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Art Fong, Alfred Loomis and a Career in Microwave Instrumentation

John Minck, April, 2012


In assisting Art Fong with his HP memoir and life story, we discovered an interesting historical footnote to Art's first day on his arrival at the Lab in 1943. The Radiation Lab at MIT was established in part, due to the activity of a remarkable scientist named Alfred Loomis. Loomis was born into privilege and made his fortune on Wall Street in Utilities Financing during the 1920s. He established a private scientific research lab at Tuxedo Park, just north of New York City, and was active with scientists worldwide, who were working on a variety of projects from optics to ultrasonics to radar to atomic fission. His story is told in a recent book, "Tuxedo Park."

Tuxedo Park Lab

When the decision was made to create the Rad Lab at MIT, Loomis put up some of his private funding to bridge the construction gap until government funding could be authorized. The reason I tell this fascinating story is because Art recalled that the first day when he reported at MIT in 1943, it was Alfred Loomis himself who welcomed him to work. Loomis then recommended that Art join Frank Gaffney's Group 55 which designed test instrumentation.

Now imagine what would have happened if Loomis recommended that Art work in a Radar Design Group? Art might well have spent his life as a Radar System designer at Bell Labs, Whippany, GE or Westinghouse! Such are the coincidences of life.

See this following Tuxedo Park book report for more details on the crucial role that Loomis played in WWII radar and also the Manhattan Project for the atom bomb.



Tuxedo Park - Book Report

Jennett Conant, Author


In all of the several dozens of books I have read about WWII, I never ONCE encountered the name Alfred Loomis. And yet, arguably it turns out that he was the SINGLE civilian who had the most influence on our scientific and technology efforts for the war, from radar to the atom bomb.

Alfred Loomis was born into privilege in 1887, in Manhattan. He came from a distinguished line of doctors. His grandfather did breakthrough work on tuberculosis, and his father who was a pathologist was one of the first doctors to operate using anesthetic. His mother came from the Stimson clan of numerous aunts and cousins. Henry Stimson, later to be Secretary of War for Roosevelt, was his first cousin, but 20 years his senior. Both families were prominent in society circles.

Alfred's father left his family in a scandal when he was young, creating a social censure. In those days the wife and children seemed to share blame for a marriage breakup. Stimson became Alfred's father figure and they corresponded regularly for life, offering advice both ways for most serious questions. Alfred had an affinity for math and science and got his degree from Yale, and later received his law degree from Harvard. He was already doing private experiments, one notable example was a "hypnosis" machine which flashed a light on a large crystal. Unfortunately, his first subject happened to be epileptic and fell into a coma, which took hospitalization to bring him out.

He began his career on Wall Street, where many of those families sent their sons those days, at Stimson's law firm. Stimson was already active in government, serving as Teddy Roosevelt's US Attorney for Southern NY. As a law clerk, Alfred showed a flair for securities, mortgages and re-organizations. Business practices those days were bureaucratic and ossified, and his creativity showed through.

When the US entered the WWI conflict, Alfred enlisted and was persuaded by Stimson to use his scientific skills in the Army. He was posted to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, working on artillery ballistics, which were a mess. As new field pieces were invented, they required comprehensive testing to produce the firing tables for distance and fusing. Previously, the muzzle velocity was obtained by an error-prone apparatus which used two screens, separated by a distance in front of the muzzle. As the projectile pierced the screens, the time difference was measured with electrical "break circuit" contacts. Because the screens stretched at almost random rates, the measurements were terrible.

Alfred innovated a positive contact system which used a ticker tape spool to move the tape, and as the screens were pierced, the electrical pulses with sparking voltages put down burn marks on the tape. The tape speeds were calibrated so it was direct reading. It became known as the Loomis Chronograph. They built hundreds and made significant accomplishments to WWI gunnery. At Aberdeen he was also charged with investigating numerous weapons ideas which came from citizens. These included many from Thomas Edison. He became a champion for the new ideas on armored tanks, even building one small version at his Tuxedo Park home.

Perhaps the most important event at Aberdeen was his friendship with the most brilliant experimental physicist of his day, Robert Wood of Johns Hopkins. He was 50, and already famous for exposing scientific fraud. Wood would remain a key influence in all of Alfred's subsequent laboratory accomplishments. He became Alfred's science mentor.

