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Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II by Jennet Conant


Rating: (Recommended)


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I had never heard of Alfred Loomis until I read Jennet Conant’s book, Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. Despite some shortfalls in Conant’s writing style, Tuxedo Park is an engaging story about a man who put up his own money to build a private laboratory with world class equipment, and attracted top scientists to work on breakthrough developments, especially radar. “Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it.” Thanks to Loomis, radar was working and functional in time to win the war.

Here’s an excerpt of what to expect (p. 158-9):

When Loomis returned east in April 1940 to help Lawrence navigate Wall Street, he was more determined than ever to dedicate his private resources to scientific problems that might have value for defense purposes. Convinced that the United States would inevitably be drawn into the war, he was juggling several disparate projects related to mobilization and believed that priority should be given to things that could yield results in a matter of months or, at most, a year or two. Impatient with the MIT group's slow progress, he decided that the Loomis Laboratories would no longer muck about with a preliminary long-range exploration of propagation problems. Instead, it would focus on one pressing problem and work to find a practical and efficient solution.

While he was in San Carlos, Loomis had observed some early detection experiments done with a makeshift system that had actually been designed for blind landing tests. Even so, in the course of several tests with the ten-centimeter klystron and a ten-centimeter "Barrow horn” (a galvanized iron hollow cylinder used for transmitting ultrahigh frequencies, named after MIT's William Barrow), they had actually been able to pick up automobiles and trains a quarter of a mile away, using only a crystal detector with an audio amplifier. Loomis had also observed some of the experiments Hansen and the Varian brothers were performing with one of the first continuous wave Doppler radar sets. lmpressed with what he had seen, Loomis proposed to develop a similar airplane locator based on the principle of the Doppler effect. He had brought back several ten-centimeter klystron tubes from California,' and he had even convinced Hansen to come back with him to help assemble the setup in Tuxedo Park.                                 


Loomis went up to MIT to arrange for several members of Bowles’ team to be loaned to his laboratory for the summer. At the same time, he wrote Compton another check to help keep the university's ultra- high-frequency program going. By the end of April, he had assembled a group consisting of Hansen and two young MIT graduate students, Donald Kerr and Frank Lewis, and together they made the drive from Cambridge to Tuxedo Park. There they were joined by MIT's William Tuller and William Ratliff, now with the Sperry Co. At first, Lewis did not know what to make of Loomis and his lavishly equipped laboratory, and in telling the story later, he joked about his utter astonishment at the exclusive surroundings he suddenly found himself in: "Now this Tuxedo Park is a private enclave where people go who don't want to be bothered with other people just driving in and saying 'hello.' They have a fence around it and they had a gatehouse where you go in and check yourself through. Everybody who was run in and out of there was thoroughly understood by the people that opened the gate. So if they didn't know you, you didn't get in."

As they settled down to work, Lewis began to do "a little inquiring" about the mysterious millionaire who was bankrolling their operation.

An enormous amount of equipment was needed, and Loomis "footed the bill generously," as well as paying the salaries of himself and the other newcomers who were not covered by the original grant. They were joined by several of Loomis' longtime associates: Garret Hobart; Charles Butt, who was E. Newton Harvey's research assistant at Princeton and a regular during the summers; Philip Miller, the lab's manager, machinist, and jack-of-all-trades; and Loomis' youngest son, Henry, who was in his third year at Harvard but had enlisted in the navy and was due to ship out in six weeks. There was also an impressive stream of visitors, including R. W. Wood, who filled Lewis in on Loomis' background, how he had made his money, and his close ties to Henry Stimson. As the weeks went by, Lewis came to have a grudging respect for what his wealthy host was trying to accomplish on his own dime.

Loomis avoided publicity and focused his life on the future more than the past. Thanks to Connat and Tuxedo Park, we can read about his accomplishments and the amazing work he did at a time when his skills were needed by a world at war.

Steve Hopkins, December 23, 2002


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the January 2003 issue of Executive Times


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