Alfred Loomis

Alfred Loomis came from a philanthropic family. The Loomis’s created sanitariums for tuberculosis patients, funded medical research, and built up NYU, among other causes. The son and grandson of experimental physicians, Alfred had a powerful scientific bent. He distinguished himself in mathematics at Yale, but after his father died while he was still an undergrad Loomis decided he needed a career that could support his family. So after graduation he enrolled at Harvard Law School.

Blood will tell, however, and soon the young man found himself profoundly bored with the practice of law. He returned to his earlier fascination with science, befriending internationally prominent researchers, and conducting his own quite-advanced investigations in garages and basements. Eventually concluding that he needed a fortune if he was going to experiment on a large scale, the restless genius made a plan. He would launch a Wall Street firm with his brother-in-law, pile up cash, and use it to pursue pure science.

Applying a mathematical approach, Loomis quickly built one of the largest investment banks in the country by financing rapid development of the brand-new electric-utility industry during the 1920s. From almost nothing, his firm grew to underwrite almost a sixth of all the securities issued in the U.S. Then Loomis became convinced that the stock market was overvalued and likely to collapse. In early 1929 he and his partner began transferring all their money into cash or Treasury bills. When Black Thursday hit in October of that year Loomis was not only safe, but well-positioned to bargain shop. It is estimated that he made the modern equivalent of more than $700 million in the first years of the Depression, ending up one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on Wall Street, in a league similar to the Rockefellers and Morgans.

Now well able to subsidize high-level scientific research, Loomis cashed out in 1933 and threw himself into the work of the private lab he had set up during the mid-1920s in a rehabbed mansion near his home north of New York City. The Loomis Laboratory became one of the world’s great research institutes, better equipped than top academic or corporate labs, and visited by many of the world’s leading scientists.

Loomis had a special ability to crash-study a new subject and quickly become expert. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he used his fortune to conduct pathbreaking experiments, alone and with other scientists, on ultrasound, radiometry, the precise measurement of time, and many other subjects. He created the techniques for monitoring brain waves, discovered new sleep states, and co-invented the microscope centrifuge. He also funded scores of other researchers and built up the science departments at universities like MIT. When Yale gave him an honorary degree, the citation compared him to the American who had best combined science and philanthropy: “In his varied interests, his powers of invention, and his services to his fellow man, Mr. Loomis is the twentieth-century Benjamin Franklin.”

Travels to Germany in the late ’30s left Loomis disturbed over both the popularity of Hitler and the gathering technical might of the Germans. Biographer Jennet Conant summarizes his next dramatic move: “Long before the government moved to enlist scientists to develop advanced weapons, Loomis had assessed the situation and concluded it was critical that the country be as informed as possible about which technologies would matter in the future war. He scrapped all his experiments and turned [his lab] into his personal civilian research project, then began recruiting the brightest minds he could find to help him take measure of the enemy’s capabilities and start working on new gadgets and devices for defense purposes.”

Loomis put his main focus on using radio waves to detect and fix the location of objects—what eventually became known as radar. He immersed himself in the field, recruited academics, studied England’s successes, then launched a series of intensive practical experiments. This work drew on several areas of science where Loomis personally was a scientific leader—wave behavior, electromagnetic spectrum research, and precise measurement of time. Within a year the Loomis Radiation Laboratory had completed basic research, achieved breakthroughs in making radio-detection practical, and created a working prototype radar mounted in a converted diaper-delivery truck.

At just this point, bombs rained down on Pearl Harbor, kicking Loomis into overdrive. Back in World War I he had volunteered for service and been sent to test new weapons at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground. The experience left him amazed at the sluggishness and resistance to change within the military establishment, and within government generally. As this next, more terrible, war broke out, Loomis understood as few others did how important technical breakthroughs would be in determining the winner, and how much America’s deep bench of scientists could contribute to victory. He made it his personal philanthropic mission to make sure that America’s magnificently inventive industrial machinery would produce vital military innovations without getting gummed up by government bureaucracy.

In this, Loomis’s leadership skills were even more essential to his success than his checkbook and his scientific perspicacity. When a small group of British scientists arrived in the U.S. on a secret mission to share their radar secrets in the hope that the Americans could make the technology more useable, precise, and widely available to Allied fighting forces, Loomis was the catalyst in instantly understanding their crucial breakthroughs, pressing U.S. military and civilian authorities to build on them, and then orchestrating important refinements and advances beyond the British technology.

He moved all of his valuable personal equipment and prototype findings to MIT, which had its own radar project (funded by him). When Congress was slow to approve the support needed to ramp up the MIT lab, Loomis began paying expenses out of his own pocket. Then he convinced MIT, on whose board he served, to advance the project $500,000, and he appealed to his friend John Rockefeller Jr. to advance another half million. (When government funding finally came through, MIT and Rockefeller were repaid.) Most importantly, Loomis and his close friend Ernest Lawrence, the Nobel-laureate physicist, used their credibility with many of America’s top scientific minds to recruit them to drop everything and go to work in Loomis’s new radar lab. Nearly all agreed.

