Patron Saint of Ham Radio?

Today, 19 May 2020, is Oliver Heaviside’ 170th birthday.



Okay this post will be a bit technical…but only a bit.

One of the giants of science is James Clerk Maxwell, he figured out the science behind how radio waves work. Pretty important stuff. He is immortalized in the famous four Maxwell Equations. Maybe you have head of them, lots of science-y types have heard of them, but not that many understand them, so don’t feel too left out, this is rarefied territory. (I’m still learning this stuff, but I’m not there yet.) But it seems they are important to the experts that make modern life work.

And Maxwell did them!

Except he didn’t. Maxwell did eight equations, not four. Oliver Heaviside is the one who simplified the eight into four.

People will write otherwise, but it seems to me that it was Heaviside, not Maxwell, who created the whole field of electrical engineering.

In Heaviside’s day the hot new technology was the telegraph. You know, Morse code, dits and dahs. It was slow and cumbersome and expensive, but it could communicate over long distances very rapidly when compared with a horse or ship or even a racing locomotive (that means a train). The slight detail is that the longer the wires got the mushier the signal got. People would try to make up for it by turning up the voltage, and they had other tricks they tried, but it was a seat-of-the-pants, rule-of-thumb world, and don’t ask too many questions because even the most talented “electricians” didn’t really know why one trick might work and why a different did not. The first trans-Atlantic cable was not only very slow but burned out after a very short amount of use. (They turned up the voltage quite a bit.)

Heaviside worked for a telegraph company, and he wanted to figure out this stuff worked. Precisely how it worked, as in quantifying things. This rubbed some in the industry the wrong way, there was a lot of opposition of quantifying these things. And he did. Both rub people the wrong way and figure out these things. He figured out how to make telegraph wires operate at much faster speeds for much greater distances, without burning them out. His same principles were applied to voice telephone calls, for they had the same problem of the signal getting mushy if the lines got too long, and he explained how to fix that, too.

His solution was to set up what is now called a balanced transmission line. Back when TV antennas were put on roofs the first kind of cable for connecting it to the TV was a balanced transmission line, 300-ohm twin lead, to be precise, and it was a flat cable, made of plastic with a wire running down each edge. Don’t tape it directly to your metal antenna mast, it doesn’t like that, but if suspended away from metal, it is very efficient at getting a very weak signal down to the TV without picking up interference along they way. Heaviside invented the balanced transmission line. And it is useful for a lot more than ancient TV antennas. It you haven’t heard of balanced transmission line, but have heard of coax cable (it is perfectly okay to tape coax to the metal TV antenna mast–coax is not as efficient as twin lead, but easier to string), well Heaviside invented coaxial cable, too.

About the time telegraph and telephone were still pretty new there was another hot technology: radio. Heaviside was paying attention there, too. At this point sensible people knew the world was not flat but is round (spherical, to be pedantic). And people also knew that radio waves travel in straight lines, so radio wouldn’t be useful for long distance communications, right? Wrong. For some frequencies, under the right conditions, radio waves will bounce off the ionosphere and can travel great distances. Heaviside figured this out. He figured out that this should work before people found out that it did work. In fact the layer of the atmosphere (the ionosphere) that does this was originally called the Heaviside Layer.

Back to the Maxwell Equations. The way that Heaviside did all of this was by taking the science and figuring out how to apply it in a precise way to make an engineering discipline: he created electrical engineering. Including inventing new ways of doing the math.

In the early days of Bell Labs they were working magic by taking Heaviside’s work and applying it in a practical way. Some Bell engineers were so impressed with Heaviside’s work, and so indebted to him, that they tried to send him money, but he said no.

At this point Heaviside was old and not rich, yet he said no. Oliver Heaviside could be difficult. Various folk tried to help him and to the extent it looked like help to him, he said no, even though he needed it. And part of why the Bell Labs engineers were having such a hay day on his work is he that, though he might have been brilliant, he didn’t stop to try to make his work easy to understand, it took awhile for his work to have full effect.

Back to the my claim he should be the patron saint of ham radio: He made practical much of what the field is built on, he was a hands-on man. And he died of complications from falling from a ladder.

-kb, AC1HJ

©2020 Kent Borg

P.S. Comments are broken and have been for sometime. Sorry.

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