A Little Heavy Reading

Posted by Voipfone on May 3, 2017

Oliver HeavisideThis month I went on long flight so bought a last-minute airport book at random from WH Smug at Gatwick to get me through it – Bill Bryson’s ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’. I remember giggling my way through a similar flight years ago reading his ‘Notes from a small Island’ so hopes were high.

It’s diverting but not as good – but the point of mentioning this here is that he visits the seaside town of Torquay where a guy I’d never heard of by the name of Oliver Heaviside lived. Bryson describes him as “short, ill-tempered and hard of hearing [with] a permanently crazed look” and “possibly the greatest modern British inventor of whom no one has ever heard”.

Despite being entirely self-taught he worked out how radio waves followed the curvature of the earth. He came up with the idea that they were bouncing off a layer of ionised particles now called the Heaviside layer. In the way of these things, his prediction was later confirmed by another scientist who got the Nobel Prize for it.

But more importantly for me at least, he was the guy that found a way of boosting telephone signals and do it without also boosting extraneous noise – an impossibility it was thought at the time. This invention – the transmission line theory or the “telegrapher’s equations” made the modern world possible – for the first time long distance, two way, real time telephony became possible.

Also in the way of these things – he patented nothing. AT&T grabbed his equations and became the world’s biggest telco. As Mr. Bryson says “Heaviside should have ended up a multi-millionaire but instead passed his last years living in angry poverty in a bedsit in Torquay with children throwing wine gums at his neck”. (This last allusion is explained in the book – but you’ll have to buy the book to find out more.)

It’s a bit late now, but thanks Mr Heaviside. I owe you a life-long living.

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