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Fakes, Frauds, and Cranks (1866-1922)
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Unfortunately, some "misunderstood geniuses" are actually crazy, or dishonest, or both.
Mahlon Loomis -- Other Dubious Individuals


The development of the telegraph, telephone, and radio were major advances in communications. However, some would claim even more remarkable achievements, although without any real evidence that their supposed accomplishments were valid. These hoaxes and deceptions, combined with the shady financial activities of many of the early U.S. radio companies, helped to create doubt and skepticism about legitimate advances during the early days of radio development.

Perhaps the best known and most expansive of these individuals was Mahlon Loomis, a Washington, D.C. dentist. An intriguing phenomenon had been encountered shortly after the introduction of the telegraph -- magnetic storms associated with the aurora borealis induced electrical currents in the telegraph lines, which often caused the lines to become inoperable, but also sometimes allowed operators to communicate by disconnecting their batteries and employing the atmospheric electricity. This mysterious phenomenon was described in The Aurora Borealis section of George B. Prescott's 1860 History, Theory and Practice of the Electric Telegraph, and later reported upon by the January 9, 1873 Chicago Tribune, as reprinted in The Electric Wave from the January 12, 1873 New York Times. The nature of the aurora was only dimly understood at this time. While we now know that the main effects occur in the ionosphere hundreds of kilometers above the Earth's surface, some originally thought that the effects commonly dipped much lower, and Prescott even noted a Swedish claim that "the auroræ borealis sometimes descends so low that it touches the ground; at the summit of high mountains it produces upon the faces of travellers an effect analogous to that of the wind". In light of these reports, Loomis became convinced that it was possible to tap into an encircling electrical layer, thought to be located at approximately the altitude of the tallest mountains, and use it as an electrical conductor for wireless signaling between the continents, in addition to a number of even more remarkable applications. From the mid-1860s until his death in 1886, Loomis made numerous unsubstantiated claims that he had actually used this method for long-distance wireless communication, at first telegraphic, and later by wireless telephone -- for example, in a report in the April 17, 1879 issue of American Socialist, Aerial Telegraphy, reprinted from the Cincinnati Commercial Review, Loomis claimed he was now doing "all his talking with his assistant, 20 miles away, by a telephone, the connection being aerial only". However, there is a total lack of corroborating evidence for these assertions -- no independent tests, no reports from the unidentified assistants who supposedly telegraphed and telephoned back-and-forth with Loomis, nor any other first-hand accounts from eyewitnesses -- for the twenty year period during which Loomis claimed to have successfully made wireless transmissions.

On July 30, 1872 Mahlon Loomis was issued U.S. patent 129,971 for "a new and Improved Mode of Telegraphing and of Generating Light, Heat and Motive-Power". As vaguely described therein, the basic concept consisted of towers placed atop tall mountains, which supposedly would draw upon a perpetual source of electrical current from the upper troposphere, while at the same time achieving longrange signalling by using an electrical layer in the atmosphere as a substitute for the standard telegraph wire. (There was nothing in the patent suggesting that the system produced or employed radio waves, which were unknown at the time). Although Loomis' patent has often been said to be the first to describe an aerial wireless telegraph, in reality three months earlier, on April 30, 1872, U.S. patent 126,356, which described the same basic concepts for an aerial wireless telegraph, had been issued to William Henry Ward. (It was possible to patent an idea which was pure speculation, rather than a working system, so the fact that there is no evidence that Ward and Loomis' common approach had ever been put into actual practice wasn't a bar to being issued a patent. But had Loomis ever gotten his system to actually work, it likely would have led to an interesting patent dispute between the two over Ward's prior patent.)

In spite of the fact that, due to glaring scientific flaws, there is no evidence that his idea could have ever worked, Loomis became obsessed with the vision that harnessing atmospheric electricity was destined to be one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of the world. The text of a January 7, 1872 lecture, included in S. R. Winters' "The Story of Mahlon Loomis", which appeared in the November, 1922 Radio News, includes Loomis' prediction that implementing his ideas would bring vast benefits, beginning with an "inexhaustible supply" of free "electrical fluid" for lighting and heating homes and running factories. In addition, he claimed his approach could be used to melt icebergs, eliminate malaria (then widely thought to be caused by "bad air"), and would eventually be developed for weather control, "disarming the tornado and the thunderstorm of their terror and subduing their power to useful purposes" while creating "entire climates of this our planet toned and tempered". (Not mentioned in this lecture, but included in a letter republished in Thomas Appleby's 1967 biography, "Mahlon Loomis", was his belief that atmospheric electricity would also someday "fertilize the earth" -- Loomis had been impressed by experiments where electricity had been applied to crops -- and, somewhat more obscurely, "reclaim the heathen".)

