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The Man Before Marconi
August 1948 QST

August 1948 QST

August 1948 QST  Cover - RF CafeTable of Contents

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from QST, published December 1915 - present (visit ARRL for info). All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Black Friday is known to most modern-day people as the frenzied first day of Christmas shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving (the 3rd Thursday of November). It is named so because supposedly on that day many retailers finally turn the ink in their accounting books from red to black (net loss to net profit, respectably). However, there was an infamous Black Friday that occurred in the Fall of 1869, when the U.S. stock market experienced a severe crash. Many know of the 1929 crash that precipitated The Great Depression, but the other Black Friday, per this historical article from a 1948 edition of QST magazine, caused its own "great depression" in wireless communications pioneer Dr. Mahlon Loomis. His reaction is understandable after reading this piece - which I highly recommend to you.

Dr. Loomis was a dentist whose side profession was being an electrical experimenter. Decades prior to Guglielmo Marconi's world-changing wireless message between St John's, Newfoundland, and Poldhu, Cornwall, in 1901, Loomis publically demonstrated wireless communications between kite-borne antennas (metal wire between the kite and the ground, a la Benjamin Franklin). It occurred between two mountaintops separated by 18 miles. The high drama that occurred thence while attempting to secure sponsorship funding for further experimentation is utterly amazing. From private investors to members of Congress, the story is a comedy of errors, incompetence, and profound bad luck.

BTW, this is the first time I recall reading a reference to what we today call an "angel investor;" author Joseph Lebo calls them "financial angels." 

The Man Before Marconi: A Biography of Dr. Mahlon Loomis

The Man Before Marconi: Mahlon Loomis, August 1948 QST - RF Cafe

Dr. Mahlon Loomis 1826-1886

By Joseph R. Lebo, W2OEU

This inspiring article on Dr. Mahlon Loomis is based on research done by W2OEU while a GI student at Columbia University. Radio amateurs , pioneers in their own right, will be quick to recognize and appreciate the early work of this overlooked but noble American.

The story of a successful failure is embodied in the life of Dr. Mahlon Loomis who was born in Fulton County, New York, in 1826. His temporal span of sixty years marks an epoch in a series of events each building on the other so logically that they could interestingly be made into a movie "natural."

Little is known about the early life of Dr. Loomis save that in his youth the family moved to Virginia. One fact stands out. People said that as a youngster, "He was always inventin' things." The compliment was confirmed in later years.

In September, 1848, Loomis traveled to Cleveland to study dentistry under a local practitioner. The following winter he taught school in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for sixty-five dollars, board and washing. By the summer of 1849 he knew enough dentistry to tour the neighboring counties and earn fifty dollars per month, a considerable sum near the half mark of the nineteenth century. Later he returned to Virginia and continued his practice.

The inventing virus of his early days could not be arrested. He patented a mineral-plate (kaolin) process for making artificial teeth in 1854. He also received a patent for his invention in England.

Lincoln was already in the White House when Mahlon Loomis turned his attention to electricity. He was trying to force the growth of plants by burying metal plates connected to batteries. Loomis wanted to dispense with batteries. He reasoned that electrical charges - static electricity in the air - might be utilized. By means of kites carrying metal wires, he observed that electrical charges could be obtained from the atmosphere. The attempt to use this natural source of electricity to replace batteries in order to make plants grow failed. But the experiment had borne fruit.

Loomis had come upon a startling discovery! Whenever a kite wire was sent aloft in one region, a flow of electricity to ground could be detected in another kite wire some distance away! And the galvanometer proved it. Instantly the full meaning of his discovery and its implications captured the imagination of the New York-born dentist. He quickly discerned that telegraphy without wires was a distinct possibility.

But this kindly man was without adequate funds to develop fully the secret revealed to him by Nature. Loomis sought to interest people in his invention to acquire the necessary financial support. But imagine trying to convince people then that air could be a carrier for electrical impulses when such persons had been only recently converted, with difficulty, to the wired telegraph! People were incredulous and the inventor became the butt of ridicule and coarse humor.

