Lodge, Sir Oliver Joseph (1851–1940), physicist
by Peter Rowlands

Lodge, Sir Oliver Joseph (1851–1940), physicist, was born at The Views, Penkhull, Staffordshire, on 12 June 1851, the eldest of the eight sons and one daughter of Oliver Lodge (1826–1884), a railway clerk and later a merchant, and his wife, Grace Heath (1826–1879). Two of his brothers, including , and his sister, , also had distinguished academic careers. The family was of professional middle-class origin but the father, one of a family of twenty-five children, had to make his own way and eventually supplied materials for pottery manufacture. After attending a local dame-school Lodge studied under somewhat Dickensian conditions at Newport grammar school, Shropshire, where he boarded from 1859 to 1863, and then for two years with his uncle at Combs, Suffolk. He worked in his father's business until 1874, but an early interest in science was stimulated by an aunt and by lectures by Professor Tyndall at the Royal Institution in the winter of 1866–7. In 1872 he passed the entrance examinations for the London University external degree, and in the following winter studied at the Royal College of Science, under Huxley, Frankland, and Guthrie. His deep interest in science was confirmed when he heard James Clerk Maxwell speak at the British Association meeting at Bradford in 1873; Lodge immediately bought Maxwell's revolutionary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (which he first read at Heidelberg three years later). He made a point of attending almost every subsequent British Association meeting for the next sixty-three years, and himself soon became one of its star attractions.

Early experiments in physics

In January 1874 Lodge enrolled as a full-time student at University College, London, obtaining the BSc degree in the following year. He was made demonstrator to Professor Carey Foster, and devised a teaching model of Maxwell's dielectric medium which he presented to the British Association meeting at Glasgow in 1876, receiving encouragement from Maxwell himself. In June 1877 he was awarded the degree of DSc, and two months later, on 22 August, married Mary Fanny Alexander Marshall (1851–1929) of Newcastle under Lyme, who had trained as an artist at the Slade School. The marriage was a happy one and lasted until Mary's death; they had six sons and six daughters. In 1878 Lodge made a significant friendship with the respected Dublin physicist G. F. FitzGerald, who quickly became his scientific mentor. With FitzGerald and the reclusive engineer Oliver Heaviside, Lodge became one of the three main promoters of Maxwell's then little-regarded theory of the electromagnetic field. Lodge's late start meant that he was always a little diffident about his abilities at mathematical physics, although he did attain competence in that field. His insights relied more upon qualitative thinking, but he had strong physical imagination and made many brilliant speculations. Thus, at the British Association in August 1879, he went beyond Maxwell by predicting that waves could be directly generated from electromagnetic fields, and, in February 1880, proposed (in a notebook) to discover them by discharging a Leyden jar. FitzGerald doubted this at first, and Lodge for a time dropped the idea, but after a re-examination of the problem in 1882, FitzGerald conceded the possibility, stressing that the wavelengths would be considerably longer than those of light.

In June 1881 Lodge was elected professor of physics at the new University College, Liverpool, ahead of fifteen other candidates, and immediately went on a scientific tour of Europe, where he met such great physicists as Helmholtz and Hertz. A lifelong interest appeared early when he lectured on the ether at the London Institution (1882). Some of his activity at Liverpool included consultancy work of a routine practical nature, but in 1883 he discovered the electrostatic condensation of fog. This observation eventually led to the development of the commercial electrostatic precipitator. Among early contributions to experimental and theoretical physics were his recognition of the significance of the local conservation of energy in Poynting's work on the electromagnetic field (1885), his method for making the migration of ions visible and for measuring their velocities by using decolorization of an alkali indicator (1886), and his production of an electrostatic field from the motion of gold leaf in a varying magnetic field (1889).

Already Lodge was beginning to make a name for himself as a public lecturer, particularly for a brilliant presentation, ‘Dust’, at Montreal in 1884. He was elected FRS on 9 June 1887 and was selected to give the Mann lectures on lightning conductors at the Royal Society of Arts in March the next year. During last-minute preparation for these lectures he made his first significant discovery when he used the discharge from a Leyden jar to produce electromagnetic waves guided along wires. His lecture, making the first explicit statement in the literature that electromagnetic waves had been discovered (specifically radiowaves of 30 yards length), was published on 22 June. Another paper, on lightning conductors, was sent to the Philosophical Magazine in July; a footnote stated that Hertz had now found electromagnetic waves in free space. On his return from another continental tour, Lodge attended the British Association meeting in Bath, where FitzGerald promoted Hertz's work and his own was somewhat overshadowed, although Heaviside and others recognized that it was at least as significant in confirming Maxwell's theory. Lodge, however, quickly realized the practical significance of free space waves, and immediately adopted Hertz's methods, developing his spark gap oscillator into an improved transmitter which generated waves of constant frequency. At the same time he became involved in an acrimonious but publicly entertaining debate on lightning conductors and the nature of the lightning discharge with the Post Office engineer William Preece, who was a ‘practical’ opponent of Heaviside's theoretical work on self-inductance. Lodge, who had made significant improvements in the design of lightning conductors and lightning guards, stressed the need to consider self-inductance in an oscillatory discharge, and implied that much of Preece's official work was vitiated by his ignorance of this fact. These issues had immense consequences for the future of electromagnetic theory.

