Mahlon Loomis

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Mahlon Loomis

Born: 26 July 1826
Died: 13 Oct. 1886

Mahlon Loomis was an American dentist who conducted early experiments in radio. Working a generation before Guglielmo Marconi, some historians of technology consider him the first wireless telegrapher.

Loomis was born in upstate New York in 1836 but his family moved to Springvale, Virginia when he was ten. He attended dental school in Ohio and returned to Springvale to work as a traveling dentist. In the 1850s, he developed a technique for making artificial teeth using mineral plate.

In the late 1850s, Loomis and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where he set up a permanent practice and began experimenting with electricity. In one experiment, he tried to force plants to grow more quickly using electrical currents. In another, he analyzed how current could flow between kites flying miles apart.

In 1868, before a group of Congressmen and scientists, Loomis demonstrated what he claimed to be a wireless communication system. It consisted of two kites covered in a light copper mesh spaced fourteen miles apart on two Virginia hilltops. Galvanometers (in this case, pools of saltwater with telegraph switches) attached to the 600-foot long copper wires leading to the kites seemed to show electrical transmissions moving between the kites. Loomis speculated that certain variables—the height of the kites in the atmosphere and meteorological conditions—could determine whether the system would function or not. Scientists and historians of technology remain unsure about what actually triggered the galvanometric response.

Like Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the wire telegraph, Loomis appealed to the federal government for support for his groundbreaking work. In January, 1869, Senator Charles Sumner introduced a bill that would incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company and appropriate $50,000 for Loomis’ research. Denounced by some as a fraud, Loomis’ bill was delayed and eventually stripped of its appropriations portion, leaving it to pass in 1873 as a mere incorporation bill. Loomis did end up receiving a patent (Number 129,971) for this wireless communication system.

Loomis continued to experiment, using his own funds brought in from his dental practice. Instead of kites, he mounted steel poles atop wooden towers that reportedly maintained communications for months at a time. But he was never able to attract public or private investment to develop his system.