Alfred Lee Loomis

Alfred Lee Loomis

Alfred Lee Loomis (November 4, 1887 – August 11, 1975) was an American attorney, investment banker, physicist, philanthropist, and patron of scientific research. He established the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, and his role in the development of radar is considered instrumental in the Allied victory in World War II. He invented the "Aberdeen Chronograph" for measuring muzzle velocities, proposed the LORAN navigational system, contributed importantly (perhaps critically, according to Luis Alvarez [cite encyclopedia | author = Alvarez, Luis W. | title = Alfred Lee Loomis | encyclopedia = National Academy of Sciences. Biographical memoirs | year = 1980 | volume = 51 | location = Washington D.C. | publisher = National Academies Press | pages = 308 – 341 | url =] ) to the development of a ground controlled approach technology for aircraft, and participated in preliminary meetings of the Manhattan Project. Loomis made contributions to biological instrumentation as well -- working with Edmund Newton Harvey, he co-invented the microscope centrifuge [cite web | url =| title = Patent Number 1,907,803 | accessdate = 2008-09-15] , and pioneered techniques for electroencephalography. [cite web | title = Harvey, Edmund Newton | url = | accessdate = 2008-09-15]

Early years

Born in Manhattan, Loomis was the son of Julia Stimson and Henry Patterson Loomis. There were distinguished members on both sides of his family, primarily physicians, and they held high positions in society. Loomis' mother and father separated when he was very young and his father died when Alfred was in college. His first cousin was Henry Stimson, who held cabinet-level positions in the administrations of William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Stimson became a great influence upon Loomis from an early age.

Loomis completed his undergraduate work at Yale University in mathematics and science, and was graduated, "cum laude", from Harvard Law School in 1912. Immediately following his graduation, Loomis married and began the practice of corporate law in the firm of Winthrop and Stimson and achieved great success.

He married Elizabeth Ellen Farnsworth of Dedham, Massachusetts, a member of a prominent Boston society family, on June 22, 1912 and they had three sons, Albert Lee Jr., William Farnsworth, and Henry.

In 1917 Alfred Loomis and Landon K. Thorne, the wealthy husband of Loomis's sister Julia, purchased 17,000 acres of Hilton Head Island and established the property as a private preserve for riding, boating, fishing, and hunting. Loomis's hobbies included automobiles and yachting — racing America's Cup yachts against the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Military service and a new career in finance

With the entry of the United States into World War I, Loomis volunteered for military service in 1917. He was commissioned as a captain and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He worked in ballistics at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he was the inventor of the "Aberdeen Chronograph", the first portable instrument able to measure muzzle velocity and the striking power of bullets. At Aberdeen, he met and worked with a Johns Hopkins physicist, Robert W. Wood, under whose influence Loomis' longtime interest in inventing and gadgetry evolved into a serious pursuit of experimental and practical physics.

In the 1920s, Loomis collaborated with his brother-in-law, Landon K. Thorne, rather than returning to the practice of law. They acquired Bonbright and Company and took it from the verge of bankruptcy to becoming a preeminent U. S. investment banking-house specializing in public utilities. They became very wealthy by financing the electric companies as they established the electrical infrastructure of rural America, and Loomis sat on the boards of several banks and electric utilities. Loomis and Thorne pioneered the concept of the holding company, consolidating many of the electric companies on the East Coast of the United States. Loomis increased his fortune further using insider trading practices that now are illegal.

Foreseeing the Wall Street Crash of 1929, he had converted most of his investments into cash when the market had risen so dramatically that he and his partner determined that it was unstable. Once the crash of the stock market had bankrupt most speculators, he became even wealthier as Wall Street floundered, by purchasing stocks cheaply after they had plummeted in value and few had the cash to invest again.

Loomis Laboratory at Tuxedo Park

With his considerable wealth, Loomis increasingly indulged his interest in science. He established a personal laboratory near his mansion within the exclusive enclave of Tuxedo Park, New York. He and his small staff conducted pioneering studies in spectrometry, high-intensity sound waves, electro-encephalography, and the precise measurement of time, chronometry. Eventually, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences for his work in physics.

