Inside the "Cloistered Fiefdom" of an Unrelenting Gentleman Scientist

December 8, 2002


At the Aberdeen Proving Ground, which opened for business in 1918, Alfred Lee Loomis invented instruments that would be used for the next twenty-five years in measurements of external ballistics. Photographs from Tuxedo Park.
Book Review
James Case

Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. By Jennet Conant
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2002, 330 + xvi pages, $32.95.

Alfred Lee Loomis, the central character in the book under review, had one fascinating career. Leaving his comfortable position at a New York law firm to volunteer for service in the Army during World War I, he used his undergraduate training in math and science, along with his detailed knowledge of European field artillery---an interest developed in college-to secure the assignments he wanted: first to the old Army proving ground at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and later to the new Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, which opened for business in January 1918. There, as a lieutenant colonel in charge of development and experimentation, he invented a number of instruments (two of which were later patented) that would be used for the next twenty-five years in measuring external ballistics.

Instead of returning to his old law firm after the war, he joined forces with his college friend (and brother-in-law) Landon K. Thorne to acquire a controlling interest in Bonbright & Company, a venerable but nearly bankrupt investment house. Knowing that the fraction of American homes wired for electricity had increased from only 8% in 1902 to 24% by 1917, and to 34% by 1920, the fledgling financiers reasoned that the rest were soon to follow. Industrial demand for electricity was also growing apace, as American factories (remember them?) shifted from steam and water to electric power. Public utility companies would need to finance extraordinary growth in the years to come. Loomis was ideally suited to such work because of its technical aspects, and because he had become acquainted at Aberdeen with leading figures from the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, which then represented the state of the art in electric power generation and distribution.

Between 1924 and 1929, Bonbright (either alone or in concert with other underwriters) did upward of $1.6 billion worth of utility financing. Loomis and Thorne also helped to organize mergers and acquisitions, in the process acquiring numerous seats and untold influence on the resulting boards of directors. Their phenomenal nine-year run, during which Bonbright leaped from near bankruptcy to the lead in private utility investment, made them legends in their own time. They were lauded not only for their success, but for their application of scientific principles and long-term economic planning to the management of public resources and provision of cheaper and more reliable service to consumers. Fortune described them, in February 1930, as "the most potent force in shaping the present and future organization of America's huge, complex power and light business." Loomis, who invented (and tried unsuccessfully to patent) a special slide rule for evaluating securities, concentrated on that part of the work while the more gregarious Thorne handled sales.

When the dominant house of Morgan belatedly decided to enter the public utility field, it asked the dynamic duo to help structure and assemble a conglomerate to be known as the United Corporation, including several of the largest power and light companies of the day. In January 1929, Loomis and Thorne finalized the deal and suggested an appropriate price for the IPO. They were both surprised and dismayed when Morgan insisted on a higher figure. Then, when the overpriced shares sold like hot cakes, the two became convinced that the entire market was infected with "irrational exuberance." So, very quietly and over a period of months, they converted the bulk of their equity holdings to rock-solid treasury bonds or cash. When Black Thursday arrived, on October 4, 1929, they were thoroughly prepared.

While Thorne and Loomis occasionally disagreed about the best time to re-enter the market, they stayed out long enough to avoid the secondary shocks that again shook the world of finance in 1933 and 1934. As a result, Loomis alone earned an estimated $50 million during the early years of the Depression. Soon after the New Deal's Emergency Banking Act was passed into law, the pair announced that they would be stepping down as chief executives at Bonbright, rather than abandon their numerous bank directorships. Yet Loomis had grown tired of banking, and yearned to pursue other interests. He therefore informed Thorne that he was through. Together, they disposed of virtually all of their assets, placing the proceeds in a joint holding company to be managed (for almost thirty years, as it turned out) by Thorne. Without so much as a backward look, Alfred Loomis quit Wall Street for good, "retiring" to his mansion in Tuxedo Park, New York.

At no time had Loomis completely lost touch with the physicists he knew at Aberdeen. As early as 1924, he renewed his acquaintance with Robert W. Wood, a professor of experimental physics at Johns Hopkins University. After inspecting the 40-foot "grating spectrograph" Wood had assembled in the barn behind his summer cottage on Long Island, Loomis asked if there might be any research the two could contemplate doing together---perhaps something beyond the means of any physics department budget. Ever short of research funds, and knowing of Loomis's interest in Paul Langevin's wartime sonar experiments, Wood knew exactly what to propose. Loomis soon purchased a vacant mansion in Tuxedo Park---significantly larger than the one he and his family actually lived in---and converted it into a private laboratory in which he, Wood, and others could collaborate. "Communication No. 1 from the Alfred Lee Loomis Laboratory" appeared in the British Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science in September 1927.

Bearing the title "The Physical and Biological Effects of High-Frequency Sound-Waves of Great Intensity," the article, by Loomis and Wood, described the effects of high-frequency sound waves on living tissue. The waves have a tendency to break down blood vessels, and can therefore kill small animals, fish eggs, and even some forms of plant life. When focused, they constitute a veritable "death ray." Together, Loomis and Wood did the first major work in the field now known as ultrasound, and are still described in some textbooks as "the fathers of ultrasonics." More articles followed, even before Loomis retired from Wall Street, in large part because of his determination to attract (and generously support) a small army of visiting scientists. There was no National Science Foundation in those days, and a genuine "who's who" of prominent researchers jumped at the chance to participate in the work going on at Loomis's lab, or at least to attend the lavish meetings he sponsored there. Had he been less successful in business, his neighbors would have considered him stark raving mad. As it was, they weren't quite sure.

