The lesser-spotted physicist

The history of the Royal Society is full of famous men and women of science, but every so often we discover a significant but obscure figure deep in the archives. These are often some of the most interesting people, and were better recognised by their contemporaries than we have remembered.

One such figure is Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925). Who? He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891, specialising in electrical theory. His interest was sparked – pun intended – when he went to work with his uncle, Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), co-inventor in 1837 of the first commercial telegraph. Telegraphy involved a code-system which was used to transmit a message between two distant sites, and its commercial expansion led to a series of national projects to lay lines across Britain, as well as attempts to connect Britain with North America and further afield. Communication was transformed, and it was through this new technology that Heaviside developed his passion for electrical physics.



Oliver Heaviside, ca. 1900 (Smithsonian Libraries public domain image)


Heaviside’s life has been of interest to some historians of science, and physicists might recognise his name, but he rarely comes up in a general history of the Royal Society. He was born in London into a modest family; his father was a wood engraver. After grammar school, where Heaviside excelled in natural history, higher education was not financially feasible. The young Oliver was sent to work with his brother in the north of England on the telegraph. In 1873 he sent the Philosophical Magazine a paper that was praised by physicists William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, eminent figures at the Royal Society and experts on electrical physics. After just seven working years, Heaviside decided to quit and devote all of his time to the study of electrical theory, never again seeking full-time employment. He lived with his parents in London, and later in Devon above his brother’s music shop, spending the last few months of his life in a retirement home.

He published many articles throughout his life, mainly in the monthly Philosophical Magazine and the weekly Electrician, and it was through these papers that his work became recognised by other physicists in the Society, leading to his election to the Fellowship. It was only after this date that Heaviside published with the Royal Society – five papers in Proceedings and one in the Philosophical Transactions, all in the 1890s. Before this date he did not have the necessary connections to access the Society: if an author was not a Fellow they had to get the support of a Fellow to even submit a paper.

Even after his election, however, it was far from plain sailing for Heaviside at the Society. In June 1891, now a Fellow, Heaviside submitted a paper on the ‘Force, Stresses, and Fluxes of Energy in the Electromagnetic Field’. An abstract was published in Proceedings on 18 June 1891 on the same day the paper was read to the Society (Proceedings 1891 vol. 50 302-307 126-129), but the full paper was not passed by Council for printing in the Philosophical Transactions until October 1892, a delay of fully sixteen months from its submission. At this point the paper was available as a ‘separate copy’, which Heaviside could circulate among his contemporaries and interested readers could purchase from booksellers; the paper only appeared in the bound Transactions volume in 1892.

A delay between submission and printing was not unusual in the nineteenth century, in fact it was normal for an author to have to wait several months for a paper to pass through the refereeing process at the Society. This was not the cause of the delay to Heaviside’s paper; rather, he held up the printing of his paper himself due to his dissatisfaction with the printer’s typesetting of the copious mathematical formulae in the first copy he received. He was adamant that a better attempt be made, which he related to the Secretary of the Society John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh): ‘the paper is hard enough to read without the unnecessary difficulty of unsuitable type, and I thought something must be done’ (MM/17/110).

Not only did such revisions to papers cause delay, but they were also expensive for the Society. Despite this, the Assistant Secretary appeased Heaviside, stating that Harrisons, the Society’s printer, ‘must do what they can to meet his wishes about the type’ (NLB/5/1076). Heaviside drew on his experience of publishing in the Philosophical Magazine and the Electrician to suggest the correct type to use. This is significant since the Society’s printing, until the work passed to Harrisons in 1877, had been done by Taylor and Francis, a company known for skilled typesetting of scientific papers. After months of to-ing and fro-ing between the Society, Heaviside and Harrisons, the Assistant Secretary believed an end was in sight: ‘we have got as near as we can to your [Heaviside’s] pattern’ (NLB/5/1166). In reality, Heaviside was still unhappy. The Society was now very anxious to get the paper out, but another four months passed before it was finally approved by Heaviside.

Heaviside never published another paper in the Philosophical Transactions. And even though he published several short papers in the Proceedings, when he attempted to publish here in 1894 he faced opposition from the referee, and was given the option to “withdraw” the paper: ‘I should, with much reluctance, prefer to withdraw it’ (rather than have it fester in the ‘archives’ of the Society where all unpublished papers resided) (RR/12/136).

