By Otis Port
A Wall Street Tycoon and the
Secret Palace of Science That
Changed the Course of World War II
By Jennet Conant
Simon & Schuster -- 330pp -- $26
If any one technology was key to the Allied victory in World War II, it was radar. Without it, the outnumbered Royal Air Force might well have lost the Battle of Britain in 1940, German submarines could have cut supply lines across the North Atlantic, and Hitler's V-1 buzz bombs, 85% of which were shot down, could have devastated London. Many scientists helped develop radar. But one who was central to the drama has been all but forgotten: former Wall Street magnate and self-taught physicist Alfred Lee Loomis. Without his contributions, said physicist and Nobel laureate Ernest O. Lawrence, "radar development would have been retarded greatly, at an enormous cost in American lives."
Loomis' fascinating life is the subject of Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II, by former Newsweek and Vanity Fair writer Jennet Conant. The book is a must-read for fans of World War II history, and it will captivate students of science and technology.
The author got hooked on Loomis' story because of a link to her own family's history. Her grandfather was James B. Conant, president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953. In 1940, his brother-in-law, William T. Richards, a former chemistry professor at Princeton University, committed suicide, scandalizing the family. Adding to the family's discomfort, Richards had just written a sexy murder mystery entitled Brain Waves & Death, set in the sumptuous private laboratory of a supposedly fictitious dilettante scientist. To some of the East Coast's upper crust, the book was a thinly disguised account of goings-on at the place where Richards had worked after Princeton: Loomis' sprawling estate in Tuxedo Park, a snooty suburb north of New York. There, Loomis installed a state-of-the-art physics lab after cashing in his investments just prior to the 1929 stock market crash. He also built a guest house for visiting scientists and hosted such notables as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi. The same house served as the rendezvous for Loomis' trysts with the young wife of his chief lab assistant. It is said that Loomis tried to suppress Richards' book, by buying every copy he could lay his hands on.
Author Conant became fascinated by Loomis and his intense penchant for privacy--which applied not only to his personal life but also to his role in many scientific advances. This secretiveness helps explain why Loomis is relatively unknown today, despite his being honored by President Harry S Truman and King George VI.
In the 1930s, British scientists were at the cutting edge of radar technology. While crude by modern standards, their systems could spot Nazi bombers up to 150 miles from the English coast, enough of a warning for Royal Air Force fighters to intercept them. But the radar apparatus was too bulky to mount in planes, and the equipment was not sensitive enough to detect a U-boat's periscope. That changed in early 1940, when physicists at the University of Birmingham invented the magnetron. This plump copper disk was only four inches across, but its glass horns emitted short-wavelength pulses of extremely high power--just the ticket for small radars that could probe much farther and resolve details far finer than any previous system.
When Prime Minister Winston Churchill learned of the magnetron, he sensed that it marked a turning point in the war. Given the state of British industry, though, he needed U.S. help in refining the magnetron and, most of all, producing them in volume. That August, he sent a mission to Washington, where it presented a top-secret magnetron to astonished U.S. researchers.
Loomis, who had done microwave research at Tuxedo Park and had become head of advanced radar work for the U.S. National Defense Research Committee, was in the first group to see the new magnetron. He lost no time in marshaling his contacts, including War Secretary Henry Stimson, a cousin. While Stimson worked to get funds from Congress, physicist Lawrence recruited scientists for the push in microwave radar. By mid-October, Massachusetts Institute of Technology had been picked as the site for the now-famous Radiation Lab (RadLab). When its funds ran short, Loomis would dip into his pocket or secure loans from rich friends. RadLab went on to design 100 different radar systems and oversee the production of 1 million magnetrons that went into radar equipment worth $1.5 billion.
The war's end was bittersweet for Loomis. In 1945, he became a social pariah by divorcing his popular but sickly wife and, on the same day, marrying his mistress. He was 57, she was 36. Hounded out of polite society, Loomis abandoned his Tuxedo Park lab and retreated into relative seclusion, serving on a few corporate boards and helping to form Rand Corp. He died in 1975.
Although Loomis chose to linger in the shadows of great historic events, he deserves more recognition. Jennet Conant tugs this unsung hero into the sunlight so we can see his achievements. But even by the book's end, the man remains an enigma. No doubt, that's just the way this champion of privacy would've wanted it.
Port covers science and technology.