Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dr. Mahlon Loomis

All of radio history could have been different. But predictably, Congress didnt' want to give $50,000 to a dentist with strange ideas.

Dr. Mahlon Loomis tried to convince Congress to fund the design and testing of a wireless system to telegraph signals through the air directly between the United States and Switzerland. Congress refused the requested $50,000 in funding, and there are those today who still claim this kept Loomis from developing a radio system two decades before Marconi. In 1865 the good doctor may have been the first person to communicate wirelessly. Between 1866 and 1873 he transmitted a distance of 18 miles between the tops of Cohocton Mountain and Beorse Deer Mountain in Virginia. The embarassment of his public weirdness drove his wife to leave him.

Loomis was granted U.S. patent number 129,971 on July 30, 1872 for an His Aerial Telegraph. "A new and Improved Mode of Telegraphing and of Generating Light, Heat, and Motive Power". At the time, Loomis claimed his system could be used to melt icebergs, make the seasons milder, eliminate malaria, and provide an inexhaustible source of energy. His drawings indicate he was on the right track but his claims tell us he was a carny at heart. He remarked more than once "I know that I am regarded as a crank, perhaps a fool by some, and as to the latter, possibly I am, for I could have discarded this thing entirely and turned my attention to making money."

In 1868 Mahlon Loomis demonstrated to a group of Congressmen and scientists a wireless experiment. He made two kites the bottom of which were covered with thin copper gauze, and the kite string was copper wire. He set a kite sent aloft to alter the of current in another kite connected to a galvenometer located 29 km away (18 miles) from the first kite. This discovery triggered the development of wireless telegraphy for long distance communications. Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas and Representative John Bingham of Ohio were present at this demonstration.

Now in this public experiment he broadcast nothing. His theory was flawed. He beleive that the atmosphere had electrically conducting layers. These of course do not exist. But it is possible that his equipment was so poorly designed or manufactured (or both) that they operated differently than he intended. In his later experiments he erected steel masts on top of wooden towers and replicated the experiment successfully.

Near Bears Den mountain in Terra Alta Cemetery there is a sign commemorating his work. It reads: "From nearby Bear's Den Mountain to the Catoctin Ridge, a distance of fourteen miles, Dr. Mahlon Loomis, Dentist, sent the first aerial wireless signals, 1866-73, using kites flown by copper wires. Loomis received a patent in 1872 and his company was chartered by Congress in 1873. But lack of capital frustrated his experiments. He died in 1866. Virginia Conservation Commission 1848."