June 5, 2020

Review: The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside

On sale for pre-order now!

Quick: who was the father of modern electrical theory? Talk about the early age of electricity and names such as Thomas Edison, James Maxwell and Nikola Tesla come to mind… all of these pioneers deserve their due, sure, but chances are, you have never heard of Oliver Heaviside.

The Forgotten Genius of Oliver Heaviside: A Maverick of Electrical Science by Basil Mahon seeks to change that, and presents the life story of the man who’s life work gave birth to modern electrical engineering.

Born in Middlesex, England in 1850, Heaviside was as much an eccentric as he was a visionary. He entered the scientific stage of the late 19th century at just the right time, translating Maxwell’s equations and putting them into practical use. Heaviside solved several key problems confronting electrical engineers, including how to send a distortion free signal. Engineers understood some of the “how” electrical equipment and telegraphy worked, though the “why” fell into the realm of theorists who often refused to get their hands dirty. Heaviside’s work straddled the two disparate worlds, melding them into the practical applications we see in our electrified civilization today.

Forgotten Genius also explores Heaviside’s life work, his idiosyncrasies, and more. His times with his live-in sister-in-law’s sister Mary are presented as pure sitcom fodder and these family tiffs describing battles over the virtues of “peas pudding versus lentils” are known of because Heaviside actually wrote about them in correspondence.

A long time contributor to The Electrician, a 19th century British journal, Heaviside’s writings almost seem to speak to a future generation. We get most of our insight into the mind of Heaviside and his work from these writings.

The electrical science and the world of Heaviside also arrived at a crucial juncture, when the trans-Atlantic cable was laid. The book describes in detail just what an amazing feat this was, and the great lengths that engineers went to troubleshoot these lines. In an era where theorists frowned on field work, Heaviside sailed with the cable splicing ships through the choppy North Atlantic, repairing and testing cable junctures.

All in all, Forgotten Genius was an amazing read, and a fascinating story about a man whose life’s work bridged the early age of electricity and telegraphy and the modern era. I don’t think we’ve enjoyed a science history book as much since Age of Wonder, another essential tome on early 19th century discovery in science. We need more true tales of early science, ones that show just how incremental those early discoveries really were.

Also, be sure to read Basil Mahon’s true tale of Maxwell’s equations – Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field.

Well, we’re one month out today from the first total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous “lower 48” United States in nearly a century…. expect the next few weeks’ Astroguyz dispatches to be eclipse based. Me? I’ll be observing from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina for a glorious 107 seconds of totality. Where will YOU witness the eclipse from? Stay tuned!

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