Move Over Marconi!
The story of Mahlon Loomis of Oppenheim, NY

 

Hector Allen, Town Historian of Oppenheim donated the following piece which was written for Oppenheim's celebration of their bicentennial in 1976.

 


Nearly every high school student of history knows that Guglielmo Marconi, born in Bologna, Italy in 1874 of Italian and Irish parentage, invented the "wireless telegraph" or radio. But did he really pioneer in the concept of sending messages through the atmosphere from one point to another?

Dr. Otis Young, formerly of Southern Illinois University, thinks otherwise, and has done considerable research on another pioneer in the field of radio. Over 12 years ago Dr. Young’s findings were reported in the "Saturday Review of Literature" in an article entitled, "The Real Beginning of Radio."

Dr. Young found that the first experimenter with transmitting radio waves from one point to another was a dentist named Mahlon Loomis, born in upstate New York. Mahlon Loomis was born in the Town of Oppenheim on July 21, 1826. His father was the son of a Baptist minister who had come to Oppenheim from Massachusetts. This branch of the Loomis family lived in Oppenheim for possibly two generations, later moving to Virginia. Mahlon moved with his family and eventually studied in dentistry in Ohio before moving back to Virginia and then to Washington, D.C. Records from the Loomis Institute in Windsor, Connecticut indicate that he patented a kaolin process for making false teeth in 1854.

Apparently Loomis became interested in electricity and radio in the mid-1850's. Some of his papers in the Library of Congress record that he had worked out a theory of using the natural static electricity in the atmosphere to send signals, (which he called pulsations), as early as 1858.

Loomis’ claim to recognition as the inventor of radio is based on a series of experiments he did in the Blue Ridge Mountains area of Virginia in October, 1866, a full eight years before the birth of Marconi. Among the witnesses to this experiment were Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas and Congressman John A. Bingham of Ohio, both of whom became supporters of Loomis in his attempt to get Federal money to establish his discovery commercially.

The apparatus used by Mahlon Loomis was very simple, and could be duplicated by any high school physics class. He established two stations on separate mountains 18 to 20 miles apart. At each station was a galvonometer, a kite, a l5-inch square grid of fine copper wire gauze, and 600' of copper wire to fly the kite with. The people conducting the experiment with Loomis had their watches set, and at predetermined intervals they grounded the wire which ran through the galvanometer to the kite, causing the other instrument on the opposite mountain to register. The experiment was repeated several times, causing the needles on the galvanometers to deflect every time the circuit was completed.

The commercial possibilities of this discovery were immediately apparent. Although the instruments were crude, Loomis thought that some sort of recording device could be worked out so that regular telegraph messages could be sent and received over long distances without the expense of miles of poles and wires. He did erect steel antennae, and continued to work to perfect his discovery, but finances were a continual problem. His work became a matter of controversy in Congress when the prominent Senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, introduced a bill in 1869 to appropriate $50,000 to support Loomis’ work. For two years the bill was tied up in committee, possibly because of opposition from the existing telegraph corporations who didn’t like the idea of this type of competition. In January, 1873 Congressman Bingham introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company, with no appropriations attached. The bill did eventually become law and was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant. In the meantime Loomis received a patent, Number 129,971 entitled "Improvements on Telegraphing," for his wireless system.

Mahlon Loomis had very bad luck attracting financiers. Investors thought that the regular telegraph was efficient enough for the needs of that day, as indeed it was. In 1868 a group of investors from Boston promised to back his company, but the financial panic of "Black Friday" of the following year ruined them. In 1871 a group from Chicago offered $20,000 to establish a string of wireless stations in the Rocky Mountains, but Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lantern, Chicago burned down, and Mahlon Loomis was still without financing.

Mahlon Loomis died in 1886 without seeing further development of his invention. Like so many others, he was ahead of his time. He antedated the work of Marconi by at least twenty years, and was ahead of Alexander Popov, the Russian inventor, by nearly thirty years. Unless further historical research turns up someone else who has a prior claim, Mahlon Loomis deserves to be recognized as the real "Father of the Radio."

For those who are still skeptical, a mass of evidence exists as to the experiments conducted by Loomis. His work in the mountains of Virginia is very well documented, with statements by prominent witnesses. His notebooks are in the Library of Congress, complete with illustrations in his own hand. His patent of 1872, along with the bill passed in 1873 by Congress, are further proof of his work. All of this was accomplished before Marconi was born.

In the Bicentennial year of 1976, 110 years after Mahlon Loomis first sent a radio message between the two mountains in Virginia, surely some belated recognition is due. The Bicentennial Committee of the Town of Oppenheim in western Fulton County, New York, is currently trying to locate the exact birthplace of this talented but nearly forgotten American inventor. The Fulton County Bicentennial Coordinator, Mr. Lewis Decker, is trying to get recognition for Loomis through a resolution of Congress. Perhaps in a few years the history books will have to be re-written to include the real inventor of radio. We of the Town of Oppenheim Bicentennial Committee certainly hope so.

 

Linda Kreisher generously typed this piece.   She is researching the FONDA family starting with Douw Jellise b.1640 appx. and the Marlette family starting with Gedeon b. 1624.  Most of her research has been centered around New Jersey and New York, especially Albany, Fultonville, Fonda, Herkimer & Montgomery Counties and the Mohawk Valley.


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Copyright 1999,2000 Hector Allen
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Last updated Tuesday, 13-May-2008 13:15:06 PDT