August 1948 QST
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
QST, published December 1915 - present. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.
Black Friday is known to most modern-day people as the frenzied
first day of Christmas shopping season on the day after Thanksgiving
(the 3rd Thursday of November).
It is named so because supposedly on that day many retailers
finally turn the ink in their accounting books from red to black
(net loss to net profit, respectably).
However, there was an infamous
Black Friday that occurred in the Fall of 1869, when the
US. stock market experienced a severe crash. Many know of the
1929 crash that precipitated
The Great Depression, but the other Black Friday, per this
historical article from a 1948 edition of QST magazine,
caused its own 'great depression' in wireless communications
pioneer Dr. Mahlon Loomis. It is no wonder after reading
this piece - which I highly recommend to you.
Dr. Loomis was a dentist whose side profession was being
an electrical experimenter. Decades prior to
Guglielmo Marconi's world-changing wireless message between
St John's, Newfoundland, and Poldhu, Cornwall, in 1901, Loomis
publically demonstrated wireless communications between kite-borne
antennas (metal wire between the kite
and the ground, a la
Benjamin Franklin). It occurred between two mountaintops
separated by 18 miles. The high drama that occurred thence while
attempting to secure sponsorship funding for further experimentation
is utterly amazing. From private investors to members of Congress,
the story is a comedy of errors, incompetence, and profound
BTW, this is the first time I recall reading a reference
to what we today call an 'angel
investor;' author Joseph Lebo calls them 'financial
The Man Before Marconi: A Biography of Dr. Mahlon Loomis
By Joseph R. Lebo, W2OEU
This inspiring article on Dr. Mahlon Loomis is based on research
done by W2OEU while a GI student at Columbia University. Radio
amateurs , pioneers in their own right, will be quick to recognize
and appreciate the early work of this overlooked but noble American.
Dr. Mahlon Loomis 1826-1886
The story of a successful failure is embodied in the life
of Dr. Mahlon Loomis who was born in Fulton County, New York,
in 1826. His temporal span of sixty years marks an epoch in
a series of events each building on the other so logically that
they could interestingly be made into a movie "natural."
Little is known about the early life of Dr. Loomis save that
in his youth the family moved to Virginia. One fact stands out.
People said that as a youngster, "He was always inventin' things."
The compliment was confirmed in later years.
In September, 1848, Loomis traveled to Cleveland to study
dentistry under a local practitioner. The following winter he
taught school in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for sixty-five dollars,
board and washing. By the summer of 1849 he knew enough dentistry
to tour the neighboring counties and earn fifty dollars per
month, a considerable sum near the half mark of the nineteenth
century. Later he returned to Virginia and continued his practice.
The inventing virus of his early days could not be arrested.
He patented a mineral-plate (kaolin) process for making artificial
teeth in 1854. He also received a patent for his invention in
Lincoln was already in the White House when Mahlon Loomis
turned his attention to electricity. He was trying to force
the growth of plants by burying metal plates connected to batteries.
Loomis wanted to dispense with batteries. He reasoned that electrical
charges - static electricity in the air - might be utilized.
By means of kites carrying metal wires, he observed that electrical
charges could be obtained from the atmosphere. The attempt to
use this natural source of electricity to replace batteries
in order to make plants grow failed. But the experiment had
Loomis had come upon a startling discovery! Whenever a kite
wire was sent aloft in one region, a flow of electricity to
ground could be detected in another kite wire some distance
away! And the galvanometer proved it. Instantly the full meaning
of his discovery and its implications captured the imagination
of the New York-born dentist. He quickly discerned that telegraphy
without wires was a distinct possibility.
But this kindly man was without adequate funds to develop
fully the secret revealed to him by Nature. Loomis sought to
interest people in his invention to acquire the necessary financial
support. But imagine trying to convince people then that air
could be a carrier for electrical impulses when such persons
had been only recently converted, with difficulty, to the wired
telegraph! People were incredulous and the inventor became the
butt of ridicule and coarse humor.
Skeptics had to be convinced. The patient, tireless dentist
managed to scrape together enough money to conduct an experiment.
