Trio of Men

municipal song-makers

Trio of Men create music-based projects and performances...



Heaviside, like Tesla, had difficulty forming relationships with humans but loved birds. ‘A little bird has made friends with me,’ Heaviside wrote. ‘He knows what horrid creatures men are.’ Heaviside also kept a pet canary and once called himself the ‘man of many sparrows’. He observed bats when they entered his house and, as an old man, considered that he had become ‘as stupid as an owl'.

So he allied himself with birds and yet called himself a worm - a creature frequently a food for birds! In later life he referred to himself as ‘the undying worm’ and signed his letters ‘Oliver Heaviside W.O.R.M.’ Why?



Seven years before Oliver Heaviside was born, Edgar Allen Poe wrote his poem ‘The Conqueror Worm’. It begins optimistically, the first stanza ending...

Sit in a theatre, to see

A play of hopes and fears    

While the orchestra breathes fitfully    

The music of the spheres...

but gradually the tragedy unfolds and the final stanza ends...

While the angels, all pallid and wan    

Uprising, unveiling, affirm

That the play is the tragedy, ‘Man’    

And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

Does the poem imply that human life is mad folly ending in hideous death and that we live in a universe controlled by dark forces that man cannot understand? And that all we can rely on is the all-conquering undying worm?

Poe, the great gothic, romantic, science-fiction pioneer, inventor of the detective novel and the first American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone (resulting in a financially difficult life and career) died while Heaviside’s mother, Rachel was pregnant with Oliver.

Rachel was a governess and soon after Oliver was born (the fourth of four boys) she opened a girls school as a way to try and make money as they were always struggling financially. Rachel read many books and especially liked the modern ones. She read in English and French and would have ordered all the the new magazines that serialised contemporary novels and shared new poetry with the world, had she only had more money. In May 1850, chapters 38-40 of David Copperfield - the latest Charles Dickens - were published (32 pages of text and two illustrations) but Rachel had to wait until she could borrow the one shilling magazines after her sister Emma,  who had married into more wealth than Rachel (she married Charles Wheatstone) had finished with them.

Rachel was taken with ‘The Conqueror Worm,’ but could not quite work out why. She read it out aloud to herself on many occasions. Oliver, inside her belly heard these private recitations.

There is another poem by Poe which refers to the worm - ‘The Sleeper’, and perhaps Rachel also knew, and read aloud this one:

“My love, she sleeps!   

Oh, may her sleep,     

As it is lasting, so be deep!

Soft may the worms about her creep!”



Mid-evening on May 18th, 1850 Oliver Heaviside was born, in Camden Town in London.

Oliver’s father Thomas was a struggling engraver, unable to make much money from his occupation that was in transition to oblivion, since photography had been invented and was rapidly taking over. The evening Oliver was born, Thomas was ill and unable to work and so his brothers (also engravers) were finishing his work due for publication the following week.

On the same evening - at dusk - in Leipzig,  Johan Georg Heck was putting the finishing touches to his sheet of ‘Worms and Parasites’ ready for engraving in his ‘Ikonographische Encyklopadie der Wissenschaften und Kunste’, soon to be published and republished around the world. Extraordinary detail replicating what could be seen with the most up-to-date illuminating microscopes. He was just finishing the Tomopteris. He had left this one till late on as it was relatively easy to copy and, as the natural light changed to candle-light, this was not the time for delicate detailed drawings. Johan was now fifty-five years old and while at the peak of his engraving powers and reputation, he was also conscious of his diminishing eyesight and was taking more and more care over the precise times that he spent at his desk on intimate work.

Tomopteris are very common in all oceans and seas, many of them living in the deep sea. All Tomopteris species emit blue light called luminescence, some of them also emit a yellow light and, as they are transparent, they are very hard to detect when they do not emit light. They glide through the water like a Chinese dragon kite in a rhythmical undulating fashion which is spectacular and mesmerising. When attacked they scatter thousands of luminous particles from their legs in an attempt to distract predators who get confused and follow the discharged glow instead of the actual worm, while the actual worm escapes.

The original description of the Tomopteris had only been made earlier that year by Adolph Eduard Grube, another German. Grube was one of the earliest scientific explorers of the Adriatic Sea.

Waves and light, communicating across the sea, hidden and deceptive. A beautiful creature seemingly out of science-fiction, the newly invented genre exploring and playing with the rapid and radical increases in scientific knowledge.

