PROLOGUE: JANUARY 16, 1939
NARRATOR: On the afternoon of January 16th 1939, two of the most famous scientists in the world visited a remote mansion outside New York City. Hidden inside was a world-class laboratory, the consuming passion of a secretive millionaire.
MICHAEL HILTZIK: Within the scientific community there were tales of this mysterious hilltop laboratory, fabulously equipped, owned and operated by this millionaire who moved in the background, like a shadow. You couldn't just get in. But if you were a top-flight talent, the invitation would come from Alfred Loomis.
NARRATOR: Physicists Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi brought staggering news. That afternoon, Alfred Loomis became one of the first people to learn that scientists had split the atom, in a process that transformed mass into energy – potentially huge amounts of energy. Nobody knew the answer to the critical question: could this be used to build an unimaginably powerful bomb? Under any circumstances, the prospect would have been unsettling. Under these circumstances, it was terrifying: nuclear fission had been discovered in Hitler’s Germany.
For years Loomis had been hearing rumors of the work going on in German labs: jet engines, tanks, artillery, synthetic fuels, ballistic missiles; and now, nuclear fission. With every discovery, Hitler was growing more dangerous.
Bohr and Fermi left Tuxedo Park the next morning. Alone in his mansion, Loomis decided to pursue what must have seemed a forlorn hope: he would dedicate himself to overcoming Germany’s scientific advantage. It was an implausible notion, but it would change Loomis’s life and, against all odds, alter the course of history.
ROBERT BUDERI: I remember first learning about Loomis and just being blown away. I'm like, what? This thing happened and nobody knows about it?
SCENE 1: TWO LIVES 1912-1929
NARRATOR: Alfred Loomis didn’t start out reclusive, a millionaire, or even a scientist. In fact he had tried hard to live an unremarkable life. After graduating from Harvard in 1912, he took a job as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street, made a good marriage, started a family, and settled in the village of Tuxedo Park, forty miles outside Manhattan. On the surface, there was little that distinguished Loomis from any number of his well-bred peers.
But behind the polished façade was a raw, unformed ambition and a most unusal mind. Alfred’s rigid propriety was in fact a penance, the legacy of his father’s transgressions.
JENNET CONANT: Everyone knew that his father was unfaithful, everyone knew that he drank too much. His parents’ marriage was miserable, and so Alfred had this sort of rootless, parentless existence. And he felt the shame of his father's behavior hanging over him.
NARRATOR: Growing up in an emotional void, Alfred found solace in scientific exploration. He was captivated by life’s mysteries—the smallest increments of time, prime numbers, black holes. The pursuit of the unknown offered an escape, but only for a time. The family troubles culminated when Alfred’s father died suddenly, leaving the young man responsible for his mother and sister.
JENNET CONANT: The family had name and stature, but they didn't have money. Alfred wanted to make sure his sister and his mother would be okay, so he had to enter a profession and earn money and make up for, in wealth and respectability, what his father had not bequeathed them.
NARRATOR: Alfred’s marriage was the perfect expression of his rectitude.
JACKIE QUILLEN: Oh Lord, my grandmother Ellen Farnsworth Loomis, was beautiful. I mean, she was called the most beautiful girl in Boston.
JACQUELINE LOOMIS: They were very, very active, you know I don't think they had a quiet moment. It was the one time that I think they were both incredibly happy, and had a lovely marriage.
NARRATOR: Alfred and Ellen played tennis and golf, attended soirées, and were praised in the social columns. Despite Alfred’s determination to fit in, there were things that set him apart.
JACKIE QUILLEN: I have seen Alfred take on my father, a very good chess player, and two other scientists, good chess players. He was playing all three of them simultaneously. He was looking away from it, possibly on the telephone in another room, and the moves were called out to him. Alfred would nod his head and then reply what his move was. Alfred never lost.
