Dr. Mahlon Loomis: Pioneer of Radio

By Melissa Vandiver, Museum Guide


When talking about the invention of radio, the first name that comes up is always Guglielmo Marconi, who began experimenting in 1895. While it is true that Marconi was very successful (by 1899 he had established wireless connections between Britain, France, and several prominent islands), the moniker “The Father of Radio” is not one hundred percent true. In fact, the first known occurrence of wireless aerial communication was conducted in the Blue Ridge Mountains just outside of Lynchburg by Dr. Mahlon Loomis in 1866, a full eight years before Marconi was even born. Loomis was a dentist and an inventor for most of his adult life, and unsurprisingly came from a very intellectual family: his father a professor said to be involved with the founding of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, his grandfather a reverend, and his brothers poets, astronomers, and philosophers. Although Loomis by chance lost the financial backing to gain patents for his discoveries and inventions in radio, Loomis should still be remembered for his contributions to the field.


Loomis’s Life

                Mahlon Loomis was born in Fulton County, NY, on July 20, 1826, to Professor Nathan Loomis and Waite Jenks Barber Loomis. Around 1840, the family relocated to Springfield, Virginia, about twenty miles south of Washington. From 1848 and 1849, Loomis studied dentistry and taught school on the side in a couple of towns in Ohio. Then, between 1848 and 1856, he was practicing dentistry in Virginia and at some point moved to Massachusetts and set up a practice there as well. In May 1856, Loomis married Achsah Ashley, and in November, they moved back to Washington, D.C., where Loomis started another dentistry practice. For a year or two around the time of his mountain top experiments, Loomis lived in Lynchburg and worked for Piedmont Manganese Co. as a mineralogist. Later Loomis conducted experiments in West Virginia. Dr. Loomis died at his brother’s summer home in Terra Alta, West Virginia, on October 13, 1886.

                While Loomis may not have had lasting success as a radio and telegraphy giant, he was still granted several patents throughout his life and continued to be ambitious in his ideas. Loomis was granted patents as early as 1854, when he patented the creation of a certain kind of porcelain false teeth. In 1881, he received patents for a kind of cuff-and-collar fastening and for a convertible valise (a kind of suitcase). In 1886, he received a patent for electrical thermostat improvement. It is noted that while living in Lynchburg to conduct his telegraphy experiments, Loomis was involved with the city and was interested in fitting Lynchburg with electricity. While this aim was never seen through, it shows Loomis had an ambitious inventive and entrepreneurial spirit.

Radio and Loomis’s Experiments

                In 1866 (some sources say 1868), Loomis conducted experiments in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He had been inspired for many years to experiment with wireless telegraphy; in a journal on February 20, 1864, Loomis wrote “I have been for years trying to study out a process by which telegraphic communications may be made across the ocean without any wires, and also from point to point on the earth, dispensing with wires.” In October 1866, Loomis used two kites, between 14 and 18 miles apart, a vertical antenna, a high frequency detector, and a spark gap transmitter to conduct his experiment that is credited by the Library of Congress as the first known instance of wireless aerial communication. The transmitter and the detector worked together to successfully cause one kite to move the other, speaking to one another through the radio waves.

                Radio as we know it today, works just this way: a transmitter moves electric charges up and down rhythmically on an antenna, which sets the signal to be set in motion. These electric charges make up radio waves, which are made of a repeating series of peaks and valleys. The waves sent then move in a straight line to a receiver/detector, like the antenna on your radio. Adjusting the strength (amplitude) of the wave gives us AM radio waves, and adjusting the frequency of the waves gives us FM radio waves. The shape of these waves tells the receiving radio’s speakers how to move to emit sound waves. Loomis successfully got his two kites and their electrical mechanisms to talk to each other in this way over several miles, marking a great leap in the discovery of radio.

Success Versus the Economy

                The man known today as the “Father of Radio,” Guglielmo Marconi, was born in Bologna, Italy, in April of 1874. He began lab experiments in 1895 and then succeeded in sending wireless signals 1.5 miles. This is obviously a much less impressive distance than Loomis was able to achieve nearly thirty years prior, so why do we not call Loomis the Father of Radio? As was common during the invention- and patent-boom of the Industrial Age, it all comes down to funding.

                Loomis struggled to maintain a financial backing for his telegraphing experiments and goals of creating a telegraph company. Particularly, obtaining government funding was an especially slow-moving process. In 1869, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced a bill to the U.S. Senate to try to obtain funds for Loomis, but the bill was sent to the Committee on Patents and no action was taken. The bill reached the floor of the House of Representatives two years later, in 1871, and was passed the next day; this was lucky for Loomis, as this same year he lost his private financial backing due to the Great Chicago Fire. However, this luck would not last. A bill introduced in 1870 by Congressman Bingham of Ohio, who was one of the witnesses to Loomis’s 1866 experiments, sought to incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company with the right to capitalize “not in excess of two million dollars.” The House of Representatives did not act on this bill until 1873, when it was signed into law by President Grant; this was after Loomis finally received a patent the previous year for “Improvements in Telegraphing.” This would have been a great win for Loomis and the upstart of his company, but the government had no funds to grant him. The year 1873 saw the beginning of the first ‘Great Depression’ in the United States and abroad, with the Panic of 1873 triggering a six-year long depression. Around 5000 U.S. commercial businesses failed, around 90 railroad companies went bankrupt, and more than 100 banks in the Midwest and along the East coast failed. Back-to-back recessions in the 1880s made sure that Loomis’s dreams of creating a telegraph company never recovered.

                In contrast, Marconi was mostly working in Britain in the 1890s and was very financially successful. Although at the end of the century the European continent was forced to impose high tariffs, British businessmen focused more on supporting imperial efforts in Africa and Asia to make up for those European markets they lose due to expense. This allowed for a solid economic base for Marconi to work in. In 1896, Marconi was granted “the world’s first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy,” and on 1897, he formed The Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company. By 1899, Marconi had established wireless communication between England and many islands as well as across the English Channel to France, and had placed many permanent wireless stations. Had there been enough financial backing, it is likely that a permanent system like this between the states was what Loomis had envisioned with his own company. Marconi, along with fellow researchers, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 “in recognition for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.”

Lynchburg: Land of Invention

Despite Loomis’s lack of success, Lynchburg was an apt location for Loomis to be experimenting: several residents and companies after Loomis’s time were also making leaps in the invention field. In 1881, Lynchburg continued and bettered its tradition of tobacco production and distribution by financing and manufacturing the new Bonsack Cigarette machine. These machines were patented by James A. Bonsack in 1880, and were the first to successfully make cigarettes commercially. Also in 1881, William Diuguid invented what is referred to as a “church truck,” furthering the legacy of Virginia’s oldest funeral home and second oldest funeral home in the country. The church truck was a system needed particularly in Lynchburg, where church aisles were not wide enough for pallbearers to walk on both sides of the coffin to carry it; William added wheels to one once-stationary coffin bier, four small ones at the corners and two large ones in the middle, for maximum maneuverability. Diuguid’s was also the first funeral service in Virginia to adopt the use of the rubber-tired hearse and later the motorized hearse.  The most memorable invention to come out of Lynchburg is undoubtedly Chapstick, created by Charles Browne Fleet and manufactured in Lynchburg by John Morton. (More information can be found in the blog post from December 2015.) Dr. CB Fleet was a local pharmacist also invented Phospho Soda, originally as a hangover cure, and the Fleet company is also famous for their enemas. Although Loomis was unable to garner much success with his telegraphy, his innovations should be remembered among the other inventive pioneers of Lynchburg.




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