In 1868 (or 1866) Loomis, in the presence of scientists and
others, communicated between two mountain spurs in the Blue
Ridges of West Virginia, some eighteen miles apart. On each
of the peaks he set up kites attached to wires and connected
to the ground through galvanometers. The operators of each party
were provided with telescopes so that each could sight the other's
station. Loomis produced electrical discharges when he touched
his kite wire to the ground, but had no means of detecting them
except for the galvanometer at the far point which deflected
to indicate a passage of current. He had sent out true radio
waves and it was the first time that such signals had been transmitted
over a distance without wires!
Scientists began to interest themselves in the field as yet
unnamed radio. They confirmed the report of Loomis and looked
upon his work with mixed interest. Some of them may have known
that a Scotchman, James Bowman Lindsay, between 1844 and 1853
sent wireless messages short distances with the aid of batteries.
Also that Professor Joseph Henry in 1842 had demonstrated the
flow of electrical currents. Hence to them Loomis was confirming
what they already knew. But the discoveries of Dr. Mahlon Loomis
were independently made and without knowledge of either man
or his works.
The mountain experiment confirmed the full implications of
his discovery. Now he realized and hoped that telegraphy without
wires could be made a quick, cheap means of communication without
the necessity of constantly repairing wires downed by storms
or marauding Indians. Mahlon Loomis also spoke of utilizing
this new means of telegraphy as a safety device for inter-train
But this newfangled idea brought forth no financial angels.
In desperation Dr. Loomis turned to Congress for $50,000 in
order to continue further experimentation. It was his plan to
go to two high points in the Rocky Mountains and establish stations
between Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta.
In January, 1869, Senator Sumner of Massachusetts introduced
a bill in answer to Loomis's petition for financial aid. The
petitioner had hoped that the bill would be sent to the Committee
on Appropriations; instead it was relegated to the Committee
on Patents. No action was forthcoming at that session of Congress.
The bill introduced by the Massachusetts senator roused the
New York and Massachusetts press to a high pitch of skepticism
and disapproval. However, the newspapers in the nation's capital
were on the whole friendly to Loomis. One journal pleaded, "
... We hope that American pride will not suffer it [Loomis's
discovery] to pass out of our hands, and the credit and honor
be reaped by others." How prophetic!
The American discoverer of wireless a few months later traveled
to New York where he was able to interest favorably a capitalist
named Austin Day and others in supporting his venture to the
Rocky Mountains. He was elated at this promise of financial
relief. Plans were taking form to go westward when a group of
speculators in New York succeeded in advancing the price of
gold, thereby creating a disastrous panic on September 24, 1869.
The day became historically known as Black Friday. This debacle
involved Loomis's patrons in losses so serious they were compelled
to withdraw their promise of financial aid. It was also a dark
day for the hopeful inventor. He returned to Washington to resume
practice. But not for one moment had the persevering inventor
abandoned his great enterprise.
The Senate had remained indifferent to the inventor's appeal
for funds. All that had transpired in that august body with
regard to his petition was its transference to the Committee
on Appropriations in March, 1870, following a request by Senator
Dr. Loomis rightly concluded that if Congress would not advance
money for further experimentation, it would certainly grant
him a charter to continue work and also to sell stock. So in
July, 1870, Congressman Bingham introduced H.R. 2390 to incorporate
the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company with the right to capitalize
not in excess of two million dollars. But this bill hardly fared
better than the Senate's, disinclination to comply with the
request initiated by Senator Sumner. America was then going
through the period that followed the Civil War and was primarily
concerned with reconstruction. Imagine Loomis watching the spectacle
of his cherished dream roving from committee to committee.
Just as with the atomic bomb, the "mad dreamer" was called
upon to show that his invention worked on water too. About 1870
Loomis communicated between two ships two miles apart on Chesapeake
Bay. This experiment was rewarded with jeers, ridicule and haughty
laughter by those who were determined to remain unconvinced.
But the stalwart man maintained his composure and was even more
convinced that his discovery was highly practicable.
By 1871 Congress still had taken no action to grant Loomis
a charter of incorporation. But he still sought financial aid.
A group of Chicago capitalists interested themselves in the
doctor's work and communicated that information to him. Dr.
Loomis hurried to the Windy City. Yes, the Chicago financiers
agreed to underwrite for $20,000 the venture to the Rocky Mountains
in order that Loomis could erect the stations, pay his workers,
and maintain his family while away. Plans were immediately undertaken
to make the project a reality. Suddenly on October 8, 1871,
the great Chicago Fire unleashed its fury. The backers of Dr.