Skeptics had to be convinced. The patient, tireless dentist managed to scrape together enough money to conduct an experiment. In 1868 (or 1866) Loomis, in the presence of scientists and others, communicated between two mountain spurs in the Blue Ridges of West Virginia, some eighteen miles apart. On each of the peaks he set up kites attached to wires and connected to the ground through galvanometers. The operators of each party were provided with telescopes so that each could sight the other's station. Loomis produced electrical discharges when he touched his kite wire to the ground, but had no means of detecting them except for the galvanometer at the far point which deflected to indicate a passage of current. He had sent out true radio waves and it was the first time that such signals had been transmitted over a distance without wires!

Scientists began to interest themselves in the field as yet unnamed radio. They confirmed the report of Loomis and looked upon his work with mixed interest. Some of them may have known that a Scotchman, James Bowman Lindsay, between 1844 and 1853 sent wireless messages short distances with the aid of batteries. Also that Professor Joseph Henry in 1842 had demonstrated the flow of electrical currents. Hence to them Loomis was confirming what they already knew. But the discoveries of Dr. Mahlon Loomis were independently made and without knowledge of either man or his works.

The mountain experiment confirmed the full implications of his discovery. Now he realized and hoped that telegraphy without wires could be made a quick, cheap means of communication without the necessity of constantly repairing wires downed by storms or marauding Indians. Mahlon Loomis also spoke of utilizing this new means of telegraphy as a safety device for inter-train communication.

But this newfangled idea brought forth no financial angels. In desperation Dr. Loomis turned to Congress for $50,000 in order to continue further experimentation. It was his plan to go to two high points in the Rocky Mountains and establish stations between Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta.

In January, 1869, Senator Sumner of Massachusetts introduced a bill in answer to Loomis's petition for financial aid. The petitioner had hoped that the bill would be sent to the Committee on Appropriations; instead it was relegated to the Committee on Patents. No action was forthcoming at that session of Congress.

The bill introduced by the Massachusetts senator roused the New York and Massachusetts press to a high pitch of skepticism and disapproval. However, the newspapers in the nation's capital were on the whole friendly to Loomis. One journal pleaded, " ... We hope that American pride will not suffer it [Loomis's discovery] to pass out of our hands, and the credit and honor be reaped by others." How prophetic!

The American discoverer of wireless a few months later traveled to New York where he was able to interest favorably a capitalist named Austin Day and others in supporting his venture to the Rocky Mountains. He was elated at this promise of financial relief. Plans were taking form to go westward when a group of speculators in New York succeeded in advancing the price of gold, thereby creating a disastrous panic on September 24, 1869. The day became historically known as Black Friday. This debacle involved Loomis's patrons in losses so serious they were compelled to withdraw their promise of financial aid. It was also a dark day for the hopeful inventor. He returned to Washington to resume practice. But not for one moment had the persevering inventor abandoned his great enterprise.

The Senate had remained indifferent to the inventor's appeal for funds. All that had transpired in that august body with regard to his petition was its transference to the Committee on Appropriations in March, 1870, following a request by Senator Pomeroy.

Dr. Loomis rightly concluded that if Congress would not advance money for further experimentation, it would certainly grant him a charter to continue work and also to sell stock. So in July, 1870, Congressman Bingham introduced H.R. 2390 to incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company with the right to capitalize not in excess of two million dollars. But this bill hardly fared better than the Senate's, disinclination to comply with the request initiated by Senator Sumner. America was then going through the period that followed the Civil War and was primarily concerned with reconstruction. Imagine Loomis watching the spectacle of his cherished dream roving from committee to committee.

Just as with the atomic bomb, the "mad dreamer" was called upon to show that his invention worked on water too. About 1870 Loomis communicated between two ships two miles apart on Chesapeake Bay. This experiment was rewarded with jeers, ridicule and haughty laughter by those who were determined to remain unconvinced. But the stalwart man maintained his composure and was even more convinced that his discovery was highly practicable.

By 1871 Congress still had taken no action to grant Loomis a charter of incorporation. But he still sought financial aid. A group of Chicago capitalists interested themselves in the doctor's work and communicated that information to him. Dr. Loomis hurried to the Windy City. Yes, the Chicago financiers agreed to underwrite for $20,000 the venture to the Rocky Mountains in order that Loomis could erect the stations, pay his workers, and maintain his family while away. Plans were immediately undertaken to make the project a reality. Suddenly on October 8, 1871, the great Chicago Fire unleashed its fury. The backers of Dr. Loomis were burned out. Broken-hearted, he returned to Washington.

