During World War II, two major scientific breakthroughs contributed to the Allied victory over Germany and Japan. One was the atomic bomb with its secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The other was the development of radar at the so-called “Rad Lab” on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The atomic bomb had a very dramatic impact when it was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, but Lee DuBridge, director of the Rad Lab, liked to claim that “Radar had won the war; the atom bomb ended it.”
Alfred Lee Loomis was a somewhat eccentric, wealthy patron of scientific research. Through various phases of his career, Loomis had developed high-level connections with people in the worlds of finance, politics, academia, and science. It all came together in the early 1940’s when he played a key role in organizing the Rad Lab at MIT. No biography of Loomis had been published until Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park.
Loomis was born in 1887 into a distinguished New England family. His father died at a young age and Loomis developed a father-son relationship with his cousin, Henry L. Stimson. Loomis received his higher education at Yale University (majoring in mathematics) and the Harvard Law School. He was editor of the Harvard Law Review, graduating cum laude in 1912. He joined Stimson’s law office in Washington, D.C., becoming a full member after only three years. He married a Boston socialite, Ellen Farnsworth, and they had three sons.
In 1917, Loomis joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where new military equipment was tested. He enjoyed working on technical problems but was disappointed to find that military officers generally were reluctant to accept new developments in weaponry. He was the coauthor of an improved method to measure the muzzle velocity of guns, which was awarded a patent in 1921.
When Loomis returned to civilian life after the war, he decided to resign from Stimson’s law firm in order to enter the field of investment banking. He and his brother-in-law, Landon K. Thorne, saw a special opportunity for investments in the electric utility business. Only about one-third of American homes were wired for electricity in 1920, and factories were being converted from steam to electricity. Loomis, with his enthusiasm for technological innovation, was confident that electric power usage would undergo a rapid increase in the near future The two partners provided financing for companies to build new power plants and their associated distribution systems. Their business was very successful because other investment firms had been hesitant to enter a new market.
While Loomis was becoming a major force on Wall Street, he retained a lively interest in scientific experimentation, especially physics. In 1924, he became acquainted with Professor R. W. Wood of The Johns Hopkins University. Loomis proposed to provide financial support for Wood if he could participate in Wood’s experiments as a research associate. To provide laboratory space, Loomis purchased a large manor house at an affluent enclave called Tuxedo Park, about forty miles north of New York City. In 1927, Wood and Loomis published a groundbreaking study on the biological effects of high frequency sound waves (now called ultrasound). Through further publications with other coauthors, the “Loomis Laboratory” at Tuxedo Park became known in scientific circles. Loomis would go to Wall Street five days a week and then do laboratory experiments evenings and weekends. Popular Science published an article about his double career titled “A Scientist of Wall Street.”
Scientific research laboratories generally are funded by universities, government agencies, private industry, or charitable foundations. The Loomis laboratory was unique because decisions were made and bills were paid by one individual. Scientists came to Tuxedo Park by invitation; there they were treated to elaborate dinners served by uniformed servants standing behind each chair. The Loomis lab guest book was signed by many distinguished scientists, including Niels...
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