Did a West Virginian Invent Radio?

Real Radio Inventor Always Ignored

This article appeared in the (Beckley, W. Va.) Raleigh Register, on Sept. 7, 1976.

TERRA ALTA, W. Va. (UPI) - When the radio is turned on, Mahlon Loomis isn't the household name that pops to mind. It's the Italian, Guglielmo Marconi.

But there is ample evidence that Loomis, of Oppenheim, N. Y., who settled in this tiny town of 1,400, invented the wireless telegraph in 1872, two years before Marconi - the man credited with the invention - was born.

Loomis, a dentist, transmitted signals in October 1866 between two Virginia mountaintops, using kites as antennae. The messages traveled 18 miles.

In 1870, Loomis successfully transmitted telegraphic signals between two ships which were two miles apart on the Chesapeake Bay. The U. S. Navy sponsored those experiments.

In January 1873, Congress chartered the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Co. One congressman, pleading Loomis' case in the House, said, "He entertains a dream, and it may be only a dream, a wild dream that when his proposition comes to be fully applied, it may light and warm your houses...."

Eight months before he died in 1886, Loomis installed two "radio" stations in Terra Alta and transmitted messages two miles between them.

The spearhead of the current campaign to have Congress recognize Loomis as the inventor of the radio is John Whitehair of Terra Alta. Of the stations, he said, "Of course this setup was very elementary.

"From what we found out, he would notify his assistant and then transmit the message. The signal was probably very faint but it was there. He did do it.

"His family is tired of trying to get anything done," Whitehair said. "We've contacted (Rep.) Harley Staggers (D-W. Va.) but we haven't heard anything. We also wrote letters to the Bicentennial Commission, but we couldn't get anything done there, either."

But Whitehair said the struggle will go on both here and in New York.

Yet, even if he isn't sanctioned as the main who invented radio, the failure won't be anything new to the ex-New Yorker. For even when he died, he couldn't get people to do what he wanted them to.

When he died, Loomis made one simple wish - that a rose bush be planted on his grave. That request was ignored.

QST Magazine Excerpt

This is taken from QST Magazine.

The first person who succeeded in transmitting through air was apparently Dr. Mahlon Loomis, a dentist. At the close of the Civil War in 1865, he flew two kites, carrying wires, from mountain tops 14-miles (23-km) apart. The wire from one kite was attached to ground through a telegraph key; the other kite-wire was grounded through a galvanometer that could measure very small currents. When he operated the key, detectable changes of current occurred in the other kite wire. He was granted a patent on his system in 1872, but no known attempt was made to make use of the phenomenon commercially. Interestingly, the experiment was duplicated 44 years later in London where, during a hailstorm, experimenters successfully communicated over a distance of 3-miles (5-km)

Bill Jaker

This is part of a message posted to a broadcasting history forum by broadcast historian Bill Jaker.

Whether Loomis really radiated or merely inducted may be beside the point. He did try signalling without wires, and he had a vision of a worldwide system of communications. With financial and technical support his work could have stimulated refinements by others that might have made the wireless a going concern a decade or two before Marconi, Fessenden, deForest, et al.

But Mahlon Loomis became an embittered man. His wife left him and he moved to West Virginia, where his brother owned some property. Settling in the village of Terra Alta, in the mountains near the Maryland and Pennsylvania lines, he continued some experimentation. According to the local people in Terra Alta, Loomis set up a link between the railroad station and the village pharmacy and the signal that the train was arriving may have been the first practical use of wireless.

At one point Loomis reportedly installed his apparatus on a high hill in Terra Alta and went sulking to another hilltop a few miles away, insisting that he would speak to no one unless they called him on his wireless. A few years ago, a couple of engineers at the Comsat station in Etam, W. Va. -- who had replicated the Loomis experiments -- hacked their way to the site of the hilltop retreat and discovered what could have been the remains of an antenna. An elderly resident of the area recounted for them a story his father had told about an eccentric dentist from Terra Alta.

Mahlon Loomis is buried in the town cemetery in Terra Alta, and a historical marker along W. Va. Route 7 notes his gravesite and tells of his work. Along with a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records, it's the most public recognition he's received.

Bill Jaker

Date: Tue, 5 Jun 2001 00:53:02 -0400
From: Bill Jaker bilj@hancock.net
To: old.time.radio@oldradio.net
Subject: Mahlon Loomis

In fact, neither Tesla nor Stubblefield were the first to experiment with transmitting electrical signals without wires -- a West Virginia dentist/eccentric by the name of Mahlon Loomis secured a patent in 1872 for a "conductive" wireless system, and claimed to have transmitted a telegraph signal between two kites eighteen miles apart. But this was another system that had nothing to do with actual Hertzian radio waves, and there is in fact no positive proof that it ever actually worked.