Heaviside seemed to maintain his eccentricities in his personal life too. Without a job, he was exceedingly poor, only surviving on a small pension acquired for him by some Royal Society Fellows, which he was reluctant to accept. His work, however, was revered by other physicists at the Society, who were all formally educated and most in full-time academic positions. While his skill and intellect conceivably approached the likes of James Clerk Maxwell (whose theories he developed), his fame never did. The Royal Society’s archives may hold no portrait of Heaviside, but they do provide insight into the scientific merits of a Fellow who remained (possibly out of choice) on the margins of the scientific elite.


Mathematical musings from the sickbed

Have you ever written a letter to yourself? This is exactly what James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) did in 1902 as he lay in a sanatorium at Ringwood, Hampshire.


Portrait of James Jeans FRS, 1924, by Philip de László © The Royal Society


Jeans was a mathematician and astronomer, born in Lancashire and spending most of his early adult life studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. Apparently, he could tell the time at the age of three. This natural inclination towards arithmetic was evident during his battle, from c.1898, with tuberculosis of the knees and wrists.

Despite spending considerable time in seclusion until he was cured in 1903, Jeans was not cut off from the burgeoning expertise and intellect of his colleagues and friends at Cambridge. It was during this time that he established himself as a prestigious mathematician. He was awarded a first class degree, followed by an Isaac Newton studentship and a Smith’s prize. His success continued after his health was restored and in 1906 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the early age of 28.

On 19 April 1902, having spent a long duration at Ringwood, Jeans employed an interesting technique to lift his spirits above the dismal condition of his body: he wrote a letter to himself.

Jeans pondered the fact that ‘this confinement at Ringwood has told somewhat upon your [Jeans’s] spirits – as how should it not?’. Yet Jeans was hopeful: ‘your anxiety is now over: you have every reason to feel hopeful: you have freedom from actual pain’. Parts of the letter are poetic representations of Jeans’s improving condition: ‘The clouds race over the brink of your valley; the birds have begun to chatter about nest-building; and the trees are pushing on with their budding, & give the birds their leafy secrecy’.

Jeans’s letter was reciprocated a few days later. The writer (Jeans) confessed to Jeans: ‘I read your letter with mixed feeling’. In fact for Jeans, replying to the first letter, the language used therein was ‘too childish. What is the talk of birds (gracious powers!) and clouds (good God!)? What sickly sentimental stuff!’. Jeans also rejected the positive tone expounded in the initial letter, rather, describing his debilitated state at Ringwood as ‘perfectly disgusting’. Yet, an inward (and outward) struggle between despair and hope over his current health is apparent as Jeans admitted, ‘I am secretly more optimistic’.

In these communications Jeans’s reliance on the ‘sympathy’ of his friends at Cambridge is also apparent. Not able to see them in person at Ringwood or return to Cambridge, one way Jeans maintained contact with his colleagues and friends was through the Philosophical Transactions, the long-running scientific journal of the Royal Society.


Photograph of G H Hardy FRS, from the Archives of the Royal Society


Godfrey Harold Hardy (1877-1947), who was a fellow mathematician at Trinity College, wrote to Jeans during his time at Ringwood, relaying the sentiment that he ‘was very glad to hear such an encouraging report and suppose we may really expect you up [in Cambridge] next term’. Yet he confessed to Jeans that the real reason for his writing was less altruistic: ‘I was really writing to ask for a copy of your latest paper, which seems to me to be rivalling Whittaker’s in notoriety’. The said paper was ‘The Distribution of Molecular Energy’, printed in Phil Trans in 1901, during which Jeans was laid up in Ringwood. Edmund Taylor Whittaker’s (1873-1956) paper, which Hardy referenced, was ‘On the Connexion of Algebraic Functions with Automorphic Functions’, published in Phil Trans in 1899.

As Jeans came to the end of his respite in April of 1903, Arthur Robert Hinks (1873-1945), who was at this time astronomer at the Observatory in Cambridge, thanked Jeans for his ‘most interesting paper’ (‘On the Vibrations and Stability of a Gravitating Planet’ published in the Phil Trans in the same year). Hinks also knew of a 1902 paper by Jeans in Phil Trans on the ‘nebula’: ‘Have you a copy you could spare? I should value it greatly’.

Despite Jeans’s ostensibly prohibitive condition, he continued to communicate with his colleagues and to distribute his mathematical theories. Between his quarantine and his return to academic life Jeans published a total of five papers in the Phil Trans, in addition to the monograph he published at the same time. The Philosophical Transactions was an important medium in these sickbed communications.