Book Review: A Maverick of Electrical Science

By on February 23rd, 2019 in Book Reviews, Entries, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science.
By Basil Mahon, Prometheus Books, 2017, 271 pages

According to this book’s subtitle, Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) is now considered a maverick of electrical science, but he could also be considered the founder of that very subject. During Heaviside’s early years, mathematics for AC circuits did not exist. Practitioners ruled and theory was discarded. This started to change with William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who applied an equation for heat flow to current flow on transmission lines in 1855. But then nothing was done to further the science until Heaviside took up the problem of high-speed signaling on undersea cables, which he published in 1878.

This book describes in a very readable style the contributions that Heaviside made to the creation of electrical engineering as a science, his life story, and how he was the cause of many of his own problems. Heaviside believed that his work should be judged on its own merit, not discounted because of personal issues, and indeed he was correct. Today much of what is taken for granted in electrical engineering and electromagnetic theory came from Heaviside, even if his name is not associated with them. Examples include: the language we use, such as inductance and impedance; SI units (he started the movement for “rational units” as he named them); and the four equations commonly referred to as Maxwell’s equations.

A book mentioning only Heaviside’s scientific contributions would be amazing reading. But Heaviside, the man, to quote his closest friend, George Searle, was “a first-rate oddity” [1]. The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science gives the reader insights into both the genius and odd behavior of Heaviside.

This book is an American Edition of Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity [2], published by the IET in the U.K. An excellent review of the British Edition was done by Graeme Gooday [3].

Mahon intends to provide the reader with insights into Oliver Heaviside without including a lot of mathematics, and at this he succeeds. He does so by referencing other fine books that can be consulted if the reader wishes to understand more about Heaviside and his mathematics, namely Nahin [4] and Hunt [5], both of which I highly recommend.

This book describes Heaviside’s difficult childhood, which shaped his interactions with the world. It goes on to explore his only formal employment, as an undersea cable telegraph operator. He held that position at a time (1868-1874) when operating an undersea cable for consistent performance was still an area of mystery and operators had laboratories where they performed experiments to better understand such things as fault locations and techniques to maximize transmission speed.

Heaviside took advantage of the laboratory at his disposal and started working on both fault location and transmission speed questions; he started as a “practical” man, but that led him to theory. The famous Telegrapher’s Equations of today were actually devised by Heaviside, based upon his analysis of the undersea cable, but like many things he developed, those equations are not named after him.

He only held the cable telegraph operator job for six years, but that period gave him a wealth of experience that drove much of his theoretical work after he left. He never had another job. That operator job might have been obtained through the intercession of his uncle by marriage, Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone, a major figure in telegraphy at the time, had married Heaviside’s mother’s sister, which might have been scandalous at the time, as she was his cook.

For the rest of his life, Heaviside was supported by relatives, friends, his writings for The Electrician, and a pension arranged by his friends, George FitzGerald and John Perry, for his contributions to electromagnetics. Because he had no formal education in mathematics at the level of differential equations and vector calculus, he was dismissed by many as just a telegraph operator. In the early days of telegraphy and telephony, one could still work his way up with little formal education. Undersea cable operators were also the explorers in company laboratories, working to improve the speed and operation of the systems. Other examples of men who began as telegraph operators and lacked formal education in technology, but later became famous for their contributions, are Thomas Edison and David Sarnoff.

Heaviside’s working-class family, constraints of the English class structure, his lack of formal education and his difficult disposition might have kept him from being accepted by the scientific community, but his discoveries led him to write articles that displayed his genius and garnered for him a degree of acceptance that would otherwise have been denied to him. He was a prolific writer whose articles were published in a number of British magazines, such as Philosophical Magazine and The Electrician, where most of his work appeared. Those papers were beneficial for many reasons and they enabled other scientists of the time to discover Heaviside and his work. That helped him build a network of acceptance and receive recognition that would have eluded him by just being a telegraph operator with no formal mathematics training. The five volumes of Heaviside’s collected articles published during his lifetime total over 2500 pages.

The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science does a good job of using Heaviside’s papers to show his theoretical contributions and developments, without forcing the reader to plow through the underlying mathematics. One criticism of Heaviside’s publications during his lifetime was how difficult it was to follow his mathematics. He refused to write a book or paper that would put his abstruse concepts into more easily accessible forms, so that a broader audience could understand them. This book fills a gap by attempting to make his concepts more intelligible, with notes for readers who want to explore more in depth.

His papers include not only technical material, but also poems and comments about other folks and society in general. It is worth the effort to read the original papers, though Mahon includes a number of Heaviside’s quips in this book, per the following (pp. 67-68):

“There was a time indeed in my life when I was something like old Teufelsdröckh in his garret, and was in some measure satisfied with a mere subsistence. But that was when I was making discoveries. It matters not what others think of their importance. They were meat and drink and company to me.”

Many books and articles dealing with Heaviside describe his battle with the proponents of Quaternions, a mathematical formalism developed by William Hamilton and used by Maxwell to describe his theory of electromagnetism. Those reading about Heaviside may be left with the impression that Quaternions are awkward and should be dropped from mathematical usage. Fortunately, the author of this book mentions that there are uses of Quaternions today, such as in computer graphics. It would have been helpful if the author had also included a reference to a book such as Quaternions and Rotation Sequences [6], so the reader would have a resource to explore further.

In producing the four equations now known as Maxwell’s equations, Heaviside dropped all references to the Vector Potential and Scaler Potential, which Maxwell had included. Dropping these potentials probably made the equations far more accessible to students, but the author points out that the potentials are useful and cites Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

It seems ironic that within a book in which the author reminds us how Heaviside does not get credit that he richly deserves for much of his foundational work in electrical engineering and electromagnetism, no credit is given to another early figure in those fields for his contributions. Mahon describes Morse code as a great advancement in signaling systems over other systems at the time, but gives credit for its invention solely to Samuel Morse, not mentioning the essential work of Alfred Vail [7].

However, in summary, this book is a good, quick read about an important figure in the development of Engineering Science and can serve as an introduction before reading more in-depth works. Heaviside was an important contributor to the fields of electrical engineering and electromagnetism and should not be forgotten.

Reviewer Information

Bill Liles is a Life Member of the IEEE with degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, and management. He holds an Amateur Radio Extra Class license, which he uses to conduct experiments on antennas and propagation. Email: lilesw@gmail.com.

 

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