Mahlon Loomis was originally from upstate New York (where I now live) and spent his final years in West Virginia (where I used to live). His experiments with an "improvement in telegraphing" involved using atmospheric electricity to charge a galvanometer and then observing the movement of the leaves of a galvanometer some distance away. This was, of course, a conductive system. However, without realizing it, Loomis had designed a "resonant circuit," one of the building blocks of modern electronics.

Another posting in our OTR Digest asserted that Loomis had stations overseas and transmitted voice signals. He did no such thing, but he did envision a concept of worldwide broadcast communications that would "convert the heathen" (he could have been the first religious broadcaster).

Loomis was bitter about the lack of funding and recognition for his invention and moved to Terra Alta, W.Va., where his brother owned property. He set up his experiments again and reportedly had stations operating between the local pharmacy and the railroad station to signal when the train was arriving -- the first practical use of wireless (albeit inductive) telegraphy.

A few years ago a pair of Comsat engineers at the satellite station in Etam, W.Va. replicated Loomis's experiments. Mahlon Loomis is still not in the category with Marconi (who studied his patents), Fessenden, deForest and others, but the Guinness Book of Records does credit him with sending the first signals through the air. His only other recognition seems to be a historical marker alongside the Terra Alta cemetery where hes buried.

--Bill Jaker

Thomas White

Broadcast historian Thomas White wrote the following.

Thirty years after Morse, a dentist by the name of Dr. Mahlon Loomis tried to convince Congress to fund another project. Loomis proposed to design and test a wireless system to telegraph signals through the air directly between the United States and Switzerland. Congress refused the requested $50,000 in funding, and there are those today who still claim this kept Loomis from developing a radio system two decades before Marconi.

Loomis was granted U.S. patent number 129,971 on July 30, 1872 for "a new and Improved Mode of Telegraphing and of Generating Light, Heat, and Motive Power". (In speeches he gave at the time, Loomis also claimed his system could be used to melt icebergs, make the seasons milder, eliminate malaria, and provide an inexhaustible source of energy.)

Loomis claimed to have transmitted telegraphic messages a distance of 29 kilometers (18 miles) between the tops of Cohocton Mountain and Beorse Deer Mountain, Virginia throughout 1865 and 1866. However, although he is often promoted in the United States as being a wireless pioneer, there is no independent evidence that these claims were actually true. His "transmitter" and "receiver" were a key at one site and a galvanometer at the other, each connected to a metallic wire and a wire-screened kite. As such, there was no "RF" or radio-frequency signals as we know them today. Loomis merely interrupted currents in the antenna resulting from flying an antenna into a cloud, transmitting intelligence between two points using conductive wireless, not electromagnetic effects.

Moreover, there is little in his patent suggesting his system was capable of telegraphing any distance at all. The fatal flaw was his theory that there are electrically conducting layers in the lower atmosphere, which his system was designed to utilize. It turned out his theory was wrong--the electrical channels don't exist, so there was no way his system could have worked as intended. However, some people claim that over time Loomis unknowingly modified his system in such a way that it eventually sent and received radio waves.

Joseph Hauger

Joseph Hauger, Managing Editor of the Alpena (Michigan) News wrote the following.

Growing up in Terra Alta, W.Va., I passed by the Mahlon Loomis sign nearly every day. I visited his grave twice each year, but only because my great-great grandparents, Joseph and Mary Benson, are buried in the plot beside his.

I went to church with a family by the name of Delauder. With several offspring, they lived in a good-sized home at the start of the Aurora Pike. As a boy, it never meant much to me, but Mr. Delauder used to tell me that Dr. Loomis used to live in that house. He told me that the large tree in the front yard still had wires and iron banding embedded in the bark from Loomis' experiments. I think that tree is still standing.

Another, more current, stranger Loomis connection was my association with the Teets family. My best friend from elementary school was Jim Teets, whose father I believe currently is serving as Gov. Underwood's chief of staff. At that time, when he wasn't in the House of Delegates, he was the pack leader for Terra Alta's cub scouts. We once spent a weekend camping on the old Teets family farm, which was about 10 miles or so from town. He talked about the experiments Loomis conducted between that farm and the Delauder house. Again, at age 8, this didn't mean that much to me.

