He was a brilliant mathematician and electrical engineer (1850 and 1925) who received no formal education past the age of sixteen. Despite revolutionising telegraphy and radio communication, he was neither generally acknowledged nor properly remunerated for this work. Others capitalised on and patented his ideas, making money and garnering acclaim, while he remained poor and lived out his twilight years in South Devon; socially marginalised and frequently misunderstood. He died after falling from a ladder in Torquay and is buried in Paignton.
The Heaviside Condition is a song-cycle inspired by the life of Oliver Heaviside W.O.R.M.
This idea grew in the head of my friend and musical brother Hugh over some years: a sung story about a barmy and obscure engineer of Old Torquay. For some mysterious but correct reason, we decided that I was going to be a collaborator and wrote off to various funding bodies, asking for the money to make a community theatre piece. After refusals from elsewhere, the Arts Council of England finally and mercifully awarded a small grant. We celebrated briefly before wondering what to do. A few months later, in March 2016, The Heaviside Condition was performed to local audiences.
Oliver Heaviside’s last surviving relative (and Torbay’s resident Heavisidologist) Alan Heather, accompanied by his wife Jean, attended the very first show at Torquay museum, which began with a cleansing ritual and ended with Oliver’s transmogrification into an earthworm. It probably wasn’t what Alan had envisaged upon first meeting with us during the early days of the project. Back then, we had no idea we’d be getting involved with such things either.
At some point during our extensive research, the nocturnal spirits of a twitchy bat and a stupid owl flew in through a window upstairs. During his life, Oliver had written very clearly of visitations by these two but, before long, they were manifesting themselves repeatedly through our own singing and scribbling in the cellar. To investigate this phenomena, we drove to Warminster to visit a shaman called Speedwell, and we took these gifts and offerings: a worm print, fresh sage, a tin of Foresight Pease Pudding™ and some anchovies. The shaman proffered great insight regarding these incorporeal creatures and by combining objects from the natural and man-made worlds, crafted two beautiful head-dresses for us to wear. Hugh and I decided that for the duration of the project, we would host and embody the spirits of Bat and Owl, respectively.
Before we left Warminster, Speedwell spoke in detail about the shamanistic significance of the worm (or serpent). Towards the end of his life, Oliver had begun to refer to himself as ‘The Undying Worm’ (very possibly the biblical and sinister worm of Mark 9:48, eternally-feasting on a constant supply of fresh corpses) and he also used the mysterious acronym ‘W.O.R.M.’ to sign his written correspondence. We figured that the song-story should end with Oliver’s death and rebirth as an earthworm and invited Speedwell to the performances to facilitate these transformations.
We asked our friend Dr Jonathan Croose to channel Oliver Heaviside and he kindly agreed. Uncannily, at every show and without flinching, he would sit in a giant wooden frame and receive the visitation, repeatedly enduring a series of transformations into Oliver’s altered state: The Undying Worm. I should mention in passing that later that year, at a church concert of songs about a new link road in South Devon, Oliver (inhabiting Dr Croose) arrived unannounced and performed a song about the fates of native bats and owls along the route of the new road development. All of this actually happened.
What could have been a relatively straight musical biography became a rather grand shared invention. As the journey progressed, we went into care homes and primary schools to perform summoning rituals and to help other’s find their spirit animals. While peers and partners grew progressively more concerned, it became urgently obvious that there were lots of disembodied animals roaming Torbay, all waiting to be uncovered. We decided to concentrate as many of them as we could into one space and we did this by forming a new community choir.
To attract singers, we held a public open day at Torquay museum and forty people attended. There in the Local Studies room we introduced Oliver, declared our spiritual conditions and displayed our new head-dresses. Over the course of the day, others began to divulge their own celestial truths; one woman named her animal totem as the Loch Ness Monster while another said that the project probably wasn’t for her.
This marked the first assemblage of The Choral Engineers, an experimental creative choir who miraculously trusted us and allowed themselves to be swept up and away. Each week we met with them in a room at Paignton Library & Information Centre and through music, we shared Oliver’s life and legacy. They reciprocated in ways which made us feel happy to be alive: performing songs in tricky 7/8 time signatures and wearing self-made costumes based on the animals they had sensed. For the 90th anniversary of Oliver’s death, we led members on a pilgrimage to Heaviside’s local haunts, performing songs of remembrance and re-enactments of key moments from his life. Thankfully, most of us continue to meet weekly in public spaces and are still uncovering our feral voices together. Heaviside has become our muse and we his choir. One Choral Engineer will only sing with us if we only sing songs about Oliver.
The Heaviside Condition has become one of the most profound musical and spiritual experiences for me. The mysterious but correct reason we were all drawn together in Oliver’s name is now obvious: events were decided and controlled by those from a realm beyond our own. Granted, there’s no quantifiable evidence to elevate this statement beyond spurious ‘moonshine’ (to borrow Ollie’s best heckle against bad science), but it remains subjectively true. The owl chose to inhabit me because I am nocturnal, quietly obsessive, occasionally a good listener but often stupidly inarticulate, a bit clairvoyant (when in or near trees) and sometimes unhinged. It feels good to name and know these quirks and manias. One has to be mad enough to visit the realm of animal spirits up in the Heaviside Layer, but it’s always better to travel with others than to go alone. Safety in numbers, comfort in harmony.