Bank plaque honours genius scientist and mathematician Oliver Heaviside

Oliver Heaviside

Oliver Heaviside - Credit: Archant

In this series about Torbay Civic Society Blue Plaques, Ian Handford writes about the who and how each plaque was chosen:

The introduction to the genius that was Oliver Heaviside came via a member of the society Alan Heather, a retired presenter from BBC Devon, who if a radio fan, you may recall.

The only thing I knew about Oliver Heaviside was the link to the 'Heaviside Layer' in the upper Earth's ionosphere.

A nephew of Oliver Heaviside, Alan was extremely proud to be related to this man of yester-year, and very much wanted a Blue Plaque unveiled on his family home in Palace Avenue.

In 2005, Alan offered to fund the plaque for his relative, and having contacted Barclays Bank at 6/8 Palace Avenue, Paignton, you can guess they were as surprised as I was, that the bank premises had once been home to an internationally famous man, renowned scientist and mathematician.

He predicted there were electromagnetic forces in the upper atmosphere that would 'catch' - or more precisely reflect - radio waves in the air - Heaviside Layer - which later enabled Marconi to develop both radio and television waves, to actually follow the curvature of the earth, and allow communications right around our globe.

From a child, Oliver, who had contracted scarlet fever, was forever hampered by deafness yet in spite of this afflication, became a scientist whose mathematical skill in the fields of electricity and electro-magneticism saw him eventually even publishing a unique book entitled 'Comparing Electromotive Forces' in 1873, and between 1880 and 1887 go on to develop the world's first operational form of calculus, which is still in use today.

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A lifelong bachelor, Oliver came back to the family home in Paignton in June, 1889, but eventually went to reside in Totnes Road, Newton Abbot, where he remained for 11 years.

Locals at Newton viewed him as a bit odd, watching him riding his 'new fangled machine - a safety cycle with a spoon-type brake - while at home, amusingly placing a large stone on his doorstep, to use to bang the front door, if wishing to attract him.

Torbay Civic Society helped Newton Abbot Civic Society unveil a Blue Plaque on the house many years after our own plaque was put on the Palace Avenue home in 2002.

While living at Newton Abbot, Oliver unfortunately contracted jaundice, so moved to 'Homefield' in Lower Warberry Road, Torquay, where he lived alone until his death in 1925.

Abandoned for years, Homefield eventually gained a Blue Plaque on its boundary wall courtesy of the 'Instutution of Electrical Engineers'.

Sadly, this badly cracked and having unveiled our plaque at Paignton, I tried for year to get Oliver's professional institution to replace their plaque, always to no avail.

When the house was fired and then demolished it made way for modern day apartments, when fortunately, Torbay Council planning ensured the developer returned the broken - 'so-called listed plaque' - on the wall which is still there today.

Our own unveiling ceremony at Palace Avenue turned out not to be our easiest, having to drill into a bank wall, the event on a pavement close to the busy road and refreshments served up the road at a local bistro.

But with Alan and his wife Jean as main guests, the event was successful on May 18, 2002, which should have ended my story this week.

But, no, 12 years later in 2014 we were approached by the University of Newcastle, who had undertaken a restoration of Oliver Heaviside's gravestone at Paignton as part of project for their students that year.

With a grant and the university website used to get sufficient funding to restore the grave, using local stone masons, lecturers asked us to assist.

At a special unveiling at the graveside at Paignton Cemetery in May 18, Alan Heather was again star of the day, with a professor down for the event and Torbay mayor, myself and Kevin Foster MP fronting the proceedings.

With members of the society and public present, the university were duly impressed and Oliver Heaviside was suitably honoured, coinciding with his birthdate.