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Oliver Heaviside

(1850—1925) physicist and electrical engineer


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(1850–1925)

British electrical engineer, who proposed the existence of the ionosphere in 1902.

The son of an engraver, Heaviside was born partially deaf and consequently received no systematic formal education. He did, however, gain a fairly comprehensive understanding of the science of his day through private study. His first and only regular job, to which he was appointed in 1870, was as a telegraph operator with the Great Northern Telegraph Company in Newcastle. Heaviside's poor hearing made it difficult to carry out his duties and he consequently resigned in 1874, spending the next fifteen years in private study and research at his parents' home in north London. In 1889 Heaviside moved with his parents to Devonshire to live with his elder brother Charles. On the death of his parents a few years later, Heaviside left his brother and lived in seclusion in Devon. He was supported financially by magazine writing, gifts from friends, and, in his later years, a civil list pension.

Heaviside is remembered for his proposal in 1902 that a layer of electrically charged particles in the upper atmosphere is capable of reflecting back to earth radio waves broadcast from the surface of the earth. This would account for the transmission across the Atlantic by Marconi in the previous year of messages carried by radio waves. In 1911 this layer was given the name Heaviside–Kennelly layer after Heaviside and Arthur Kennelly, who independently proposed its existence. After Sir Edward Appleton proved its existence in 1924, it became known as the ionosphere, although the E region of the ionosphere is still sometimes known as the Heaviside–Kennelly layer. This proposal was only one aspect of Heaviside's work contained in the three volumes of his Electromagnetic Theory (1893–1912). Expressed in a strikingly original mathematical form, Heaviside's work soon became accepted by practical engineers. Told that his work was difficult to read, Heaviside replied that it had been harder to write.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).


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