Friday, April 29, 2016

The Wireless Ceiling

Oliver Heaviside was an introvert and a recluse, a strange and peculiar man whose shyness pushed him to become a hermit. Mystery man lost in his thoughts.

Oliver Heaviside
By the age of 24, he was deaf due to childhood scarlet fever. At this time, he decided to quit his employment at the telegraph company to engage in scientific research. His seclusion made him contemplate more about his interest in mathematics, physics, and electromagnetic theory.

The youngest of four sons, Oliver Heaviside was born in May 1850 to Thomas and Rachel [West] Heaviside. Ironically, his mother’s sister was married to Sir Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone, a Victorian scientist, is well known in the engineering world for the development of the Wheatstone Bridge, a device used to measure an unknown electrical resistance.

Oliver’s education began at a girl’s school that was run by his mother. Oliver never went to a university; instead he became a telegraph clerk for the Great Northern Telegraph Company around 1866. In 1874, he retired from work due to his increasing hearing problem and the compulsion to draw back more from society. 
Heaviside's Home

His parents were shocked when he suddenly quit his job and moved into their house. Apparently, he wanted to dedicate himself full time into research of mathematics and electricity.  In the next decade or so, he spent most of his time inside a small room at the house - never becoming employed again.  It is said that he rarely came out of his room, and that his mother just left food outside his door.  

In his “solitary confinement” he was able to conduct research that many mathematicians of the day could not understand. Just like many scientist of the time, his peers despised him. His work included working on problems in telegraph and signal transmission by using mathematics and experimentation. He also worked on James Clerk Maxwell's equations with regard to electromagnetic theory of light. 

Due to his solitude and odd idiosyncrasies, Heaviside always thought his work was correct, backing it most of the time with mathematics.  Other scientist at the time did not understand his research and therefore he did not care about their judgments on his work.

Heaviside had many accomplishments in mathematics and electricity, but from a wireless standpoint, his contribution in the early experimental days was farsighted. In 1902, he predicted the presence of an ionized layer in the atmosphere that would reflect radio signals back to earth.  We know this as “skip” where radio signals are reflected from an electrically charged layer in the upper atmosphere. This layer is known as the Ionosphere, but is also referred to as the “Heaviside Layer” in the wireless world. This layer resides about 60 miles from the earth.

[Note:  An American scientist, Arthur Edwin Kennelly, independently and concurrently discovered the existence of the ionosphere layer. For this reason the ionosphere layer is also referred to the Heaviside-Kennelly Layer. The British scientist Edward Appleton confirmed this by experiment in 1924, receiving the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physics for it].

Marconi conducted his first radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901, refuting critics who told him that the curvature of the earth would limit his transmissions only to a couple hundred miles.  This first wireless message, the letter “S” in Morse Code [3-dots], was propagated more than 2,000 miles from Poldhu, England to Newfoundland, Canada.  This proved that at certain frequency bands, signal propagation was not limited by the earth’s curvature, and that long distance over the horizon transmission was possible. 

When Heaviside heard of Marconi’s transmission, he immediately had the explanation.  At the time, Heaviside was one of a handful of scientist, or perhaps the only scientist, that was able to explain the mystery on how Marconi was able to transmit a signal over 2,000 miles.

Heaviside likened his theory to waves travelling across the surface of the ocean. Radio waves do not jump off the earth; but rather, the waves are pulled down and continue across the ocean’s surface by the earth’s curvature. He hypothesized that there was a conducting layer in the upper air. Thus, a radio signal would be reflected back to earth from this layer.  The wave would then be reflected back to the upper atmospheric layer by the ocean’s surface.  He also indicated that if there were land obstructions, the radio wave would partially go through them.
Heaviside Layer - Signal Reflection

In late 1924, Heaviside fell from a ladder and refused medical attention.  A couple of months later, he was found unconscious at home by friends and was taken to a nursing home by ambulance.  Apparently, the ambulance ride was the first time in his life that he had ever been in a motor vehicle.   Within a few more weeks, Oliver Heaviside died in February 1925, and was buried in a London cemetery next to his parents.

Three sacks of Heaviside papers
Advanced in his years, Oliver Heaviside’s mental powers diminished, and he stopped publishing technical papers. He once stated, "I have become as stupid as an owl". After his death, technical papers were found in his home – apparently using them for insulation. 

In 1957, Edward Appleton received a letter from a chemistry teacher who claimed he had several sacks of Heaviside papers in his garage.  Those close to Heaviside knew the papers existed but 
Sample of Heaviside research papers on playbill
didn't know where they were located.  Many of the documents hidden in the floorboards were written on used music playbills.  

Heaviside received much scientific recognition posthumously, as his work transformed radio communications.  Oliver Heaviside’s accomplishments are not very well known to the general public today because of his seclusion, and for other scientists stealing his work.

In July 2014, the Newcastle University [UK] began the Heaviside Memorial Project, which was to fund the restoration of the Heaviside memorial.