Oliver Heaviside’s contributions helped to communicate across the oceans; beneath, with telegraphy and above, with radio, while the Tomopteris worm was revealing new secrets about how animals communicate, disguise and illuminate themselves in the deep waters themselves.



What was it about Schubert that persuaded Heaviside to describe him as ‘the divine Schubert’ and when did he first hear his music?

Oliver Heaviside’s uncle was the musical and electrical inventor Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone invented the English Concertina. He bought one round to the Heaviside’s house when Oliver was about eight and, like many young boys he immediately proceeded to start to take it apart. Wheatstone didn’t try to prevent Oliver from this, but instead encouraged him and he not only dismantled it, but managed to reassemble it - and it still worked.

In the 1820’s Wheatstone had put on some extraordinary musical events in London including showing his ‘acoucryptophone,’ ‘kaleidophone’  and ‘terpsiphone’ and attempted to demonstrate a number of experimental ways of reproducing sound. At the age of 20 he opened ‘‘Wheatstone’s Musical Museum’. Once he realised that Oliver and his brother Charles were interested in music he arranged a musical afternoon for them. Wheatstone showed some of his instruments from the 1820’s and had some musical guests play on them and finally he had performed a selection from Schubert’s Winterreise - Winter Journey - for piano and voice.

Heaviside sat near the piano, he could not hear all of the words, he was more like an old man than a young boy, thanks to his scarlet fever and the resultant partial deafness.  But he was struck first by the desolate beauty in these songs of wintry love and in particular ‘Rast’ the tenth song. Only now that the man in the song has stopped to rest does he realise how tired he is, and in the quiet he feels for the first time the ‘worm’.

Only now in the quiet do you feel the sharp sting    

of the worm that lives within you!

Was this the first time that Heaviside felt himself similarly to be a worm? At the age of nine or ten.



Oliver Heaviside only had one job in his life, and that did not last long. He retired from ‘work’ at the age of 24, having spent two years in Denmark (aged 18-20) and then four in Newcastle-upon-Tyne working as a telegraph operator for the DanskNorsk-Engelske Telegraf Selskab. In Denmark he lived and worked in Frederica right in the centre of Denmark.

Oliver worked hard and was continually noticing, and then solving, problems for the nascent telegraph industry. He learned the language, he did not drink and was not especially social, but he read widely, on many subjects especially contemporary scientific news.

Oliver was due to return to England in December 1870 following the Telegraph Acts of 1868 and 1869 which made the operation of telegraphs a government monopoly and the subsequent take-over by The Great Northern Telegraph Company, but he was required to visit the head office in Copenhagen before returning home.
Heaviside reported to the office and then had a day free in the capital. The Zoological Museum of Denmark had opened its doors in November and Oliver was one of the first visitors. There, he discovered some of the scattered remnants of the extraordinary Cabinet of Curiosities created and curated by Ole Worm some two hundred years earlier. Oliver spent the whole afternoon tracing anything he could find about Worm’s extraordinary life, collection and legacy. He uncovered the following information. 28
In a letter penned on Feb 5th 1644 Ole Worm offers a young friend this advice:-

‘ seek unbeaten paths is the best way to find virtue.’

Worm was a technician of knowledge, a virtuoso of the Renaissance, a man with cutting edge interest in natural history and the arts. The modest collection of geological, biological and cultural curiosities he rounded up on his European travels provided the initial basis for the collection, but the bulk of the museum was actually assembled through correspondence - he was a letter-writing collector.

In a letter to another antiquarian dated 1626 he expresses his sense of elation, immersion and total lack of bearings before the project of collecting and surveying:-

‘I don’t know what storms have driven me out onto this deep ocean of antiquities: I see no harbour: the dice are cast, whatever destiny in turn may bring.’

Ole Worm became a remarkable and inspiring model for Heaviside. They were decidedly different characters, Oliver was not a polymath, travelling collector like Worm, and yet it just took one afternoon in the new museum in Copenhagen for him to become a disciple - a Worm follower. Oliver knew he had to ‘seek unbeaten paths’ and that even by the young age of 20, for him ‘the dice were cast’.

Later in life when Heaviside signed his many and varied letters ‘Oliver Heaviside W.O.R.M.’ was he thinking of Ole Worm and his afternoon in that Copenhagen museum? Heaviside and Worm the letter-writing sharers of newly discovered information and ideas. For as Norbert Weiner said of Heaviside in his novel ‘The Tempter’:-

‘...he developed scientific ideas as naturally as a poet writes or a bird sings.’