Heaviside -- this shy man with his acid
pen -- had started a war. He brought that war to
full pitch a few years later with something called
He invented this strange new math by leaping over
logic. It was a powerful tool, but it wasn't
rigorous. Only people like Kelvin, Rayleigh, and Hertz saw the brilliance that was
driving Heaviside faster than method could follow.
He knew what he was doing. He growled at his
detractors, "Shall I refuse my dinner because I do
not fully understand ... digestion?"
Like vector analysis, Heaviside's calculus stood
the test of time. So did the rest of his work. He
gave us the theory for long distance telephones.
His math has served and shaped engineering. Yet his
biographer, Paul Nahin, writes a sad ending.
Heaviside grew sick of fighting and faded off to
Torquay in Southwest England. There he lived out
his last 25 years in a bitter retreat. He signed
the initials W.O.R.M. after his name. That didn't
stand for anything more than worm. For that was all
he could see when he looked into other people's
You don't see much of Heaviside's name today. But
his magnificent works have been woven into the
fabric of our textbooks. He deserved a better end.
Yet his huge accomplishments force a happy ending
on a sad life. They also warn us to be alert -- to
be ready to see raw genius like that when it walks
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Nahin, P.J., Oliver Heaviside. Scientific
American, June 1990, pp. 122-129.
Nahin, P.J., Sage in Solitude. New
York: IEEE Press, 1988.
For more on Heaviside, see:
Memorial to Oliver Heaviside placed at his
home by the British Institution of Electrical
Engineers. My thanks to Kathleen Butler for
obtaining and providing this photo.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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