“They had no official appointment from the federal government to do this. But Loomis got them all talked into doing it,” one observer wrote later, “and it’s a good thing they did.” Loomis, who recognized the power and efficiency of “American individualism and laissez-faire” and believed that most progress came from “free agency and freedom from politics,” fiercely protected the scientists from interference in their work and encouraged them to follow their own individual and team judgments to make the fastest possible progress. One scientist described Loomis’s laboratory as “the greatest cooperative research establishment in the history of the world.” Lawrence later stated that, “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.”

Very soon, the Loomis lab had not only mastered the science and technique of radar, but had designed nearly 100 different lifesaving and war-ending products. By June 1943, the Army and Navy had ordered 22,000 radar sets from the lab. These had many vital effects. Radar shot down Luftwaffe planes and kept the Germans from defeating England. Radar ended the U-boat menace, saving tens of thousands of lives and allowing the crucial output of American industry to be transported to our European allies. Radar negated Germany’s leading technical breakthrough, the V-rocket. Radar gave our pilots and ship captains the ability to detect menaces, to direct fire, and to survive bad weather and night conditions that would otherwise have thwarted or killed them.

Loomis also personally dreamed up the pioneering long-range navigation system called LORAN. Perfected in his lab over the original indifference of military agencies, its debut in combat changed everything for American and Allied wartime navigators. Until the recent arrival of satellite GPS, LORAN continued to serve for decades as the exclusive global positioning system. Fourteen years after World War II ended, Alfred Loomis was awarded patent #2,884,628 for inventing the original system of long-range navigation.

Contemporary observers concluded that “radar won World War II; the atom bomb ended it.” As it happened, Alfred Loomis also had a lot to do with that latter triumph. He was a friend and important supporter of Enrico Fermi as Fermi led investigations into nuclear fission. And Loomis was the key champion and lead private funder of Ernest Lawrence’s development of cyclotrons at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition to putting his own money behind Lawrence, Loomis made it his mission to convince other donors to back this highly speculative project—eventually sweet-talking a climactic $1.15 million contribution out of the Rockefeller Foundation.

As soon as Lawrence’s cyclotron was funded, Loomis plucked off his philanthropist cap and donned his entrepreneur/financier hat in order to beg and bully America’s leading industrial corporations into finding the large quantities of iron, copper, electronics, and other war-constrained commodities needed to build the giant machine. Lawrence was astonished by the Wall Street titan’s ability to marshal commercial cooperation. The cyclotron Lawrence and Loomis built together was subsequently used to laboriously purify the uranium for the first atomic explosions.

Loomis’s broader contribution to the Manhattan Project was the modus operandi he pioneered in his private lab and then expanded on a large scale in the MIT radiation lab he oversaw during the war. The race to create the atomic bomb followed the Loomis formula to a tee: collect the best minds without regard to their immediate expertise, give them superb equipment and material support, guard their freedom to experiment, and encourage collegial exchanges of information and shared problem-solving. Nobel physicist Luis Alvarez, who worked in the radar lab and then created the A-bomb detonator for the Manhattan Project, credited Loomis’s interventions for “the remarkable lack of administrative roadblocks experienced by…the builders of the atomic bombs.”

Nearly all of Loomis’s top hand-picked physicists were quietly pulled out of his radar lab when the Manhattan Project was launched, and sent to Los Alamos or one of the other project sites. Loomis acquiesced because he had long been pushing for exactly this crash program, alarmed as he was by military complacency that viewed atomic weapons as something to think about for “the next war,” the dawdling pace of government research to that point, and the real possibility of German scientists being first to the bomb.

President Roosevelt later described Loomis as second only to Winston Churchill in contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. After the war, Loomis helped institutionalize his entrepreneurial style of defense research by becoming an influential founding trustee of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit established to apply the best scientific ideas to national defense. With funding from the Ford Foundation and other donors, RAND promoted multi-stage rockets, intercontinental missiles, magnetic-core computer memory, the building blocks of the future Internet, and many other innovations. The Loomis imprint can also be seen on DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that picked up the mantle of the Loomis lab and carried it throughout the post-war era.

Alfred Loomis also left behind a flesh-and-blood embodiment of his whirlwind entrepreneurial giving. His great-grandson is Reed Hastings—who as CEO of the Internet pioneer Netflix, and one of the most influential progenitors of the rise of charter schools, has been a huge game-changer in both business and philanthropy. (See 2000, 2005, and 2006 entries on our list of Major Achievements in Education Philanthropy.)

~ Karl Zinsmeister


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