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The Man Who Kept 'The Secret of Tuxedo Park'
January 16, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

If it takes a village to raise a child, it also took a village to win World War II, and it’s kind of cool how, seven decades later, more villagers keep surfacing.

The Secret of Tuxedo Park, a PBS American Experience production that premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings), recounts the story of Alfred Loomis (top), a Wall Street millionaire whose quiet passion for science kept America competitive in perhaps the most important technology game of the war: radar.

Loomis had a brilliant scientific mind and was instrumental in the development of ultrasound technology, a fundamental base for multiple uses that also include, for instance, the microwave oven.

Born into a wealthy society family, Loomis was a young corporate lawyer before serving in the Army’s research division during World War I (left). He was so enchanted with science and its possibilities that he decided to make enough money to start his own research lab.

So he spent the 1920s as a Wall Street financier, doing just that. He pulled out his money just before the Crash of 1929 and by the mid-1930s had enough to create the lab near his Tuxedo Park, N.Y. home.

Fascinated with fields as diverse as time measurement, brain waves, and the study of sleep, he brought in top scientists from all over the world.

That included many from Europe, where the shadow of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany was darkening the skies and driving out, among others, Jews.

In the late 1930s, Tuxedo Park notes, much of America wanted no part of what it saw as Europe’s looming war. Loomis, however, because he had such ongoing first-hand contact with refugee scientists, sensed American involvement was inevitable and redirected his scientists to work on radar. Correctly, as it turned out, he argued that a modern war could not be won without cutting-edge radar technology.

So while America was largely unprepared for war when Pearl Harbor blasted the country into it, radar technology was as advanced in America as in Germany. Its full value was underscored with the Normandy invasion, Tuxedo Park suggests, though it was critical all along.

Once the war began, Loomis moved his operation, now called the Rad Lab, to MIT. Four thousand scientists worked there, largely in secret. President Franklin Roosevelt said only Winston Churchill was more vital than Loomis in winning the war.

Loomis was not so esteemed in every area of his life. In 1945 he divorced his wife Ellen, from whom he had drifted apart as she developed depression and eventually dementia, and immediately married a science colleague, Manette Hobart.

He closed the Rad Lab at the end of the war, wrapped up his ancillary government obligations, and retired with his new wife into a very private life that they maintained until his death in 1975. For the last 30 years, he granted no interviews or access, leaving the story of his work to be told by others.

That now includes Rob Rapley, who wrote and directed The Secret of Tuxedo Park and clearly finds Loomis a fascinating character. Among other things, Tuxedo Park was one of the last major private science laboratories because after the war science became so big, it passed to institutions, corporations, and the government.

Part entrepreneur, part maverick, part obsessive, and a big part genius, Alfred Loomis demonstrated a truism that seems almost quaint today: Results are more important than attention.

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I operated and repaired the automatic tracking radar systems designed by the Loomis team when I served in the US Air Force and rebuilt the same systems when working as a civilian for McClellan Air Force Base in the 1980’s. I always wondered who the amazing geniuses were that designed those amazing systems.
Jan 18, 2018   |  Reply
My grandfather was a long time associate of Loomis’ by way of being E Newton Harvey’s research assistant at Princeton. They collaborated on many experiments prior to the war time efforts. He worked at the Rad Lab M.I.T and was a regular at Tower House in Tuxedo Park. He died in 1986 when I was around 15. It would have been fantastic to get the story from him first hand but he never spoke of it to anyone. Only because of the book by Mrs.Conant did my family find out details.
Apr 5, 2020
This could be another "Manhattan" like drama only with radar rather than the atomic bomb. Hm...when I put it like that I'm not so sure but I bet American Experience will prove me right. WGN are you listening? Please?
Though to be honest I don't know if I'll ever forgive WGN for not renewing Manhattan for a 4th season. Even though I heard that armchair historians were bothered by how the writers played loose with the facts it was one of the best series I've ever seen.
Jan 17, 2018   |  Reply
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