The eccentric engineer

E&T recounts a banker turned engineer and 'gentleman scientist' who played a key role in ending the Second World War.

I think it's fair to say that bankers aren't universally popular at the moment. In days gone by I might have said that 'their stock was rather low', but in the current economic climate their stock has all but disappeared. However, we should not assume all bankers are bad - take the case of Alfred Lee Loomis (1887-1975), who might perhaps stand as a model for the current generation.

Loomis was, in his mind at least, an inventor, although he never really fitted the image of the struggling eccentric working away in his shed, eschewing meals in favour of spending the money on more raw materials. This is because he was fabulously rich. With his brother-in-law, he ran the bank that raised much of the financing for the electrification of America's homes and factories and then, in an act that even made other bankers hate him, had the foresight to move out of stocks just before the great crash, returning during the Depression to buy up good companies at rock bottom prices. This made Loomis so rich he could buy his own Americas Cup yacht at a time when even Vanderbilts and Astors clubbed together to get theirs.

So far this has precious little to do with engineering, of course. A banker making a fortune and buying a yacht is, if anything, a shade predictable. But at this point, Loomis and other bankers part company because he also bought something else - an engineering laboratory. Loomis had loved engineering since the First World War during which he had devised the 'Aberdeen Chronograph', a portable machine for measuring the muzzle velocity of artillery pieces. With the huge increase in his fortunes at the end of the war, he decided to indulge this love of gadgetry by buying an empty mansion and turning it into the Loomis Laboratory.

The Loomis Lab was like no other. For a start, it was in Tuxedo Park, an exclusive New York enclave whose inhabitants were so rich and so posh that they still dressed for dinner, hence the US name 'tuxedo' for a dinner jacket.

Secondly, Loomis could afford to buy equipment that most universities could only dream of. But most importantly, Loomis was not just a tinkerer, but perhaps the last true 'gentleman scientist'. He worked with passion and skill, attracting the greatest names of the era to come and visit and even work with him. His guest book included Einstein, Bohr, Fermi and Heisenberg.

To be fair, some probably turned up because his invitations included first class travel, limousine transfers and the chance to arrive at the lab on his private train, but most came for the work he was doing. And that work was wide-ranging and proved to be rather important in bringing to a close a troubling little problem known as the Second World War.

Before the war, Loomis worked on everything: from spectrometry and chronometry to electro-encephalography and ultrasound - as well as taking time out to help Ernest Lawrence raise the funding for his cyclotron particle accelerator. But with war in Europe, Loomis and his colleagues had begun to turn their efforts to radio location, building one of only two microwave radar systems in the US at that time.

This got the attention of the 1940 Tizard mission which Churchill sent to the US to share technological discoveries in return for US assistance. They had brought with them a cavity magnetron which had 1,000 times the power of any US machine, and so Loomis invited them to Tuxedo Park to spill the beans. Shortly after this, Vannevar Bush (who, as inventor of the Memex, has also been a subject of this column) appointed Loomis as chairman of the Microwave Committee with a remit to develop radar technology. Loomis founded a 'Radiation Lab' at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts - personally funded by him in its early stages while government financial cogs turned with their usual inefficiency.

The child of the 'Rad Lab', as it became known, was the 10cm radar which helped detect U boats, protect British and US aircraft, locate the Luftwaffe and which is often cited as the key technology for ending the war. But if you're thinking that the atom bomb was the real decider in that, then it's worth mentioning that Loomis, a friend of many Manhattan project scientists, also eased the path of that project through government (where his cousin was, rather helpfully, War Secretary).

It must be said that Loomis did not run the Rad Lab and so cannot be called the inventor of the 10cm radar, but his passion for the subject as a gentleman amateur, his knowledge and his willingness to use his money and influence to promote engineering, should grant him a part of the credit.

And besides, he did personally invent LORAN (Long Range Navigation), a pulsed hyperbolic radio navigation system that allowed vessels to locate themselves using timed signals from low frequency radio transmitters, which just goes to show that an interest in clocks combined with the ability to buy ocean-going yachts can be used to good effect. Indeed, LORAN is still in use today although increasingly being superseded by GPS.

Let's hope our generation of bankers will be putting their bonuses to a similarly good cause.

Justin Pollard's latest book 'Charge! The Interesting Bits of Military History' is published by John Murray.

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