PBS film reveals Tuxedo Park's unsung WWlI hero

In the fall of 1940, the fate of Western civilization hung in the balance.

According to a new PBS film, a deciding factor in the ultimate outcome came from an unlikely source: a Wall Street titan turned scientist who lived in Tuxedo Park.

A new documentary, “The Secret of Tuxedo Park,” reveals the long-overlooked story of Alfred Loomis. Written and directed by Rob Rapley, “The Secret of Tuxedo Park” will premiere on PBS American Experience, 9-10 p.m. Jan. 16. (Check local listings).

In 1940, Hitler’s armies were encamped along the English Channel, preparing for an invasion of Britain. In a desperate bid to form a technological alliance with the then-neutral United States, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a small team of scientists on a clandestine transatlantic mission to deliver his country’s most valuable military secrets to America’s scientific leaders.

When Churchill’s emissaries arrived, they delivered the most precious item in their collection — a revolutionary radar component — to a mysterious Wall Street tycoon, Alfred Lee Loomis.

Double life

Loomis had for years led a double life, spending his days earning vast fortunes on Wall Street and his weekends working with the world’s leading scientists at his private laboratory in Tuxedo Park, just outside Rockland County.

Using his connections, his money, and his brilliant scientific mind, Loomis assembled a team of the brightest scientists, and directed their efforts such that radar would arguably play a more decisive role than any other weapon in the war.

“To think that this unknown man, toiling in a secret lab, with some of the greatest scientific minds of the era, made such a profound impact on the outcome of the Second World War is remarkable,” said Mark Samels, executive producer. “These little-known but fascinating stories add new dimension to our understanding of history.”

The documentary is based on Jennet Conant‘s 2003 book, “A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II,” (Simon & Schuster).

The fact-based film is a thriller; the story woven through archival footage and interviews with among others, Conant, Jackie Quillen and Mary Loomis, Alfred Loomis’ granddaughters, and his daughter-in-law Jacqueline Loomis.  

Loomis didn’t start out reclusive, a millionaire, or even a scientist. After graduating from Harvard in 1912, he became a corporate lawyer on Wall Street, married well, and settled in the upscale suburb of Tuxedo Park.

But under his conventional façade was a man of fierce ambition, obsessed with scientific exploration. With the outbreak of World War I, Loomis got a reprieve from the humdrum world of finance; he was posted to the Army’s research center in Maryland, where he got his first taste of science on a large scale.

The Tower House

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Even as he was conquering Wall Street, Loomis kept up with the scientists he had met during the war, including physicist Robert Wood. Loomis enlisted Wood, and the two men began exploring the effects of high frequency waves using a massive General Electric oscillator they installed in his mansion’s garage.

Quickly outgrowing his makeshift lab in Tuxedo Park, Loomis purchased nearby Tower House, an enormous crumbling Gothic mansion, and turned it into a state-of-the-art laboratory. The fiercely private Loomis shunned publicity but the comings and goings of foreign scientists gave rise to rumors and speculation about what was transpiring at his mysterious lab.

In spring 1933, Loomis was finally wealthy enough to walk away from Wall Street, and devote himself entirely to research at Tower House. He pioneered ultrasound technology, became a leading authority in precise measurements of time, and, using his son as a subject, became one of the first to measure and describe the stages of sleep.

As author Jennet Conant says of Tower House, “It’s beyond a scientific playground. This is a scientific idyll. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. Einstein refers to Loomis’s compound as a ‘palace of science’ and it truly is.”

With Europe still at peace, Loomis dedicated himself to what must have seemed a forlorn hope: he would find a way to counter Germany’s technological edge. Loomis soon focused all his energies on the next generation of a vital new technology: microwave radar.

Churchill & MIT‘s ‘Rad Lab‘

When the Germans invaded France in early 1940, President Roosevelt created a small but powerful organization to develop the sophisticated new weapons that would be needed in a war with Nazi Germany; Loomis was put in charge of the microwave radar section.

But even with the resources of the federal government, Loomis’s program slowly ground to a halt. Nobody knew how to build one vital component that would make microwave radar a reality. As Loomis was about to give up, Churchill decided to make one of the biggest gambles of the war. British scientists had been making headway on the radar problem, but they lacked the resources to continue.

In a daring move, Churchill handed the Americans his country’s most precious military secrets — jet engines, anti-submarine devices, explosives and, most importantly, a new type of radio tube called the cavity magnetron — the very thing Loomis’s microwave radar team needed.

Several companies were interested in getting their hands on the burgeoning new program but Loomis instead created a new type of research operation at the intersection of industry, the military, and academia — what became known as the “Rad Lab’ at MIT.

Thanks to Loomis and his team of nearly 4,000 people, the U.S. would go to war in December 1941 with a radar program as advanced as any in the world.

The breadth of the Rad Lab’s innovation was on full display during the invasion of Normandy, when airplanes equipped with radar sets bombarded the coastline, radar beacons guided parachute troops, a navigation system known as landing craft control directed the invasion forces and radar-directed guns protected the infantry from air attack.

After the Japanese surrender, when their story could finally be told, the radar men could justly claim“the Bomb only ended the war, radar won it.”

The Rad Lab closed its doors at the end of 1945. When Loomis died in 1975, his passing attracted little attention. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Tune in

What: “The Secret of Tuxedo Park,” the long-overlooked story of Alfred Loomis.

When:  9-10 p.m. Jan. 16. (Check local listings). PBS‘ American Experience

Buy a copy: Available on DVD on from PBS Distribution and can be purchased at . Online viewing begins Jan. 17 at .

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