An ode to Oliver Lodge

Vanity fair portrait of Oliver Lodge

When I was doing my PhD, every now and then I’d finish a chapter draft and send it to my supervisor and then we’d meet up a few weeks later and he’d say: ‘Why have you written another chapter about Oliver Lodge?’ And I wouldn’t really have an answer. There were 3 reasons, I suppose:

  1. Historical laziness. It is a lot easier to research one man (particularly when his life’s correspondence is stored in well-catalogued archives) than a load of them (or, god forbid, a woman). Also . . .
  2. Lodge was sort of everywhere. I was writing about physicists’ efforts to communicate with the ‘public’ (whoever they might be), and Lodge was always talking to the public. He kept popping up all over the place. But then, maybe I was seeing him everywhere because . . .
  3. I just like the guy. Why do I like him? That question shall be answered very shortly, because this post is entitled ‘An ode to Oliver Lodge’ and that’s what it’s going to be (using the very loosest definition of ‘ode’)

I suppose I should begin with a brief explanation of just who this man was. Born in Staffordshire in 1851, Lodge’s first formal entry into science (following a mandatory, and greatly despised, stint in his father’s pottery business) began with a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Science in London, during the winter of 1872-73. He continued his studies at University College, London until his appointment, in 1881, as the first Professor of Physics at the new University College in Liverpool. He stayed there until 1900, when he was appointed principal of another new university, Birmingham, where he would remain until his retirement nearly twenty years later.

In the nineteenth century, Lodge was instrumental in the development of wireless telegraphy, and thus kind of a big deal. On the theoretical side, he was interested in the ‘imponderables’ – light, heat, electricity, and especially the aether. This mysterious all-pervading substance was of central importance to Victorian theoretical physicists, so Lodge was pretty mainstream. As a result his nineteenth century self did very little to attract the attentions of me, Imogen, the sufferer of a lifelong underdog complex. Twentieth century Lodge, however, is a different story. The quantum and relativity theories arrived on the scene and suddenly the aether became less and less important. Lodge himself admitted that he lacked the requisite mathematical training to fully engage with this ‘modern’ physics. And he now appeared to be spending most of his time trying to talk to his dead son through the aether. He was a confused old man that nobody took seriously anymore. My kind of guy.

Or so I thought. Until I looked into it a little bit and found out that this really wasn’t the case at all. Lodge was disappointingly successful in the twentieth century. He did do much less scientific research (although he didn’t stop completely) but he was still prominent in the scientific world. He was a prolific communicator of science, writing books and articles for the general public. Notably he was renowned as an expert populariser of modern physics, despite his strong aether commitments. He was really famous – when the Daily Mail wrote about him, and they did, it was assumed that the readers would already know who he was (no introduction required).  Lodge’s psychical research did expose him to a fair bit of negative attention, but also quite a lot of support. In 1913, he used the opportunity of a widely reported Presidential address to the British  Association for the Advancement of Science to briefly talk about his belief in communications between the living and the dead. This received some criticism but also quite a lot of support, including from religious commentators, despite being a somewhat  unconventional take on Christianity. 

Lodge wasn’t just revered by the general public – other physicists appreciated the work he was doing to communicate their subject more widely. In 1924, he published a popular book on Atoms and Rays, in which he demonstrated a woeful grasp of ‘modern’ physics, confusing X-rays with alpha rays. In typical Lodge fashion he also mentioned the aether constantly. Another physicist, Edward Andrade, reviewed this book for the Observer. He pointed out the mistakes and warned that Lodge was ‘rather unorthodox . . . in his constant reference of everything back to the aether’, but still praised the book considerably. When a committee of scientists organised a display of modern physics at the massive 1924 British Empire Exhibition, they appointed Lodge as Vice-Chair, purely so they could get him to write the introduction to the handbook. Lodge was hardly a pariah of the scientific community. He was even the editor of a very prestigious journal, the Philosophical Magazine (some people complained it had gone downhill by the 1930s, but it was still at least the number two physics journal in Britain).

I’ll be honest – I was fairly disappointed by the revelation that Lodge wasn’t a real life Victor Jakob. How was I to reconcile my love of sad old men with this mainstream popular character? Well I found a way. By jumping forward to the 21st Century, I reached a point where Lodge was no longer famous, or necessarily respected. In fact, the reason I had my first underdog-friendly conception of his twentieth century reputation was because this part of his life had been dismissed or overlooked by most historians of science. By falling prey to the trap of assuming the physics we think is important now was important back then, most historians of twentieth century physics don’t care about Lodge. Of course, Lodge isn’t directly relevant to a history of the development of quantum mechanics (for example), but by ignoring him you end up with a rather incomplete picture of what was going on back then. Context and whatnot.

There’s a gap in the history. And I like to picture Lodge looking down at this gap from his big castle in the aether, and thinking ‘What the hell is going on? Why isn’t anybody talking about me anymore? Don’t you know who I am?!?’ I wave but I don’t think he notices.

Lodge is getting some attention now, although only from a bunch of historians so it’s hardly the fame he was used to. But it means I’ll probably start to like him less and less, because I’m a fickle history of science hipster. Sorry Lodge.

UPDATE (10/02/2014): I’ve written more on Oliver Lodge elsewhere – Looking beyond the ‘modernists’: Sir Oliver Lodge and the public face of 1920s physics


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