Prism Magazine - March 2003
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Palace of Science

- By Wray Herbert     

A fascinating recent book tells the story of Alfred Lee Loomis, a visionary who set up a world-class private lab that laid the groundwork for detection technologies that changed the course of World War II.

Jennet Conant opens Tuxedo Park—subtitled "A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II"—with a seemingly tangential account of her great uncle's suicide. William Richards was a failed scientist, at least by his family's high standards. Son of a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and brother-in-law of the acclaimed scientist and Harvard University president James Conant (the author's grandfather), Richards went into science more out of obligation than passion. Indeed his real passion was writing, and when he took his life on January 30, 1940, it was the publication date for his first novel, called Brain Waves and Death.

The book was a thinly veiled account of a real-life laboratory located about 40 miles north of New York City, in the tony community called Tuxedo Park, the nation's first gated community and home to aristocratic families with names like Astor and Juilliard. This lab is the "secret palace of science" of the subtitle, and the Wall Street tycoon who funded it was Alfred Lee Loomis, arguably one of the most significant and uncredited figures in the history of modern military science. Loomis, a world-class tinkerer in his own right, was a visionary who saw that technology would win the looming war—and indeed that an investment in "big science" would be the key to national strength in the future.

That Loomis is all but unknown today is remarkable and unfortunate given his talents and contri-bution to history, and Conant's readable and thorough account should go a long way in correcting that. Loomis was born into privilege: Yale undergraduate, Harvard law, and on to the prestigious Wall Street law firm of his uncle Henry Stimson. (His cousin was Henry Stimson, secretary of war under Franklin Roosevelt, a connection that would later prove important.) He made a fortune in the 1920s raising capital for the emerging electrical power industry (a future he also envisioned before most). He also looked around and noticed that the stock market was overvalued, so he pulled his amassed fortune out just before the crash of 1929.

So, as the country headed into the Great Depression, Loomis was a fabulously wealthy man. But he was bored with the world of finance (and disgusted with what he saw as FDR's intrusions into the marketplace), so he retired from that world. For a while he indulged in cars and yachts and even bought Hilton Head Island in South Carolina as a personal hunting retreat. Then he turned to his secret lifelong passion: physics.

Loomis was not a stranger to applied science. As a lieutenant colonel during World War I, he had worked on war-related technologies at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He was obsessed with improving existing artillery and weaponry, and worked on a recoilless cannon and armored tanks, among other things. His most important contribution, however, was the "Loomis chronograph," for which he and the U.S. Army shared a patent. This device allowed the precise measure of the velocity of shells and vastly improved the accuracy of artillery.

As the director of R&D at Aberdeen, Loomis had had the opportunity to work with many of the best minds in physics and applied science (including Thomas Alva Edison, already a legend by that time). These associations and the rewarding military work sparked in Loomis a passion that would be lifelong. Even while working as a Wall Street financier by day, he would commute home to Tuxedo Park in the evening to tinker with various projects, including an improved fire extinguisher and a specialized slide rule for calculating securities (the Patent Office rejected his application). But far and away his most consuming and successful work was on what we now call ultrasound.

Sound Research

One of the prominent physicists Loomis had gotten to know at Aberdeen was Robert W. Wood, who was interested in possible uses of high-frequency sound. Following the war, the two started a longtime collaboration. It was a mutually beneficial relationship, with Wood acting as scientific mentor and Loomis as eager student and benefactor. Together the two developed a new oscillator (no expense was too great for Loomis's world-class Tuxedo Park lab) and ran experiments that led to the publication of several scientific papers in prestigious journals. In 1927, the New York American ran the headline: "Super-Rays Discovery of Rich Banker," detailing ultrasound's potential not only for treating disease but also as "death rays." Even today, some texts refer to Wood and Loomis as the "fathers of ultrasound."

