Through The Air In 1866
BEFORE GUGEIELMO MARCONI SENT A RADIO SIGNAL ACROSS the Atlantic in 1901, and even before Heinrich Hertz produced electromagnetic waves in 1888, there was Dr. Mahlon Loomis. In 1866 he successfully transmitted a signal through the air between two mountaintops in Virginia. Who was Mahlon Loomis? And how did he become the first person to demonstrate wireless telegraphy?
He was born in 1826 in Oppenheim, in upstate New York. When he was 22, he went to Ohio to study dentistry, and his inventive mind showed itself in that profession. In 1854 he was awarded a patent for a new method of making dentures out of porcelain. He also invented a better filling material. As early as 1858 he was convinced that it would be possible to “tap the storehouse of the mighty thunder and make it whisper glad tidings over the seas” (as he later wrote) by conducting telegraph signals through a positively charged layer of electricity—a “celestial battery,” he called it—that he imagined hovered over the earth.
In October 1866 he successfully demonstrated a sort of wireless telegraphy between two Virginia mountain peaks, 14 miles apart, in the presence of congressmen and scientists. His apparatus was simple. He flew two kites attached to galvanometers (devices that measure small electric currents) on the ground, one on each mountain. Each kite was covered with fine copper mesh and attached to a 600-foot length of cop- per wire. When he grounded one of the kites to a saltwater puddle, using a telegraph key as a switch, it created a small but measurable current in the other galvanometer. How exactly this happened is not clear. Some scholars suggest that pulling charge from the atmosphere may have changed the voltage in that region of the sky enough to be detected, while others think Loomis may have created transient radio signals with his telegraph tapping.
His success was far from complete, as the setup, relying on inconsistent atmospheric static charges, was very delicate and often didn’t work at all. He tried to improve his apparatus by replacing the kites with steel poles, but he was forced to return periodically to his dental practice to shore up his finances. In 1870 the U.S. Navy sponsored an experiment that resulted in the successful transmission of signals between a pair of ships two miles apart on the Chesapeake Bay. On July 30, 1872, Loomis was awarded U.S. patent number 129,971, entitled “Improvement in Telegraphing.”
In 1869 he had persuaded Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to introduce a bill incorporating the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company, with a $50,000 appropriation. In 1873 a similar bill passed, but without the $50,000. Meanwhile, Loomis courted but never secured private investors. And in fact there’s little chance that this modest pre-radio demonstration of atmospheric electrostatics could have become truly useful.
Broke and disillusioned, Loomis moved to Terra Alta, West Virginia, the small village where his brother had some property. A week before he died, in October 1886, he admitted, “I know that I am by some, even many, regarded as a crank—by some perhaps a fool. … But I know that I am right, and if the present generation lives long enough their opinions will be changed—and their wonder will be that they did not perceive it before.”
He received some recognition in 1964, when a resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives stating that it “recognizes, on behalf of the American people, the foresight, ingenuity, and outstanding achievement of Doctor Mahlon Loomis in being the first person to invent and demonstrate a system of wireless communication.” But the resolution did not pass.