Lodge's work on lightning guards led to several important discoveries, which he demonstrated in spectacular lectures at the Royal Institution and the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1889. These included the action of syntonic (or resonant) Leyden jars, ‘tuned’ to the same frequency, and the ‘coherer’ action between metal spheres. He experimented on the concentration of electromagnetic waves using pitch lenses, and calculated the power output of a Hertzian oscillator. His interests, however, were moving away from electromagnetic waves, towards the ether. The famous Michelson–Morley experiment (1887) had given a null result for the effect of the earth's velocity, or ether drift, on that of light, and in March 1889 FitzGerald had produced a length contraction hypothesis to explain this while sitting in the study of Lodge's own house. Lodge now devised a new experiment with rotating discs to investigate the alternative hypothesis that a moving body could drag the ether along with it. This difficult, expensive, and rather dangerous experiment was paid for by the shipping owner George Holt. Lodge's theoretical analysis included the first statement of the Sagnac effect, and was original, also, in defining the ether as an absolute frame of reference. Again it gave a negative result, and is now considered as one of the foundation experiments for Einstein's special theory of relativity. Lodge announced preliminary results in his presidential address to section A of the British Association at Cardiff in August 1891, while discussing the need for a national physical laboratory and the importance of psychic research; he also alluded to the fourth dimension, with an early model of a ‘world-line’.

Radio waves and telegraphy

Lodge's interest in radio waves returned after he was selected to give a memorial lecture on Hertz, who had died in January 1894. He developed two new versions of the coherer as a radio-wave receiver. One, based on earlier work by Edouard Branly, was essentially a tube of metal filings; the other used a steel spring making a loose contact with an aluminium plate. Lodge recognized that coherer action was due to electrical breakdown and changes in the oxide layer on the metal. He experimented with radio signalling at University College and at his home in Grove Park. He also made pioneering searches for the effects of an upper conducting layer in the atmosphere (the ionosphere), and for radio waves from the sun, and experimented with the effect of high-frequency radio waves on animal tissues. That summer he gave presentations of his results at the Royal Institution (1 June), Royal Society (12 June), and British Association at Oxford (14 August), which were published in several journals and as a book, The Work of Hertz and some of his Successors; this became the immediate stimulus to the work of many others, including Bose, Jackson, Righi, and Marconi. Using telegraphic equipment (Morse key, Morse inker, marine galvanometer), and with the co-operation of a telegraphic engineer, Alexander Muirhead, Lodge gave the first public demonstration of what is now called radio-telegraphy, using the method of signalling in Morse code via long and short pulses. Although Muirhead and Lord Rayleigh, among others, tried to persuade him to take up the method commercially, Lodge went instead on a continental tour and became preoccupied with psychical research.

In September 1896 the British Association meeting was held in Liverpool, and Lodge demonstrated his apparatus there. Preece, however, announced that the Post Office had been involved with experiments with Marconi on a non-Hertzian method of telegraphy. Although this turned out to be a Hertzian method based on Lodge's coherer, and Preece, on at least two occasions, promised to acknowledge Lodge's contribution, no such acknowledgement was ever made. In May 1897 Lodge patented his system, which included his innovations of syntony or tuning to a specific frequency, the biconical antenna, and transformer coupling, but, unlike Marconi, he was never wholly convinced of its utility. He spent considerable time investigating an alternative inductive or ‘magnetic’ system of telegraphy, which had been pioneered by Preece. The magnetic system failed in practical terms, but one positive result was a patent for a moving coil loudspeaker (1898).