Loomis were burned out. Broken-hearted, he returned to Washington.
Finally in May, 1872, the bill to incorporate the Loomis
Aerial Telegraph Company reached the floor of the House of Representatives.
Many congressmen were either indifferent to the proposal or
amused by the thought of granting a charter to a "crazy inventor"
with a still crazier scheme.
Congressman Conger of Michigan rose to champion Loomis and
the bill. In a flourish of masterful oratory, only too prophetic,
he cajoled and shamed the House membership into action. The
House reluctantly voted and the bill was defeated because of
the absence of a quorum, although a majority favored it. However,
the bill automatically came up on the calendar the next day
and was passed.
Loomis hoped that the Senate would act before the summer
adjournment. But fate decreed otherwise. Only one joyous note
entered into the long, waiting weeks. In July, 1872, the first
radio patent issued in the United States, bearing number
129,971 and titled "Improvement in Telegraphing," was granted
to Mahlon Loomis of Washington, D. C. Hardly a soul recognized
or appreciated the contents of that piece of paper.
In January, 1873, the Senate undertook to consider the bill
to incorporate the Loomis Aerial Telegraph Company. Skeptical
members with due dignity saw little merit in granting the charter
to promote a wild idea still in an experimental stage.
"States' rights" argument blocked the fondly-cherished project
during the first day's consideration. It seemed a staggering
blow to Loomis who reeled but did not fall. Senator Anthony,
in support of the Loomis bill, advised the Senate to follow
an American poet's advice by quoting:
"But sneer not thou at those who rise to loftier illusions."
"Great truths are oft," the Sage replies, "foreshadowed by
The next day, as if some miraculous transformation had taken
place, all objections of the previous day were suddenly withdrawn.
At the conclusion of the roll call the vote was yeas 29, nays
12, absent 33. President Grant signed the bill.
Dr. Loomis, now armed with a patent and a Congressional charter,
sought investors. But capital was not forthcoming. Every hope
and aspiration seemed to turn into a daily repetition of Black
Friday. Dark clouds were gathering over the nation. Undaunted,
Loomis strove to make the charter an effective instrument.
The year 1873 looms ominous in American financial history.
Debtors struggled desperately to obtain money. The pandemonium
which followed is indescribable. At the end of 12 months 89
railroads had defaulted on bonds; there were more than 5000
Can you picture Dr. Loomis holding the patent in one hand
and the charter in the other, while all around him the financial
structure was collapsing? The frenzy of speculation was reaping
Loomis was steeped in gloom but not defeated. People would
not buy stock. The charter for which he had valiantly struggled
remained just a piece of paper.
Almost to the end of his days the mind of Mahlon Loomis remained
active and creative. A patent for a convertible valise was issued
to him in May, 1881. In November of the same year he received
another patent for a cuff-and-collar fastening. A fourth patent
for an electrical-thermostat improvement was granted to him
in March, 1886.
The prophet without honor spent his declining years on a
farm. Before Dr. Loomis passed away in October, 1886, this man
of sanguine temperament declared, "I know that I am by some,
even many, regarded as a crank - by some perhaps as a fool -
for allowing myself, to the sacrifice of material advantages,
to abandon a lucrative profession and pursue this ignis fatuus,
but I know that I am right, and if the present generation live
long enough their opinions will be changed - and their wonder
will be that they did not perceive it before. I shall never
see it perfected - but it will be, and others will have the
honor of the discovery."
Perhaps Loomis rather than Marconi would have been known
as the father of radio had he the coherer detector which was
brought out by Professor Edward Branley of the Catholic University
of Paris in 1890.
Dr. Mahlon Loomis deserves a place in the hearts and minds
of all Americans. Some day, some place, a fitting monument will
be erected to him and no better tribute than the words of his
brother, Judge Loomis, should be appropriately inscribed thereon:
" ... He wanted mankind to enjoy the fruits of his discoveries,
maintaining that it would be the means of establishing a brotherhood
among the nations and races that nothing else could accomplish;
and would give to the children of men grander and truer conceptions
of Deity, than now prevailed."
Posted July 16, 2015