Oliver Lodge was born in 1851 at Penkhull in what is now Stoke-on-Trent, and educated at Adams' Grammar School, Newport, Shropshire. He was the eldest of eight sons and a daughter of Oliver Lodge (1826–1884) – later a ball clay merchant at Wolstanton, Staffordshire – and his wife, Grace, née Heath (1826–1879). Sir Oliver's siblings included Sir Richard Lodge (1855–1936), historian; Eleanor Constance Lodge (1869–1936), historian and principal of Westfield College, London; and Alfred Lodge (1854–1937), mathematician.
Lodge obtained a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of London in 1875 and a Doctor of Science in 1877. He was appointed professor of physics and mathematics at University College, Liverpool in 1881. In 1900 Lodge moved from Liverpool back to the Midlands and became the first principal of the new Birmingham University, remaining there until his retirement in 1919. He oversaw the start of the move of the university from Edmund Street in the city centre to its present Edgbaston campus. Lodge was awarded the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society in 1898 and was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902. In 1928 he was made Freeman of his native city, Stoke-on-Trent.
Maxwell's "Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism" appeared in 1873 and by 1876 Lodge was studying it intently. But he was fairly limited in mathematical physics both by aptitude and training and his first two papers were a description of a mechanism (of beaded strings and pulleys) that could serve to illustrate electrical phenomena such as conduction and polarization. Indeed, Lodge is probably best known for his advocacy and elaboration of Maxwell's aether theory – a later deprecated model postulating a wave-bearing medium filling all space. He explained his views on the aether in "Modern Views of Electricity" (1889) and continued to defend those ideas well into the twentieth century ("Ether and Reality", 1925).
As early as 1879 Lodge became interested in generating (and detecting) electromagnetic waves, something Maxwell had never considered. This interest continued throughout the 1880s but three obstacles slowed Lodge's progress. First, he thought in terms of generating light waves with their very high frequencies rather than radio waves with their much lower frequencies. Second, his good friend George FitzGerald (on whom Lodge depended for theoretical guidance) assured him (incorrectly) that "ether waves could not be generated electromagnetically." FitzGerald later corrected his error but by 1881 Lodge had assumed a teaching position at University College, Liverpool the demands of which limited his time and his energy for research.
In 1887 the Royal Society of Arts asked Lodge to give a series of lectures on lightning, including why lightning rods and their conducting copper cable sometimes didn't work, with lightning strikes following alternate paths, going through (and damaging) structures instead of being conducted by the cables. Lodge took the opportunity to carry out a scientific investigation, simulating lightning by discharging Leyden jars into a long length of copper wire. Lodge found the charge would take a shorter high resistance route jumping a spark gap instead of taking a longer low resistance route through a lope of copper wire. Lodge presented these first results, showing what he thought was the effect of inductance on the path lightning would take, in his May 1888 lecture.
In other experiments that spring and summer Lodge put a series of spark gaps along two 29 meter long wires and noticed he was getting a very large spark in the gap near the end of the wires, which seemed to be consistent with the oscillation wavelength produced by the Leyden jar meeting with the wave being reflected at the end of the wire. In a darkened room, he also noted a glow at intervals along the wire at one half wavelength intervals. He took this as evidence that he was generating and detecting Maxwell's electromagnetic waves. While on summer vacation Lodge learned that Heinrich Hertz in Germany had been conducting his own electromagnetic research and published a series of papers proving the existence of electromagnetic waves and their propagation in free space. Lodge presented his own paper on electromagnetic waves along wires in September of 1888 at the British Science Association meeting in Bath, England, adding a postscript acknowledging Hertz's work and saying: "The whole subject of electrical radiation seems working itself out splendidly."
On 14 August 1894, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford University, Lodge gave a memorial lecture on the work of Hertz (recently deceased) and the German physicist's proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves 6 years earlier. Lodge set up a demonstration on the quasi optical nature of "Hertzian waves" (radio waves) and demonstrated their similarity to light and vision including reflection and transmission at distances up to 50 meters. Lodge used a detector called a coherer (invented by Edouard Branly), a glass tube containing metal filings between two electrodes. When the small electrical charge from waves from an antenna were applied to the electrodes, the metal particles would cling together or "cohere" causing the device to became conductive allowing the current from a battery to pass through it. In Lodge's setup the slight impulses from the coherer were picked up by a mirror galvanometer which would deflect a beam of light being projected on it, giving a visual signal that the impulse was received. After receiving a signal the metal filings in the coherer were broken apart or "decohered" by a manually operated vibrator or by the vibrations of a bell placed on the table near by that rang every time a transmission was received. Since this was one year before Marconi's 1895 demonstration of a system for radio wireless telegraphy and contained many of the basic elements that would be used in Marconi's later wireless systems, Lodge's lecture became the focus of priority disputes with the Marconi Company a little over a decade later over invention of wireless telegraphy (radio). At the time of the dispute some, including the physicist John Ambrose Fleming, pointed out that Lodge's lecture was a physics experiment, not a demonstration of telegraphic signaling. Lodge would later work with Alexander Muirhead on the development of devices specifically for wireless telegraphy.
