HAM Radio 101

Tales from the History of Wireless Part II: The Rivalry Between Sir William Henry Preece and Oliver Heaviside

Let’s face it, solving differential equations isn’t a hobby we’re all desperate to tackle. In fact, there are those of us who simply shudder at the mention of anything mathematical. Sir William Henry Preece, who is best known for transmitting and receiving the first wireless radio signal across a body of water with partner Arthur Heaviside, is a prime example of someone who really hated math. And his nemesis, of sorts, Arthur Heaviside, made sure to give him a lot of grief about it.

As an inventor and electrical engineer with political clout in the late 1800s, Preece regularly hobnobbed with some of the most influential thinkers of the time who, as a general rule, adored him despite his oftentimes controversial views and insistence that math in a practical setting was largely pointless. In his inaugural speech as President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1893, Preece stated: “True theory does not require the abstruse language of mathematics to make it clear and to render it acceptable […] All that is solid and substantial in science and usefully applied in practice have been made clear by relegating mathematic symbols to their proper store place—the study.” 

It was a rather strong statement since many thought producers of the time relied largely on Maxwell’s equations as the foundation for scientific thought about electricity, and it was a statement that would not go unchecked. In fact, Oliver Heaviside, the brother of Preece’s partner, Arthur Heaviside, would make every attempt to check Preece as often as possible on this and many other points—so a rivalry was born.

Heaviside did not share the same privilege as Preece but was undeniably bright. He left school at age 16 due to financial constraints, graduating fifth out of 500 in his class, and went to work as an electrician while independently studying everything he could. By the age of 22 he had published an article in the prestigious Philosophical Magazine titled, “The Best Arrangement of Wheatstone’s Bridge for Measuring a Given Resistance with a Given Galvanometer and Battery.” The article solved an equation that esteemed mathematicians of the time, Sir William Thomson and Maxwell had been unable to solve.

Heaviside then published an article on the duplex method of using telegraph cable—but not without first taking a jab at R.S. Culley, the Engineer in Chief of the Post Office telegraph system who publicly claimed that the method was “impractical.” Heaviside’s article refuted this claim and made Culley look like a fool. Preece was a member of the Post Office and chums with Culley. He would also later become President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, an organization that initially refused Heaviside’s membership application saying, “They didn’t want telegraph clerks.” However, Heaviside was later admitted “despite the P.O. snobs” with sponsorship from Sir William Thomson and the organization’s sitting president.

Debates about electricity only added more spark to the feud. In 1887, Arthur and Oliver Heaviside wrote The Bridge System of Telephony but were blocked from publication by Preece, who was Arthur’s superior and a member of the Post Office with clout. The article discussed adding loading coils (inductors) to telephone and telegraph lines to increase self-induction and correct distortion. Since Preece had recently claimed that self-induction negatively influenced transmission clarity, he shot down the article to protect his reputation. Heaviside also believed Preece was responsible for the firing of The Electrician’s editor, which was a publication he regularly wrote for until the dismissal.

However, it was Preece’s presumed lack of intelligence that upset Heaviside the most. Heaviside considered Preece to be mathematically incompetent and, frankly, a bit of a dolt. Biographer Paul J. Nahin also supports this claim of intellectual inadequacy stating, “Preece was a powerful government official, enormously ambitious, and in some remarkable ways, an utter blockhead.” Blockhead or brilliant, his contributions remain and, luckily for Preece, he is remembered by most far more kindly. Read more about Preece’s accomplishments in this OnAllBands post.

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