Returning to New York, Alfred joined his brother-in-law Landon Thorne who brought him to a staid old firm, Bonbright, which was in precarious condition. Alfred and Landon decided that they would work to take over the firm, and after scrounging capital from relatives, took control. At once they began specializing in public utility financing, which was in a growth spurt, since homes wired for electricity jumped from 8% in 1902 to 34% by 1920. The electric industry was going crazy, not just with appliance manufacturing but with the crucial growth of the Utilities generation and distribution capacity. Bonbright became the super-star based on Thorne, who could sell anybody anything, and Alfred whose skill with math made them ideal capitalists. They virtually invented the Holding Company concept, and made a fortune, underwriting 15% of all securities in the US.

Tuxedo Park was an enclave for the New York wealthy at Tuxedo Lake, located about 40 miles north of Manhattan, developed first by the tobacco Lorrillard. It had some early grand summer estates, and then some development clusters. Alfred had married in 1912 and maintained a home at the lake, and had set up a laboratory in his barn. He also had a home of 25 rooms on 79 th street in Manhattan. He was not an attentive father, and all three boys were sent off to boarding schools. His wife was bright and extremely well-read, a vivacious hostess at parties, but needy and befallen with serious bouts of migraine and suffered from debilitating depression, eventually developing dementia. Yet she supported Alfred's work wholeheartedly, writing many letters of praise to her Uncle Simpson.

He had kept in close touch with many of the physicists whom he worked with in the Army, especially Robert Woods, who was back teaching at Hopkins. As they talked, Alfred's curious nature and vast fortune now allowed his science side to come forward. He offered to fund some of Wood's work, "more money than his Physics budget allowed." Alfred began to push forward on physical optics, Wood's present course, on spectrographs which were the topic of the day.

Soon he was also developing high power ultrasonics, partly for submarine detection purposes, but mostly for medical uses. Believe it or not, the machine that worked used 50 kV at 200-500 kHz, applied to a quartz plate in oil, lest it would simply explode the quartz. His friends up the NY state at GE furnished him with 2 kW power vacuum tubes.

His scientific interest was widely eclectic, showing in projects that either he studied, or in projects of Guest Scientists at the lab. He had purchased a large, 42 room Tudor mansion at the Park, equipping the downstairs with elegant laboratories, and the upstairs living quarters, large meeting rooms, and accommodations of up to 6-8 guest scientists. An accomplished chef was on hand for quality meals, and end-of-day eating was semi-formal. The grounds had tennis courts, swimming pool, etc, although the atmosphere was business-like. All the accommodations were free.

If a scientist presented him with a research plan, he often would invite them to join his lab for a year. One such was the centrifuge microscope, which was highly successful. It was directed at stressing human cells with high "gravity" in a centrifuge spinning at 8000 rpm. The microscope focused on the specimen which was synchronized with a 1 microsecond flash, long before the well-known stroboscope of Edgerton, years later. This was a breakthrough in medical cell studies, because previous processes had to first spin the sample, then delay and remove it to put it under the microscope, making serious errors.

Another technology caught his interest in gaining more accurate time measurements. The chronographs of the period depended on super accurate pendulums, with by far the most superior was called the Shortt clock, accurate to 0.1 sec per year. It was a 14 pound pendulum, mounted in a glass cylinder in a vacuum. On a trip to the UK, he visited the workshop of the man who made them, about one per year. One was in the corner, one of six in the entire world. Alfred told the surprised man he wanted to buy three. Once they were in his labs, he installed them on massive stone foundations, mounted 120 degrees to each other, to compensate for Coriolis force due to rotation of the earth. Interestingly, it was crucial to decouple the pendulums. If they were in the same directional plane, the slightest impulse from one to the other would disturb its period. Geez.

He proceeded with serious time comparison research, matching the times with quartz oscillators he bought from Bell Labs, setting up a dedicated phone line to the downtown Manhattan labs of Bell Telephone, for comparison with their primary time standard of the time. He studied effects like the change of pendulum time resulting from raising the clocks by one foot, making gravity slightly different. It turned out to be 1.5 seconds per year. We at HP understood this obsession with time accuracy.

Another project involved studying high power radio frequencies for their medical effects, for use as what was later called diathermy. Previously, doctors deliberately induced malaria to raise a patient temperature, to aid the body in fighting certain disease.

Down on Wall Street, Landon and Alfred, with their usual attention to statistics, saw the mindless exuberant excesses of the market as danger, and an inevitable 1929 crash. They methodically put themselves into cash, and included Uncle Stimson. As all their financial friends were swept away, they got considerable criticism for getting out early.