X-rays and atoms

This was a particularly exciting time in the development of physics and Lodge was quick to follow up the major discoveries then being made. Early in 1896 he lectured on X-rays to massive audiences in Liverpool, and made a pioneering medical application by locating a bullet in a boy's hand. He had long before suggested the generation of electromagnetic waves from vacuum tubes and he now speculated on X-ray diffraction and on the sun as an X-ray source. He developed new types of tube and film which greatly reduced exposure times. One of the most brilliant synthesizers of his generation, he was also significant in relating the Larmor–Lorentz theoretical concept of the electron to Thomson's newly discovered physical corpuscle. As early as March 1897 he had calculated its approximate size, or classical radius. He found that the Zeeman effect involved splitting of spectral lines as well as broadening, and he was early in stating that atoms are mostly empty space, and could be represented by planetary models (1902). He gave immediate support to the Rutherford–Soddy theory of radioactive transmutation when many people opposed it, associated radioactivity with the source of the sun's energy (1903), and discussed the fusion of elements in the formation of stars in nebulae as a reverse radioactive process (1908). Later he was involved in the naming of the proton (1920), and speculated that the particle might be composite (1922). His last purely scientific book, Atoms and Rays (1924), was an outstanding popular exposition of the Bohr theory.

Lodge was awarded the Rumford medal of the Royal Society in 1898, and became president of the Physical Society in 1899, a year in which he narrowly survived a bout of typhoid fever. A major career change occurred in 1900 when, at the invitation of Joseph Chamberlain, he left Liverpool to become principal of the new University of Birmingham, where he remained until his retirement in February 1919. There he laid the foundations for an institution of international stature. He was created knight bachelor in the coronation honours of June 1902. His other awards included the Albert medal of the Royal Society of Arts (1919) and the Faraday medal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1932), and he was president of the British Association at Birmingham in 1913.


Although he had less time for research at Birmingham, it was there that Lodge at last took up the commercial exploitation of radio. The Lodge–Muirhead Syndicate was formed in 1901, and a new receiver, the wheel coherer, patented in 1902. The syndicate won a major contract with the Indian government in 1904, to link Burma and the Andaman Islands, but was never able to break the Marconi Company's commercial stranglehold. In 1911, however, Lodge's patent was extended in the law courts. This led to a settlement with Marconi, Preece acting as ‘honest broker’ in the transaction. The syndicate was wound up; Lodge was paid an undisclosed sum for his patents, and became a nominal consultant to Marconi. Much later, in 1943, the United States supreme court ruled that Lodge's original patent was the only valid one from the time held by the company. Though he subsequently avoided commercial involvement with radio, Lodge maintained his interest in the subject, and wrote many popular articles. He became president of the Radio Society of Great Britain and a well-known broadcaster, and in his Talks about Wireless (1925), made the prescient suggestion that cryogenics would improve signal-to-noise ratios. At the same time, Lodge was also involved in other technical innovations, and their commercial exploitation, mainly for the benefit of his sons. He patented an igniter for motor cars with his son Alec in 1903; this led to the creation, by Alec and his brother Brodie, of the firm of Lodge Brothers, which manufactured the well-known Lodge spark plug. A significant Lodge invention was the diode rectifier bridge circuit (1903); two years later, Lodge patented his own valve rectifier. The Agricultural Electrical Discharge Company Ltd was founded in 1909 to exploit the effect of electrical currents on plant growth, and the Lodge Fume Deposit Company Ltd, in 1913, to manufacture electrostatic precipitators.

Lodge's physics, however, with its basis in the nineteenth-century ether concept, was now being increasingly perceived as old-fashioned, despite the fact that his remarkably abstract medium had, to a certain extent, anticipated the virtual particle concept and the quantum mechanical vacuum, and even the fundamental importance of the Planck length. He believed that the ether was a source of energy even greater than that of radioactivity and speculated on its use for rocket propulsion, and was convinced that he would be vindicated by the new quantum mechanics. Although he made the first public proposal of gravitational lenses (1919), he became well known also as an opponent of the idea of relativity, and his standing among contemporary physicists was accordingly reduced. In a lecture of February 1921 he stated the gravitational refractive index formula, proposed collapsed-matter stars, and explored the full range of black holes of interest to later physicists, but these ideas gained little attention at the time. Whatever its intrinsic merits as a scientific concept, Lodge's ether became discredited, partly through its application in his later books to psychical matters and to the spiritualism with which this had become increasingly associated.

Psychical research

Like many eminent men of his time, Lodge believed that spiritualism should be investigated. His lifelong interest began early, in Liverpool in 1882–3, with experiments on thought transference which involved very detailed studies of famous mediums. He pioneered the use of cards with simple designs and using the ‘double blind’ control method. Early in 1901 he was shaken by the death not only of his closest scientific friend, FitzGerald, but also that of his psychic mentor, Frederic Myers. He took over Myers's responsibilities, however, as president of the Society for Psychical Research. His work throughout all the intervening years attained a deeper personal importance when his youngest son, Raymond, was killed in Flanders in 1915. Lodge's belief that he had had precognition of the event, and that his son had communicated with him through mediums, was the subject of the enormously popular book Raymond (1916), which gave comfort to many who had suffered bereavement during the First World War. However, when Lodge arranged for his last psychic experiment to be carried out posthumously, in 1954, a panel of experts failed to identify the message he had left in a series of sealed envelopes.

