If Oliver Heaviside was one of the great scientists of the past two centuries, he was also a very strange man. And he became even stranger as he grew older.
Born in 1850 in London's Camden town, his early childhood childhood was marked by poor health and poverty. There was also some evidence suggesting that his father was physically abusive. Heaviside would later describe his father as a "tyrant" and also wrote, "when I was young, my father took me to the doctor in the hope of finding out whether it was what I had for breakfast that made me so stupid." At an early age, he developed scarlet fever and, despite recovering, became partially deaf. Already a loner, his deafness made him even more alienated.
Despite this harsh childhood, Heaviside was an excellent student and his uncle, the prominent inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone (who co-invented the telegraph) oversaw his education. This formal education ended at sixteen when he left school but Heaviside continued studying everything he could about electricity, physics and mathematics. At the age of eighteen, he went to work as a telegraph operator but still studied electricity in his spare time. He also began publishing scientific papers on electricity while working in Denmark and Newcastle.
Withdrawing From Society
If his parents were bemused by their son's fascination with science, they were appalled when he abruptly quit his job and moved into their Devon home. At the age of twenty-four, Oliver Heaviside had apparently had enough of telegraph work and decided to dedicate himself to studying electricity and mathematics full-time. He would never hold a paid job again. For the next fifteen years, he studied non-stop in a small, dark room in his parents' home. While baffled by their son's bizarre behaviour, his parents did their best to support him financially. Since he rarely came out of his bedroom, his mother often just left food trays outside his door and he needed to be urged to eat anything at all.
Although Heaviside's early self-exile was fairly productive, with numerous important papers being written, those papers were extremely hard for editors to understand. Not only did he fill them with obscure scientific references, he also made no attempt to make them understandable. Since he had no academic credentials (being almost entirely self-taught), editors were not motivated to take him seriously despite his link to Charles Wheatstone. They were hardly the only ones to have that opinion about Oliver Heaviside though. For the rest of his life, he lived off the charity of his parents, brother, the few friends he had left and, eventually, a small government pension. It's probably not surprising that he was a lifelong bachelor.
Despite the revolutionary nature of his scientific achievements, Oliver Heaviside never got along with the scientific establishment. Technical journal editors routinely rejected his papers as unreadable and some experts denounced his long equations (with few, if any, reference notes to explain them) as a "superior form of gibberish". Heaviside's work would eventually transform science and mathematics but he had no patience with people who failed to grasp what was so obvious for him. He also devoted years to absorbing the lengthy works of James Clerk Maxwell and condensing them into a more understandable form.
Along with more academic applications, many of Heaviside's discoveries would also revolutionize telegraph operations as well. He also branched out into radio applications and speculated on the existence of a reflective layer in the ionosphere that could bounce signals over long distances (now known as the Kennelly-Heaviside layer in his honour). Unfortunately, his ideas on improving long-range telegraph transmissions were out of step with accepted theories. His habit of sarcastically abusing his numerous critics didn't help either. Not only did journal editors reject his papers but his various patents failed to earn him any real income during his lifetime.
While he was certainly controversial, Oliver Heaviside was slowly recognized as a scientific genius although his numerous quirks were hard to overlook. Not only did he insist on keeping his rooms as dark as possible, he also preferred to keep them as hot as he could manage (usually using oil lamps). One friend described his room as "hotter than hell". by 1908, he finally gave up on London and moved to a small cottage in Newton Abbot, a town in southern England. Since he was relatively unknown outside of scientific circles, his few neighbours avoided him and he gained a reputation as a (mostly harmless) lunatic. He had long since stopped publishing scientific papers by then and his odd lifestyle became, well, even odder.
For reasons that he never really explained to anyone, Heaviside began signing all of his letters with the acronym "W.O.R.M." (which likely fit in well with his neighbours' opinion of him). He replaced his furniture with granite blocks and avoided people whenever possible. Heaviside had a special contempt for his neighbours whom he accused of staring at him "like an animal in a zoo". Considering his extremely bizarre appearance and poor hygiene, it's probably not surprising that his neighbours considered him an outcast. He was even targeted by local children who threw rocks at his windows and frequently plugged up the sewage drainpipe leading to his cottage.
Returning To Devon
To get Heaviside away from Newton Abbot, his brother Charles arranged for him to live with his sister-in-law, Mary Way, at her home in Devon. Since Mary lived alone, having the eccentric Heaviside live upstairs from her seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, things got even more bizarre at that point. Heaviside insisted on treating Mary as a slave despite her being the owner of the house. Not only did he order her to write to her friends and family and insist that they not visit her, he also demanded that she never leave the house without permission. The exact reason for his possessiveness is not really clear considering that he was largely asexual throughout his lifetime. Still, his brutal treatment of Mary Way or why she allowed the abuse to continue seems impossible to understand even today.
Friends were astonished that Mary allowed her house guest to control her. They were even more astonished when she showed them the contract that Heaviside had insisted she sign which, among other clauses stipulated that:
Mary Way agrees to wear warm woolen underclothing and keep herself warm in winter. Mary Way agrees never to go out without Oliver Heaviside's permission. Mary Way agrees never to give anything away without Oliver Heaviside's permission.
He did whatever he could to enforce the clauses of the contract, including taking away Mary's shoes to keep her from leaving the house without permission. After seven or eight years of this virtual slavery, Mary sank into a catatonic state and her nieces, finally having enough of the abuse, took her away (despite her still being the owner of the house). Heaviside's only reaction was to tell anyone who asked about her that she had become "mad and had to be put away". After considerable legal wrangling, Mary eventually agreed to sell her house to him and he lived there for the rest of his life. While he fought regular battles with the local gas company over enormous heating bills (he could never keep the house hot enough to suit him), Heaviside managed to function well enough on his own.
Despite being virtually ignored by the scientific community for years, the Institute of Electrical Engineers decided to make up for their neglect by awarding Oliver Heaviside the first ever Faraday Medal in 1922. Refusing to leave his house for an award ceremony, Heaviside eventually agreed to receive a single delegate, the president of the Institute, to present him with the medal. That was his last real contact with the outside world except for those few friends and family members who watched over him.
The Death of a Hermit
Although he was a hypochondriac who worried over his health, Heaviside refused any medical care. After a serious fall from the top of a ladder in late 1924, he refused a doctor and insisted on recovering on his own. In January 1925, friends called police when they were unable to get any answer at his house. He was found unconscious in his bedroom and taken by ambulance to a nursing home in Torquay (the only time in his life that he had ever been in a motor vehicle). Oliver Heaviside died on February 3 and was buried next to his parents in Devon's Paignton cemetery.
While he had stopped publishing in technical journals years before, several scientific papers were found in his home after his death (he had been using them for insulation). Almost all of the scientific recognition he received was posthumous and his work has revolutionized modern communication. Oliver Heaviside would likely be better known if many of his achievements had not been stolen by other scientists and the hostility he managed to generate during his lifetime.
Would the numerous honours he eventually received have meant anything to a man who lived as a hermit for most of his life? You be the judge.