Loomis wireless telegraph illustration

When I saw that today was Loomis Day, my first thought was, what—the company with the armored cars? My second thought was that maybe it had to do with the town of the same name near Sacramento. But I was wrong on both counts. In fact, today we remember Mahlon Loomis, an American dentist who lived in the mid-nineteenth century. He patented a process for making porcelain dentures, but he’s best remembered for his misguided but noteworthy attempts to invent a wireless electric telegraph (not to be confused with optical telegraphs, which are of course also wireless).

To make a long story short(er), Loomis thought the atmosphere consisted of a series of concentric, conductive layers that could be used to transmit messages if only a pair of conductors could be placed in it at identical altitudes. He performed a number of experiments to prove his hypothesis. For example, in 1866 he sent up two kites, about 20 miles apart, tethered by copper wires. He sent an electrical signal through one kite’s wire and it was received through an instrument connected to the other kite’s wire. He thought this proved that the atmosphere was conducting the electrical signal, but in fact it was a primitive sort of radio transmission, with the kite wires serving as antennas. Unfortunately for Loomis, the lack of a solid theoretical understanding (as well as a lack of money) prevented him from developing his invention, and years later, Marconi was credited for inventing radio. So near and yet so far.

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