However, there is the elder Teets' brother, Bob Teets. When I knew him, he was publishing one of the county's two weekly newspapers and had a rather nice home with a large duck pond out front. He published the locally popular Killing Waters book series about the deadly 1985 floods. Since then, Bob Teets has become well known on the UFO circuit for his more recent books, one charting UFO contacts in West Virginia and another on UFOs and mental health. He publishes the American UFO Newsletter. In his first UFO book, he recalls his encounter with a UFO as a young man on that farm, and makes reference to Loomis' work. To this day, he maintains that the arrival of the UFO on his farm was somehow linked to Loomis trying to communicate wirelessly through electromagnetic fields more than a century before.

Elizabeth McLeod

Date: Thu, 27 Dec 2001 10:15:08 -0500
From: Elizabeth McLeod lizmcl@midcoast.com
To: old.time.radio@oldradio.net
Subject: Re: Fathers of Radio

With all respect to Fessenden and Marconi and Tesla and Edison and even Nathan Stubblefield, the REAL "Father of Radio" is indisputably Dr. Mahlon Loomis, who broadcast Morse code radio signals as far back 1865, during the closing days of the Civil War, and who in 1876 (or possibly 1877) broadcast the world's first radio-telephone messages.

While Loomis (as well as Tesla and Stubblefield) may have succeeded in transmitting signals without wire, they weren't transmitting radio. All of these experimenters were working with simple low-frequency electrical fields, not the generation and transmission of Hertzian radio waves. Their signals were broadband, brute-force electrical transmissions, not tuned radio-frequency signals -- and had no more to do with the basic principles of radio than a string stretched between two tin cans has to do with the principles of the telephone. While it is possible to transmit signals by the Loomis/Tesla/Stubblefield methods, there's no way to tune these signals -- rendering the system essentially useless as a means of mass communication. It was an interesting scientific novelty -- but the limits of the basic theory would have prevented it from ever growing beyond that.

Loomis secured a patent in 1872 for what he called "conductive wireless transmission," but whether or not this system actually worked as well as he claimed is very much disputed. The complete text of the patent can be viewed at Thomas White's Early Radio website, at http://www.ipass.net/~whitetho/129971.htm. The salient feature of the patent is, in Loomis's own words:

The utilization of natural electricity from elevated points by connecting the opposite polarity of the celestial and terrestrial bodies of electricity at different points by suitable conductors, and, for telegraphic purposes, relying upon the disturbance produced in the two electro-opposite bodies (of the earth and atmosphere) by an interruption of the continuity of one of the conductors from the electrical body being indicated upon its opposite or corresponding terminus, and thus producing a circuit or communication between the two without an artificial battery or the further use of wires or cables to connect the co-operating stations.

Loomis used a combination of large puddles of salt water and wired kites to conduct electrical charges from point to point. As can be seen, the essential feature of true radio -- the generation and transmission of a tunable RF carrier wave which can be modulated to carry information -- is not a part of Loomis' idea. His theory is similar to the theories pursued by Tesla and Stubblefield, but had little to do with the work done over the 19th Century by Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Henrich Hertz, Oliver Lodge, Alexander Popov, John Stone Stone, Reginald Fessenden (probably the first person to successfully transmit voice by actual Hertzian radio waves) and, yes, Guglielmo Marconi. No one individual can be designated the "Father of Radio," but these scientists definitely had more to do with its development than the conductive/inductive theorists.


Robert Goodman

From: "Robert Goodman" r o b g o o d @ b e s t w e b.n e t
Subject: Mahlon Loomis
Date: Sat, 14 Dec 2002 18:01:43 -0500

I read with interest your collection of pieces concerning Mahlon Loomis. From all that I can tell -- having previously read his reports in Scientific American and the story about him in Popular Electronics -- he did invent radio, and those who say that he didn't are operating under the same misconception he had.

Loomis thought he was communicating conductively, but it is obvious that his apparatus could do no such thing over the distances involved. Unknown to him, when he keyed (or later used a telephone to modulate) the transmitter, he produced r.f. transients that were resonant with the receiver. This is borne out by his reports that the kites had to be at the same height. His hypothesis was that there were conductive/galvanic layers in the atmosphere, presumably separated by insulating ones, and that therefore the kites had to be the same height, to intercept the same layers. In reality it was the length of the wire that tuned his circuits -- the kite wires had to be the same length, and coincidentally that put the kites at the same altitude AAT.

The instruments were powered by the same sky-ground DC potential tapped by Ben Franklin, and that potential was the same at the transmitting and receiving site, so there's no way a DC circuit was completed. The amount of drain of atmospheric electricity produced by a mere kite with wire could not possibly be detected by the most sensitive galvanometer at some distance. Therefore the only way Loomis's apparatus could have worked -- and we have enough independent verification that it did work -- was via r.f. transients, similar to lightning but narrower band.

Robert Goodman

Return to front page