Despite his bold claims, Loomis was unable to get financial support from either the U.S. Congress -- which had funded an early test of Morse's wire telegraph -- or from private sources. Some, accepting Loomis' assertions that he actually used his system to send and receive messages, have hypothesized that somehow his instruments were unknowingly set up in such a way that they became capable of both sending and detecting radio waves, over distances that later experimenters, using equipment specifically engineered for radio use, would not match for years. However, sadly, the most logical explanation is that, obsessed with promoting a supposedly earth-shaking technology which promised advances far beyond mere communication, Loomis fabricated his reported achievements, in order to maintain interest in a system that he truly, but mistakenly, thought could work miracles in a wide variety of fields. (The contemporary press was less than impressed by Loomis, and an editorial in the November 28, 1877 New York Times, An Electrical Outrage, pretended to be alarmed by Loomis' work, with comments such as "The aerial electrical current will be constantly full of Congressional speeches and other ponderous matter, which will be liable at any moment to descend our lightning-rods and penetrate our houses.")


Others made dubious claims about more specific topics. The publicity about Guglielmo Marconi's radio experiments reminded some of the centuries-old, and completely unsubstantiated, reports about the existence of "sympathetic loadstones". As reviewed by A Prophetic Forecast, from the April 26, 1899 Electrical Review, supposedly if two needles were magnetized by the same loadstone they would afterwards always move together in the same direction, providing two-way communication spanning a continent. However, despite the claims, there was a decided lack of working models. Radio would play an important role in dealing with one of the most dangerous hazards to navigation, fog, initially by providing communication that could "pierce the gloom", followed by the development of such things as radiobeacons and direction-finding equipment, radar, and Global Positioning Systems. But in 1909, Maurice Dibos of Boulogne, France claimed to have come up with a more direct approach, reporting that he could use radio waves to burn away fog, as reviewed in Fighting Fog with Hertzian Waves, by Edfrid A. Bingham and John Parslow, from the July, 1909 Technical World Magazine.

The development of the telephone made audio communication over great distances possible, and some experimenters foresaw the day when moving images would also be transmitted over telephone lines, so the August, 1906 issue of Electrician and Mechanic reviewed their on-going investigations. However, included with the legitimate experimenters were two individuals, a Dr. Sylvestre and a Professor John E. Andrews, who with very little evidence both claimed they had already developed working systems for visual links: Seeing By Electricity (extract). (Although only Professor Andrews claimed to be able to "see what is doing on the planets".)

In the January 26, 1911 The Atlanta Constitution, an advertisement for The Diagraphoscope announced that the Advanced Medical Sciences Institute was opening an office in Atlanta to showcase its imaginary predecessor to the CAT scan, which, as "the eighth wonder of the world", supposedly employed "radio forces" to reveal "to the naked eye every organ in the patient's body" so that it "Cures Diseases Heretofore Considered Incurable". Meanwhile, an article in the April 30, 1911 issue of the same newspaper suggested it was possible that "radio forces" were actually the cause of many of these maladies, and might make it necessary to adopt head-to-toe body coverings for protection, as explained by Dr. Rolfe Hensingmuller in WHY Telegraphy May Make Us All Toothless, Hairless and Insane. Even among legitimate experimenters, there was a tendency to exaggerate accomplishments, which led to public skepticism about radio advances. And some individuals made wild claims so broad and unsubstantiated that they just could not be taken seriously, for example, one Professor Carlos Van Bergh, featured in His Wireless Works Wherever He Wills from the March 19, 1911 New York Times, who claimed invention of not only by far the most sensitive radio receiver in existence, but also the marvelous teleautophonograph, which combined a portable wireless telephone with automatic voicemail.

Before the development of radio communication, which used electromagnetic radiation, there had been extensive experimentation in wireless signalling using electrical and magnetic induction. These experiments saw only limited success, as the signals never achieved commercially practical distances. However, induction could be used for short-range audio transmissions, so it was eagerly applied in one niche application, as "spiritualists", who in the past had resorted to tricks such as hidden speaking-tubes, utilized this little-known technology to convince gullible clients of their ability to communicate with "the other side". In the October, 1922 issue of Popular Radio, an exposé written by world-famous magician Harry Houdini, Ghosts that Talk--by Radio, reviewed some of the fakes, while noting that "If there are mediums who are not fraudulent, I have yet to see them."

Some used the new technology to update classic cons with new story lines. In the December 2, 1906 New York Times, Fake Inventor Got Poor Girl's Savings reported how a grifter used carefully prepared postal cards to convince a naive woman that he held an important wireless telephony patent, thus was someone to whom she could entrust her savings. And of course, things wouldn't be complete without a "death ray" or two, for example To Blow Up Warships by a Wireless Ray, from the October, 1913 The Electrical Experimenter. Meanwhile, B. S. Blakee's The Danger of Hertzian Waves from the August, 1915 The World's Advance, expounded a bizarre theory that locations midway between major international radio transmitters might be dangerous, and perhaps the cause of a number of ship fires and explosions.

"My suspicions about the book's [Gleason Archer's History of Radio to 1926] reliability on certain points were confirmed when I was working through the extensive manuscript collection on radio's history compiled over a fifty-year period by George H. Clark, who worked in the radio field from 1903 to 1946 and knew the history of radio intimately. Clark tore out pages of Archer's book, stapled them to typing paper, and wrote comments such as 'Lies!' in the margins."--Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1987.