In his later years Lodge wrote his autobiography, Past Years (1931), and his summary, My Philosophy (1933). He discussed the ether when he met Einstein at Oxford in June 1933 and affirmed his belief when filmed for the Institution of Electrical Engineers in December 1934. He made his last visit to the British Association at Blackpool in 1936, but carried on writing a textbook, ‘Physics for everyman’, which he abandoned only in 1938. Lodge was an imposing figure at 6ft 4in. in height, with a fine voice and a commanding presence. He was a popular broadcaster in the early days of the BBC and, throughout his life, gave many public lectures. He was a gifted communicator, a writer of lucid prose, and author of more than 1100 books and articles. In his time, but especially after the First World War, he was the recognized voice of scientific authority among the general public. He was selected to represent the figure of Education on the Victoria monument in Liverpool. He enjoyed golf, tennis, and other active leisure pursuits, and claimed that he had never spent an idle hour in his life. He served as president of at least ten organizations. A man of fine personal character, he was notable in promoting the interests of his assistants and giving them due credit for their part in his researches. He was a Fabian sympathizer and gave his support to worthy public causes, such as women's suffrage and universal education, often speaking publicly on political issues as well as on popular religion. He deserves, however, to be remembered most for his brilliant physical intuitions, and for his innovating contributions in the physics and technology of electromagnetic waves, radio telegraphy, and the ether. He died at his home, Normanton House, Lake, near Salisbury, on 22 August 1940, and was buried at St Michael's Church, Wilsford.



P. Rowlands and J. P. Wilson, eds., Oliver Lodge and the invention of radio (1994) · O. Lodge, Past years: an autobiography (1931) · T. Besterman, A bibliography of Sir Oliver Lodge (1935) · P. Rowlands, Oliver Lodge and the Liverpool Physical Society (1990) · W. P. Jolly, Sir Oliver Lodge (1974) · H. G. J. Ailken, Syntony and spark: the origins of radio (1976) · G. R. M. Garratt, The early history of radio from Faraday to Marconi (1994) · B. J. Hunt, The Maxwellians (1991) · private information (2004) [Lodge family] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · gravestones, Perkhull churchyard


Incorporated Society for Psychical Research, correspondence relating to psychical research · Inst. ET, correspondence and MSS · Sci. Mus., laboratory notebook · U. Birm. L., correspondence and MSS · U. Lpool L., scientific notebooks, MSS and letters · UCL, correspondence, MS Add. 89 |  BL, letters to Macmillan & Co, Add. MS 55220 · BL, correspondence mainly with the Society of Authors, Add. MS 56739 · Bodl. Oxf., correspondence with Gilbert Murray · CUL, correspondence with Lord Kelvin, MS Add. 7342 · CUL, letters to Sir J. J. Thomson, MS Add. 7654 · CUL, letters to Lord Rutherford, MS Add. 7653 · ICL, letters to H. E. Armstrong · ICL, letters to S. P. Thompson · NL Wales, letters to Benjamin Davies and MS of unpublished book · Nuffield Oxf., correspondence with Viscount Cherwell · priv. coll., letters to Lord Rayleigh · priv. coll., correspondence with the earl of Balfour · U. Birm. L., letters to E. W. W. Carlier  



Inst. ET




priv. coll.


G. Reid, oils, 1903, U. Birm. · G. Reid, oils, c.1907, NPG [see illus.] · W. Rothenstein, chalk, 1916, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, before 1917, NPG · E. Kapp, drawings, 1919–31, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · photograph, c.1927 (with John Logie Baird), NPG · M. Beerbohm, watercolour caricature, 1932, NPG; repro. in Jolly, Sir Oliver Lodge · C. J. Allen, marble bust, U. Lpool · Barraud, cabinet, NPG · H. Coster, photographs, NPG · O. Edis, photographs, NPG · D. Low, cartoon, repro. in Jolly, Sir Oliver Lodge · J. B. Munns, oils, Birmingham Art Gallery · B. Partridge, chalk caricature, NPG · A. P. F. Ritchie, print, NPG · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG · Spy [L. Ward], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (4 Feb 1904) · Thomson, oils, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London · crayon, U. Lpool · oils, Inst. ET

Wealth at death  

£27,899 14s. 5d.: probate, 7 Dec 1940, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Sir Oliver Joseph Lodge (1851–1940): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34583