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Mahlon Loomis
Mahlon Loomis.
1826 - 1886.

Mahlon Loomis was born in Oppenheim, New York on July 21, 1826. His father was Professor Nathan Loomis, his mother Waitie Loomis. He was the fourth child in a family of nine children.

Few details are available about his early life. This is unfortunate because it is interesting to see how the young mind grows. We do, however, know that he was surrounded by educated minds, as his father was a founder of the American Ephemeris and National Almanac. In addition to this his elder brother, George, was an inventor and holder of several patents himself.

In 1836, Mahlon's family moved to Springvale, Virginia. In September of 1848, Mahlon went to Cleveland, Ohio to study dentistry and, in 1850, he returned to Springvale to continue his dental work.

For several years Mahlon spent time as a traveling dentist. During this time he went to Earlville, New York, Cambridgeport Massachusetts and Philadelphia. During this practice in Massachusetts he received a patent for a mineral plate process for the making of artificial teeth. In November of 1856, Loomis and his bride of only a few months, Achsah Ashley, settled in Washington D.C. to set up a dentistry practice.

It was around 1860 that Mahlon became interested in electricity. His first application of this was an experiment in the forced increase of growth in plants. This was achieved by buried metal plates connected to an electrical current supplied by batteries.
In this period Mahlon became interested in using the electrical charges obtainable from the upper atmosphere by means of kites carrying metal wires. At first he planned to use this natural source of electricity to replace batteries on a telegraph circuit. It is noted in many references that this was something that was actually achieved on a telegraph line that was 400 miles long.
Later, from experiments in this area, Mahlon discovered that a kite sent aloft would affect the flow of current in another kite that was some distance away from the first kite. This set him on a path of developing it as a system of wireless telegraphy for practical long distance communications.

In 1868 Mahlon demonstrated to a group of Congressmen and eminent scientists a wireless "communication" system between two sites about 14 miles apart. There seems to be some discrepancy as to the actual distance in the various records that exist, however, the picture that was drawn by Loomis himself is notated as 14 miles distance.

Whatever the distance was, he sent up a kite from one mountain peak, the bottom of which was covered with thin copper gauze, and the kite string was copper wire. He connected this apparatus up to a galvometer that had the other end of the circuit connected to ground (receiver). Immediately the galvometer showed the passage of current.
He then set up an identical outfit on another mountain peak, some miles away, to send (transmitter). He would touch this second kites wire to ground and by this action reduced the voltage of the charged stratum and lowered the deflection in the galvometer attached to the other kite at first location (receiver).

While the demonstration worked fine there were problems with the communications system. It seemed that if one of the kites was at the wrong height, the system would not work. This led Loomis to believe that there were different areas in the atmosphere, and depending which area you were in, would control if the communication would work or not. There were even days when the system just would not work at all (it could be due to the electrostatic charge in the atmosphere that existed at that time during the experiment).

In 1870, Loomis successfully transmitted telegraphic signals between two ships which were two miles apart on the Chesapeake Bay in experiments funded by the U.S. Navy, Marconi was still 4 years away from being born!

During the later years of his life, Mahlon worked as a dentist, but only to get money to purchase items for his electrical and communications experiments.
In the late 1870's a transmission distance of 20 miles was attained. In this experiment he erected steel masts on top of wooden towers, replacing the earlier kites, and reportedly maintained reliable communications for periods of months at a time. There were even some hints in his notes about experimenting with a "Wireless Telephone". unfortunately there does not seem to be any surviving details of these experiments, so it is difficult to say if he met with any success.

What is Loomis's place in communications history?

At the very least there are several areas he should receive credit for:

  1. First to use a complete antenna and ground system
  2. First experimental transmission of wireless telegraph signals.
  3. The first use of kites to carry an antenna aloft.
  4. The first use of balloons to raise an antenna wire.
  5. First vertical antenna (steel rod mounted on top of a wood tower).
  6. Formulation of the idea of 'waves' traveling out from his antenna.
  7. The first Patent for wireless telegraphy.
It is unfortunate that his work with radio did not catch the attention of the world, perhaps he was not as good at publicity as Marconi?

Mahlon Loomis was just a generation ahead of his time!

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