The co-author of Loomis's second research paper---concerning the chemical effects of high-frequency sound waves---was one William T. Richards, a youthful instructor of chemistry at Princeton who was to toil for several summers at the Loomis Lab. The young man's father was T.W. Richards, chairman of the chemistry department at Harvard and a Nobel laureate. His sister, Grace Richards, had married Harvard president James B. Conant, a former chairman of the Harvard chemistry department. Though his real talents lay in music and art, the young man felt pressured to achieve greatness in science. Eventually deciding that he never would, he committed suicide on January 30, 1940, just weeks before the publication of his novel Brain Waves and Death. Written under a pseudonym, it was a thinly veiled account of life at the Loomis Lab. His nephew, T.R. Conant, was the father of Jennet Conant, the author of the book under review. Loomis co-authored 29 scientific papers between 1927 and 1939, all with established scientists; the papers were published in leading journals. He also obtained two patents during this period. When projects he worked on led to series of papers, his name usually appeared only on the first. He did not participate in all the projects carried out at the lab.

Jennet Conant first investigated Loomis's life and times as a way of discovering the circumstances of her great-uncle's death, concerning which her Boston Brahmin family rarely spoke. Knowing only that he, and later his brother, had died by their own hands, and that a streak of manic depression has been passed down through generations of the Richards and Conant families, she began her search as a way of acknowledging her own genetic vulnerability. She commenced, of course, with Richards's novel, a copy of which her father had saved, along with the manuscript for an unpublished magazine article titled "The Uranium Bomb." How, she wondered, had Richards come (no later than January 1940) to know so much about something as secret as nuclear fission? Had he perhaps known too much? Almost every chapter of Tuxedo Park begins with a short quotation from Brain Waves and Death.

Alfred Loomis, she discovered, was the ultimate insider. At a time when the world was a smaller place, and the men in positions of power tended to know one another through family connections, school ties, and club affiliations, Loomis had "access" second to none. In addition to his associates in business, finance, and government, he had---by the mid-1930s---worked with, underwritten, or lavishly entertained almost everyone who was anyone in physical science. The signatures of Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, E.O. Lawrence, Vannevar Bush, J.B. Conant, and Karl Compton appear, along with many others, in the guest book of the Loomis Lab. So it was only natural that his friends at MIT---where he sat on the board of governors---should go out of their way to persuade him that Radio Distance Finding (RDF, later dubbed radar) could become an important factor in the war the entire East Coast establishment believed to be imminent. And it was equally natural for Loomis to redirect his lab's attention from high-frequency sound waves to the high-power, high-frequency radio waves without which high-resolution radar could not exist.

The most significant chapters of Conant's book describe "that twilight period between the wars, when the last of the gentlemen scientists engaged in pure research" destined to alter the course of World War II. From his "cloistered fiefdom" at Tuxedo Park, Loomis helped prepare the way for the two greatest technical achievements of what some have called "the physicists' war": radar and the atomic bomb. In the process of uncovering the intensely private Loomis's carefully disguised tracks, Conant came to recognize the recurring mental illness that ravaged his family---eventually resulting in the suicide of one of his three sons, as well as a bitter divorce that drove him into relative seclusion---as a parallel that could help her make peace with her own troubled legacy. Other authors have described the history of MIT's famed radiation lab, and of the Manhattan Project, in greater detail. But none of them can match Conant's account of the most remarkable aspect of those two massive projects---namely the fact that they were completed in time to affect the outcome of the war---because none of them delved so deeply into the life and times of Alfred Lee Loomis.

In 1926, Loomis purchased a vacant mansion in Tuxedo Park and converted it into a private laboratory. "There was no National Science Foundation in those days," writes reviewer James Case, "and a genuine 'who's who' of prominent researchers jumped at the chance to participate" in the lab's work.

The book has relatively little to say about Loomis's thirty postwar years. He and his second wife, Manette, did not return to Tuxedo Park, preferring to winter in New York City and summer in East Hampton, on Long Island. His grandchildren Barton Loomis and Jackie Loomis Quillen---both of whom were born during the 1940s and cooperated with Conant in the preparation of her book---remember him as a kindly companion and unrelenting gentleman scientist. He was an avid reader of Scientific American, an occasional reader of more technical journals, and (along with E.O. Lawrence and Vannevar Bush) a forceful advocate for "big (meaning government-sponsored) science." Who, after all, was in a better position to assess the limitations of private funding?

Loomis's dwellings were often filled with the likes of Luis Alvarez, E.O. Lawrence, John R. Foster, E.H. Land, and Avery Fisher, along with the prototype gadgets they and other developers sent him for advice and assessment. The gadgets included awkward (often preproduction) Polaroid Land cameras, long playing records, Hi-Fi sound systems, quasar telescopes, and reusable videotapes and recorders, to name but a few. Barton Loomis---currently the president of a small supplier of marine equipment in New Orleans---remembers Manette complaining about the multitude of wires Alfred insisted on stringing about their East Hampton living room, to produce stereophonic sound, as well as the projects he and his grandfather carried out together during summer vacations---one of which involved the construction of a slide rule; his sister Jackie recalls her grandfather's subsequent enthusiasm for pocket calculators, still a "gee whiz" item at the time of his death in 1975.

James Case writes from Baltimore, Maryland.


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