In January 1898 Lodge presented a paper on “syntonic” tuning which he received a patent for that same year. Syntonic tuning allowed specific frequencies to be used by the transmitter and receiver in a wireless communication system. The Marconi Company had a similar tuning system adding to the priority dispute over the invention of radio. When Lodge's syntonic patent was extended in 1911 for another 7 years Marconi agreed to settle the patent dispute, purchasing the syntonic patent in 1912 and giving Lodge an (honorific) position as "scientific adviser".
Lodge is remembered for his studies in psychical research and Spiritualism. He first began to study psychical phenomena (chiefly telepathy) in the late 1880s, was a member of The Ghost Club and served as president of the London-based Society for Psychical Research from 1901 to 1903. After his son, Raymond, was killed in World War I in 1915 he visited several mediums and wrote about the experience in a number of books, including the best-selling Raymond or Life and Death (1916). Lodge was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who also lost a son in World War I and was a Spiritualist.
Lodge was a Christian Spiritualist. In 1909 he published the book Survival of Man which expressed his belief that life after death had been demonstrated by mediumship. His most controversial book was Raymond or Life and Death (1916). The book documented the séances that he and his wife had attended with the medium Gladys Osborne Leonard. Lodge was convinced that his son Raymond had communicated with him and the book is a description of his son's experiences in the spirit world. According to the book Raymond had reported that people who had died were still the same people when they passed over, there were houses, trees and flowers and the Spirit world looked similar to earth but there is no disease. The book also claimed that when soldiers died in World War I they had smoked cigars and received whisky in the spirit world and because of such statements the book was criticised. Walter Cook wrote a rebuttal to Lodge Reflections on Raymond (1917) that directly challenged Lodge's beliefs in Spiritualism.
Although Lodge was convinced that Leonard's spirit control "Feda" had communicated with his son, he admitted a good deal of the information was nonsense and suggested that Feda picked it up from a séance sitter. Paul Carus wrote that the "story of Raymond's communications rather excels all prior tales of mediumistic lore in the silliness of its revelations. But the saddest part of it consists in the fact that a great scientist, no less a one than Sir Oliver Lodge, has published the book and so stands sponsor for it."
Scientific work on electromagnetic radiation convinced Lodge that an ether existed and that it filled the entire universe. Lodge came to believe that the spirit world existed in the ether. As a Christian Spiritualist, Lodge had written that the resurrection in the Bible referred to Christ's etheric body becoming visible to his disciples after the Crucifixion. By the 1920s the physics of the ether had been undermined by the theory of relativity, however, Lodge still defended his ether theory and rejected relativity. Linked to his belief in Spiritualism, Lodge had also endorsed a theory of spiritual evolution which he promoted in Man and the Universe (1908) and Making of Man (1924). He lectured on theistic evolution at the Charing Cross Hospital and at Christ Church, Westminster. His lectures were published in a book Evolution and Creation (1926).
Janet Oppenheim has noted that Lodge's interest in spiritualism "prompted some of his fellow scientists to wonder if his mind, too, had not been wrecked." In 1913 the biologist Ray Lankester criticized the Spiritualist views of Lodge as unscientific and misleading the public. However, the physicists Heinrich Hertz and Max Planck expressed interest in Lodge’s unorthodox investigations into mediumship and telepathy.
Edward Clodd criticized Lodge as being an incompetent researcher to detect fraud and claimed his Spiritualist beliefs were based on magical thinking and primitive superstition. Charles Arthur Mercier a specialist in insanity wrote in his book Spiritualism and Sir Oliver Lodge (1917) that Lodge had been duped into believing mediumship by trickery and his Spiritualist views were based on assumptions and not scientific evidence. Francis Jones in the American Journal of Psychology in a review for Lodge's The Survival of Man wrote it's psychical claims are not scientific and the book is one-sided as it does not contain research from experimental psychology.