Finally in May, 1872, the bill to incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company reached the floor of the House of Representatives. Many congressmen were either indifferent to the proposal or amused by the thought of granting a charter to a "crazy inventor" with a still crazier scheme.

Congressman Conger of Michigan rose to champion Loomis and the bill. In a flourish of masterful oratory, only too prophetic, he cajoled and shamed the House membership into action. The House reluctantly voted and the bill was defeated because of the absence of a quorum, although a majority favored it. However, the bill automatically came up on the calendar the next day and was passed.

Loomis hoped that the Senate would act before the summer adjournment. But fate decreed otherwise. Only one joyous note entered into the long, waiting weeks. In July, 1872, the first radio patent issued in the United States, bearing number 129,971 and titled "Improvement in Telegraphing," was granted to Mahlon Loomis of Washington, D. C. Hardly a soul recognized or appreciated the contents of that piece of paper.

In January, 1873, the Senate undertook to consider the bill to incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company. Skeptical members with due dignity saw little merit in granting the charter to promote a wild idea still in an experimental stage.

"States' rights" argument blocked the fondly-cherished project during the first day's consideration. It seemed a staggering blow to Loomis who reeled but did not fall. Senator Anthony, in support of the Loomis bill, advised the Senate to follow an American poet's advice by quoting:

"But sneer not thou at those who rise to loftier illusions."

"Great truths are oft," the Sage replies, "foreshadowed by delusions."

The next day, as if some miraculous transformation had taken place, all objections of the previous day were suddenly withdrawn. At the conclusion of the roll call the vote was yeas 29, nays 12, absent 33. President Grant signed the bill.

Dr. Loomis, now armed with a patent and a Congressional charter, sought investors. But capital was not forthcoming. Every hope and aspiration seemed to turn into a daily repetition of Black Friday. Dark clouds were gathering over the nation. Undaunted, Loomis strove to make the charter an effective instrument.

The year 1873 looms ominous in American financial history. Debtors struggled desperately to obtain money. The pandemonium which followed is indescribable. At the end of 12 months 89 railroads had defaulted on bonds; there were more than 5000 commercial failures.

Can you picture Dr. Loomis holding the patent in one hand and the charter in the other, while all around him the financial structure was collapsing? The frenzy of speculation was reaping doom everywhere.

Loomis was steeped in gloom but not defeated. People would not buy stock. The charter for which he had valiantly struggled remained just a piece of paper.

Almost to the end of his days the mind of Mahlon Loomis remained active and creative. A patent for a convertible valise was issued to him in May, 1881. In November of the same year he received another patent for a cuff-and-collar fastening. A fourth patent for an electrical-thermostat improvement was granted to him in March, 1886.

The prophet without honor spent his declining years on a farm. Before Dr. Loomis passed away in October, 1886, this man of sanguine temperament declared, "I know that I am by some, even many, regarded as a crank - by some perhaps as a fool - for allowing myself, to the sacrifice of material advantages, to abandon a lucrative profession and pursue this ignis fatuus, but I know that I am right, and if the present generation live long enough their opinions will be changed - and their wonder will be that they did not perceive it before. I shall never see it perfected - but it will be, and others will have the honor of the discovery."

Perhaps Loomis rather than Marconi would have been known as the father of radio had he the coherer detector which was brought out by Professor Edward Branley of the Catholic University of Paris in 1890.

Dr. Mahlon Loomis deserves a place in the hearts and minds of all Americans. Some day, some place, a fitting monument will be erected to him and no better tribute than the words of his brother, Judge Loomis, should be appropriately inscribed thereon:

" ... He wanted mankind to enjoy the fruits of his discoveries, maintaining that it would be the means of establishing a brotherhood among the nations and races that nothing else could accomplish; and would give to the children of men grander and truer conceptions of Deity, than now prevailed."



Posted October 12, 2023
(updated from original post on 7/16/2015)

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