Alfred made regular trips to Europe to confer with key scientists of the day, from Germany to France to the UK. Loomis often sent first-class tickets to famous European scientists so that they could travel to the United States to meet with their peers and collaborate on projects. They would be picked up at the airport or train station and brought to Tuxedo Park in his limousine, to present to an organized seminar at the lab. In the early 1930s, the social situation in Europe was presenting some key (Jewish) scientists with problems.

Einstein moved to the US in 1933, Fermi in 1938. Szilárd, in 1936 to UK, 1938 to the US. His laboratory became the meeting place for some of the most accomplished scientists of the time, such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, James Franck, and Enrico Fermi.

In 1937, he pioneered in brain wave technology, testing his electroencephalograph machinery on his guest scientists, his children, and making early diagnoses on things like alpha and complex brain wave patterns, also testing people under hypnosis and deducing differences.

In 1939, one of Alfred's guest scientists, William Richards, wrote a book, "Brain Waves and Death," a novel which was obviously themed closely to the life of Alfred, which revealed the inner lives and styles of the wealthy. The book's lab was the "Howard M. Ward" lab and the characters matched many of the real players at Tuxedo Park. He committed suicide a few weeks before his novel was published. In one respect it outed Alfred, because the main character, the owner of the secret lab, was having an affair with the wife of one of his guest scientists. In reality, Alfred was already in an affair with Manette Hobart, and the scene of many of their encounters was a brand new experimental house built on his grounds.

That 1937 house was an early experiment in double-skin facade construction. This house itself was inside a double envelope with a 2-foot-deep air space conditioned by a separate system from the house itself. The object was to maintain high humidity levels inside. Alfred kept it mostly off limits to wives and others, partly because he and Manette, who lived a short distance from the lab, would trade signals using mirrors and the sun, when the "coast was clear."

His interests were varied beyond Wall Street and Tuxedo Park. In 1917, Alfred and Landon purchased 17,000 acres of Hilton Head Island, which they established as a private preserve for riding, boating, fishing, and hunting. The centerpiece of the property was the old Honey Horn Plantation. Loomis's other hobbies included automobiles and yachting, including the racing of America's Cup yachts against the Vanderbilts and Astors.

The period from 1939 onward through WWII was when Alfred's contributions to the science efforts in the war were profound. His European contacts convinced him that uranium fission could be harnessed to make a super bomb, and he desperately sought ways to beat Germany to the technical solutions. This brought him in contact with Ernest Lawrence of Berkeley and later one of his students Louis Alvarez.

Alfred was instrumental in financing Lawrence's project to construct a 184-inch cyclotron at Berkeley. He lobbied many of the key physicists he knew nationally to support the Rockefeller Foundation grant to privately fund this enormous project, which they finally did for $1.3 million. Then he called a meeting of his Wall Street industrial CEOs of Kennecott Copper and Bethlehem Steel to provide the hundreds of tons of materials now becoming scarce because of the war.

His activities prior to the famous Einstein letter to Roosevelt to start the atom bomb project were crucial. There was already a Uranium Committee working under the NBS director, Briggs, which was completely bogged down in bureaucracy. So Loomis was busy with Uncle Stimson and Vannevar Bush, Science Advisor to Roosevelt, Lawrence and other knowledgeable physicists with meetings at his Tuxedo lab. These involved key figures like Einstein, Fermi, Bohr, Szilard, and others. These close friendships were key to getting action going to work out how to separate the U235, by use of cyclotrons vs gas diffusion (ultimately built at Oak Ridge) or using an atomic pile to produce Plutonium, which was also fissionable.

Even while he was traveling on the atomic project, his lab was working on military radar technology for aircraft and ship (sub) detection. Unfortunately, they had to use low power klystrons and a Doppler technology which only gave a range of a mile or two with a poor resolution and antennas that were way too large to mount on airplanes. An interesting sidelight was that Sperry was funding klystron work by Hansen and the Varian brothers, at a lab in San Carlos. Loomis had established an apartment at Berkeley to help Lawrence. So he went to San Carlos to buy klystrons for his lab.

Alfred had visited the United Kingdom and knew many of the British scientists who were working on radar. The famous Tizard Mission followed agreement between Roosevelt and Churchill to trade critical technologies and advance the common cause. The bombshell revelation was that the British magnetron had a thousand times the output of the best American transmitter, Loomis invited its developers to Tuxedo Park. Loomis was appointed by Vannevar Bush to the National Defense Research Committee as chairman of the Microwave Committee. Tizard had brought one magnetron, and Loomis personally funded Bell Labs to build 20 of them within a month.

