Loomis Laboratory Creates Radar

  • Prosperity
  • 1940

Finding himself bored in the practice of law as a young man, Alfred Loomis returned to an earlier interest in scientific experimentation—befriending internationally prominent experimenters and conducting quite advanced investigations in garages and basements. Concluding that he needed a fortune to finance his deep scientific interests, the restless genius launched an investment firm with his brother-in-law.

Soon he was wealthy enough to build a state-of-the-art lab near his home, in Tuxedo Park, New York, where he installed advanced machinery superior to what was available at major universities, plus housing for visiting scientists, and a support staff.

Concluding in 1928 that stock prices were unsustainable, Loomis converted all of his firm’s assets to cash before the crash of 1929. He then purchased collapsed stocks at bargain prices, and made an additional $50 million in the first years of the Great Depression (the equivalent of more than $700 million today). In the early ’30s he was one of the richest men in America, and as influential on Wall Street as J. P. Morgan and John Rockefeller.

At age 45 Loomis retired from finance to put his full time and energy into his scientific research. Working with top scientists including Nobel winners, Loomis made many valuable discoveries in physics, biology, and scientific instrumentation—in areas ranging from brain-wave measurement to his invention of the global long-range navigation system that preceded and birthed GPS navigation. While visiting Berlin in 1938, Loomis was unsettled by the popularity of Hitler and the advanced state of German weaponry. After his return he provided funding to Ernest Lawrence for development of the cyclotron. Loomis likewise provided funding for Enrico Fermi and other investigators to explore the budding field of nuclear fission.

Then, in 1940, Loomis doubled the size of his personal laboratory and focused it on a brand-new field with profound military implications: radio-wave detection of moving objects. By early 1941 he had a working prototype radar set. When the U.S. entered World War II, Loomis was put in charge of the nation’s crucial effort to beat the Germans to military use of radar. He hand-picked scientists and used all of his entrepreneurial and finance skills, along with timely personal donations, to prevent military bureaucracy from slowing their work. By mid-1943 nearly 6,000 radar sets had been delivered to the Army and Navy and thousands more were on the way. Radar is considered to have won the war by neutralizing the German U-boat, bomber, and rocket threats, while giving Allied airplanes and ships in Europe and Asia remarkable new defensive and targeting powers.

One scientist described Loomis’s laboratory as “the greatest cooperative research establishment in the history of the world.” Nobelist Lawrence later stated, “If Alfred Loomis had not existed, radar development would have been retarded greatly, at an enormous cost in American lives…. He used his wealth very effectively…. He exercised his tact and diplomacy to overcome all obstacles…. He steers a mathematically straight course and succeeds in having his own way by force of logic and of being right.” Loomis’s organization was next copied for the secret Manhattan Project, and many of Loomis’s scientists were transferred to work on development of the world’s first atomic weapons. President Roosevelt subsequently lauded Loomis for doing more to win World War II than any civilian except Winston Churchill.

After the war, Loomis continued to financially support, and personally toil on, important scientific projects. He showed a lifelong gift for identifying men capable of transforming their fields. Alfred Loomis also produced a great-grandson who became a pioneer of the Internet—Netflix founder Reed Hastings, who similarly applied the riches from smashing business triumphs to highly influential philanthropy, namely the creation of charter schools. (See 2000, 2005, and 2006 entries on our companion list of achievements in Education philanthropy.)

  • Alfred Loomis entry in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame (see prior Almanac section)
  • Biographical essay, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2900993
  • Jennet Conant, Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2003)