His laboratory was the best of its kind, with equipment that few universities could afford. Quickly his reputation spread, particularly in Europe where money was scarce for science. Loomis often sent first-class tickets to famous European scientists so that they could travel to the United States to meet with other scientists and collaborate on projects. They would be picked up at the airport or train station and taken to Tuxedo Park in his limousine. At first some in the scientific community called him an "eccentric dabbler," but soon his laboratory became the meeting place for some of the most accomplished scientists of the time, such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, James Franck, and Enrico Fermi. Scientists who worked personally with him were convinced of his capability and industry. His wealth, connections, and charm enabled him to be highly persuasive.

In 1939, Loomis began a collaboration with Ernest Lawrence and he was instrumental in financing Lawrence's project to construct a 184-inch cyclotron. By this time, he had become a prominent figure in experimental physics and had moved his Tuxedo Park operations to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he entered upon a joint operation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Loomis in World War Two

In the late 1930s the Loomis science team turned their attention to radio detection studies, building a crude microwave radar which they deployed in the back of a van. They drove it out to a golf course and aimed it at the neighboring highway to track automobiles and then took it to the local airport to track small planes.

Loomis had visited the United Kingdom and knew many of the British scientists who were working on radar. Britain, at war with Germany, was being bombed nightly by the German Luftwaffe, while America was trying to stay out of the war. In 1940 the British Tizard Mission visited the United States, desperately seeking help to develop their concepts further and produce their technology. British scientists had developed the cavity magnetron, which allowed radar to be small enough to be installed in aircraft.

Upon hearing that the British magnetron had one thousand times the output of the best American transmitter, Loomis invited them to Tuxedo Park. Because he had completed more work in this area than anyone else in the country, Loomis then was appointed by Vannevar Bush to the National Defense Research Committee as chairman of the Microwave Committee and vice-chairman of "Division D" (Detection, Controls, Instruments). Within a month, he selected a building on the MIT campus for a laboratory and dubbed it the MIT Radiation Lab, becoming known as, the "Rad Lab". He pressed for the development of radar in spite of the Army's initial skepticism and arranged funding for the Rad Lab until federal money was allocated.

While the management of the MIT Rad Lab was conducted by director Lee DuBridge, Loomis took his usual role of eliminating obstacles to their research and providing the encouragement needed while success remained elusive. The resulting 10cm radar was a key technology that enabled the sinking of U-boats, spotted incoming German bombers for the British, and provided cover for the D-Day landing. Loomis used all his business acumen and his contacts in industry, to ensure that no time was wasted in its development. DuBridge later commented, "Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it."

In later years he invented LORAN, the most widely used long-range navigation system until the advent of GPS. It was based upon a pulsed, hyperbolic system implementing a master and two slave stations. Loomis also made a significant contribution to the development of ground-controlled approach technology, a precursor of today's instrument-landing-systems that used radar to permit ground controllers to "talk-down" airplane pilots to safe landings when poor visibility made visual landings difficult or impossible.

Later years and legacy

President Roosevelt lauded the value of Loomis's work and described him as the second civilian, perhaps only to Churchill, most responsible for the Allied victory in World War II.

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1940, and received several honorary degrees, from Wesleyan University a D.Sc. in 1932, from Yale University a M.Sc. in 1933, and from the University of California an LL.D. in 1941.

Loomis was married to Ellen Farnsworth for over thirty years, she was beautiful, delicate, and often suffered from debilitating depression. He had an affair with a colleague's wife, Manette Hobart and, in 1945 he divorced Ellen and immediately married Manette, scandalising New York society. At that point he changed his lifestyle completely, eschewing his multiple residences and numerous servants and, settling into a single household in which he and his wife shared a very domestic relationship. They remained married until his death, more than thirty years later.

Loomis, always a very private person who avoided publicity, retreated from public life entirely after closing the "Rad Lab" and finishing his related obligations in 1947. He retired to East Hampton with his wife, Manette, and never again granted an interview.


Further reading


* hardcover: ISBN 0-684-87287-0, paperback: ISBN 0-684-87288-9

External links

*, review of "Tuxedo Park" at American Scientist that points out a few errors and exaggerations in the book.

*, another review at SIAM news.

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