His experiences with the military R&D and Command establishment and their industry friends convinced him that new radar projects would just slog along. In meetings with Compton, Conant, Bush, and others, he decided that an independent lab would cut development and production time. Within a month he had selected a building on the MIT campus in which to equip a laboratory, dubbing it the MIT Radiation Laboratory. He arranged his own and MIT funding for the lab until federal money was allocated.

The sad fact of pre-WWII military was that it was ossified beyond imagination. The R&D arms of both the Army and Navy - especially the Navy - were hidebound in refusing to consider crucial new technologies, and then delaying the technologies until they were "perfect." Stimson was frustrated by their inaction, which was one big reason that he used Loomis over and over to work around the military/industry connection. Industry was also far too slow to act since Pearl Harbor was still 2 years away.

Once the magnetrons were built, recruiting took place under Lawrence, who as a Nobel Prize winner, knew most of the best physicists in the country. They divided into teams to perfect each portion of the radar; antennas, modulator, power supplies, detection, display, etc. The first trial system, up on the roof used two antennas because they couldn't figure how to build the T/R tube. With many trials and errors, they got the systems to operate and within 6 months took a system to Washington to demonstrate to Bush, Stimson and the military.

The projected use inside fighters who were meeting German bombers over London had subsided because the Brits had perfected a ground controlled tactic which used their large Chain-Home antennas. But the ability and sensitivity of the Rad Lab radar to see submarine turrets was a breakthrough since German submarines were decimating our lifeline to the UK. The original UK magnetron was 10 cm wavelength (3000 MHz). So the Labs undertook to build the tube for 3 cm (10 GHz). This opened up small antenna applications for airborne radar.

Another important invention pioneered by Loomis was the LORAN system. He had informally been made aware of a UK system with similar performance, but which could not be transferred because of secrecy. It used a 2.2 MHz pulsed synchronized signal with very long range, thousands of miles. By synchronizing two sets of a master/slave pairs of transmitters 1000 miles apart, the ocean was covered by two intersecting hyperbolic grids.

I used LORAN in my USAF navigator school. It was a masterfully simple and accurate system. You just lined up two pulses and read the delay, putting you on one hyperbolic chart line. Then you tuned to the other frequency and lined up that pulse delay, the intersecting grid lines were accurate to a mile or so, depending on propagation conditions. The frequencies chosen are in the Ham bands so long range is a big advantage.

Once the airborne pulsed radar technology and production got rolling, the Labs added automatic control of the anti-aircraft guns. This became the iconic SCR-584 radar van. Alfred's personal contribution to that system was his suggestion to use conical scan on the antenna element, to lock the beam onto the center of a moving aircraft. They built thousands of them, which were deadly effective to protect ground troops from attacking air.

Another adjunct application of pulsed radar was the GCA, Ground-Controlled Approach system, which permitted landing in bad weather, and vastly increased air missions in bad weather. The first trials of their pulsed radar, adapted to runway approach failed because the transmitted signal and reflections bounced off the ground, because the antenna beam was not narrow enough. The team was disheartened, but one night, Alvarez and Alfred were talking after dinner, and Alfred challenged them to sit there until they figured a solution. It took several hours, but the solution turned out to be a vertical oriented antenna which could generate a narrow beam that didn't intersect the ground. It worked very well.

The MIT Rad Lab was managed by its director, Lee DuBridge, who later was President of CalTech. DuBridge later commented, "Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it." President Roosevelt lauded the value of Alfred's work, describing him as being the civilian who was second perhaps only to Churchill, in facilitating the Allied victory in World War II.

The Rad Lab statistics tell the story. By June, 1943, nearly 6,000 radar sets had been delivered, 22,000 were on order, and production was climbing past 2,000 per month. Opening in Oct, 1940, by its closing in Dec, 1945, they employed nearly 4,000 personnel, 500 of them physicists, using 15 acres of floor space. Recall that HP's Bldg 1-6 complex had almost exactly that amount of floor area.

Loomis retreated from public life entirely after closing the Rad Lab and finishing his related obligations in 1947. He retired to East Hampton with Manette, and never granted another interview. The book reports that in his later years, he was 87, programming his constant companion, the HP 65 hand calculator.

For me, it was interesting that the book had NOT ONE mention of Fred Terman or his Radio Research Lab nearby at Harvard, which developed many amazing electronic countermeasures to radar.

Author Conant was the granddaughter of James Conant, President of Harvard, and one of the chief scientific advisers of WWII. She had full access to Alfred's papers.

John Minck,
April 2012


John Minck


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