The Loomis lab was by this time world famous. It was said to be better equipped than any university lab of the time, and in fact, Wood often commuted from Johns Hopkins University to carry out experiments that he couldn't do at the university. Loomis started hosting scientific conferences that attracted some of the most renowned scientists of the world, including Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Enrico Fermi, and of course Albert Einstein, who dubbed the lab "a palace of science." This fame did not please many in the WASPy, clannish Tuxedo Park enclave, Conant notes,and the rumors that circulated were tinged with anti-Semitism: "Strange outlanders with flowing hair and baggy trousers were settling down for weeks and months on end. They were performing all kinds of crazy experiments—cooking eggs and killing frogs with sounds that nobody could hear, clocking time to the ten-thousandth of a second, making turtles' hearts beat in a dish, and similar enormities."

These "strange outlanders" were, of course, revolutionizing modern science, and Loomis sensed the significance of their ideas. He was also by this time greatly concerned about the war going on in Europe, a war that he thought Germany would win with its advanced technology. The United States was still officially neutral in 1940 when Winston Churchill sent a delegation of scientists to Tuxedo Park to meet with Loomis. They brought with them a collection of inventions—all still on the drawing board—that the British government couldn't afford to develop. Loomis was intrigued immediately by one device, a so-called "resonant cavity magnetron," which had the potential to revolutionize radar.

Since the government was unwilling to bankroll R&D for Europe's war, Loomis himself started a radar laboratory at MIT. The "Rad Lab" was funded by Loomis at the start, then later by foundations, and it eventually had 4,000 people working on improve-ments in radar technology. The sophisticated detection technologies that the Rad Lab produced changed the course of the war, disabling the powerful fleet of German U-boats, and also contributing to America's victories in the Pacific.

It's been said that radar won the war, and the atomic bomb finished it. It was inevitable that Loomis would eventually make the acquaintance of Ernest Lawrence, who by the time they met had already invented the cyclotron and was looking to build a massive (and very expensive) atom smasher at the University of California–Berkeley. They were an odd couple, Loomis the reserved, almost reclusive, east coast WASP, and Lawrence the affable, wide-eyed midwesterner. Yet they hit it off immediately and became fast friends. Loomis began splitting his time between Tuxedo Park and Berkeley, where he worked side-by-side with Lawrence on his nuclear physics projects and eventually arranged the private funding (partly through his personal friend John D. Rockefeller) for his cyclotron.

Making Connections

Loomis, more than Lawrence, was becoming aware that atomic physics was more than pure science, that it might indeed contribute to the development of weapons of unprecedented power that would be needed to stop the Nazi menace. The well-connected Brahmin turned to perhaps his most influential connection of all, first cousin and secretary of war Henry Stimson, to argue the case that the government needed to be involved in bankrolling cutting-edge scientific research for the purpose of national defense. The government started hiring the country's best physicists, many from the MIT Rad Lab. The subsequent story of the Manhattan Project has been well told.

Once the government's bomb project was underway, Loomis shut down the MIT Rad Lab. The radar innovations, however valuable, had been superceded by interest in the ultimate weapon. At the end of the war, Loomis also shut down the Tuxedo Park lab, and shuttered up the Tudor mansion that had housed it. But that was at least in part for personal reasons. It turns out that Loomis, whose wife was suffering from severe depression, had been carrying on a longtime affair with his lab chief's wife, a Belgian beauty. Eventually both couples divorced, and Loomis married his mistress on the day his divorce was finalized. The divorce and remarriage scandalized New York society, alienating Loomis from both friends and family. He went into seclusion and was rarely heard from again.

Loomis's story is compelling and long overdue. But Tuxedo Park also offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of science between the wars. This was a time when scientific research was strictly a privately funded endeavor, indeed when amateurs like Loomis could make a contribution. It's hard to imagine a private citizen today conducting military research on his own dime. All of that was changing, of course, and Alfred Lee Loomis was a central figure in the emergence of the "big science" of today.

 

Wray Herbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at wherbert@ asee.org.

 
 
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