NARRATOR: There were other signs that there was more to Alfred Loomis than met the eye. In his off hours he applied for patents on various small devices he had invented, ranging from a slide rule for calculating securities to a reliable fire extinguisher.
For five years, Loomis bridled his restless mind at Tuxedo Park. Then, in 1917, he got a reprieve when the United States went to war with Germany. He trained as an officer and, with the help of an influential cousin, was posted to the Army’s research center near Aberdeen, Maryland.
JENNET CONANT: For Alfred Loomis this is like heaven. Being able to invent things, having a real impact, this is a whole intoxicating new world to him.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: He comes up with a device to measure muzzle velocity much more accurately, than any other existing device. Accurate muzzle velocity means more accuracy hitting targets. And the fact that Loomis actually improves the accuracy of the major weapon of the First World War is quite an extraordinary accomplishment for someone who is in fact a lawyer.
NARRATOR: When the war ended in 1918 Alfred returned to his old law firm. He needed the income; he had a wife and three sons to support now, as well as his mother and sister. But at Aberdeen, he had glimpsed a different, irresistible, future; his ambition had crystallized.
JACKIE QUILLEN: The world was exploding with new science. It's as if the whole world of science went from black and white to technicolor, and Alfred wanted to be part of it.
NARRATOR: For Loomis, the prospect of a lifetime’s worth of soirees, socializing, and corporate law had become unbearable. If he was going to avoid that fate, Loomis would have to make enough money to get out from under his obligations. In 1919 he left his predictable future behind, and stepped on to the giant roller coaster that was investment banking in the Roaring Twenties.
JENNET CONANT: Alfred’s brother-in-law Landon K. Thorne, who was one of the hottest young bond salesman on Wall Street. And Landon came to him and said, you and I should team up, and finance the electrification of rural America. They took Wall Street by storm, and he started making money hand over fist.
NARRATOR: Even as Loomis was conquering Wall Street, he kept in touch with the scientists he had met at Aberdeen. Among them was a physicist who spent his summers at a farm on Long Lsland. One afternoon in the summer of 1924, Loomis drove to see him.
JENNET CONANT: Robert W. Wood was quite an eccentric, flamboyant physicist, one of the foremost experimental physicists in America. Alfred dropped by to visit him and he found that in his barn Robert Wood had sort of this big informal laboratory set up. This was much more fun than the gossip at the yacht club, and so Loomis parked himself on a stool and Robert Wood bubbled with enthusiasm and told him all about the research he was doing.
NARRATOR: Loomis was entranced. He asked Wood if there was any research they could do together, perhaps something that needed funding. Wood talked about an experiment he had seen in France during the war. Scientists there had invented a device for locating enemy submarines that used an oscillator to send out a beam of high frequency sound waves. Wood had noted that when fish swam into the beam they turned belly up and died; when he put a hand in he felt a sharp burning sensation. Wood suggested that they could start by asking why. Loomis wasn’t one for half measures. He bought a massive General Electric oscillator, even more powerful than the one Wood had seen in France. They installed it in Loomis’s garage in Tuxedo Park, and stepped up the output from 2000 to 50,000 volts. Then they stuffed cotton in their ears, put on earmuffs, and switched it on.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: They keep on increasing the power that they're getting out of it, something that General Electric had never intended, creating greater and greater sound waves, which they then used to kill small animals, deform cells etc. It may seem rather cruel, but in fact they're trying to understand how these waves interact with organisms. And ultimately what it does lead to is a safe way to look at things like a fetus. Wood and Loomis actually invented this new device, which becomes the basis for ultrasound technology.
JENNET CONANT: Loomis’s ambitions get greater and greater, and he decides to model himself after these genteel British scientists, like Lord Raleigh, who have mansions and their own private laboratories and do cutting edge work. So he starts hunting around Tuxedo Park and he finds this enormous old mansion. It's been derelict for about ten years. It's very private, it's all up on it's own, and he decides that this would be the perfect laboratory for a gentlemen scientist.
NARRATOR: In the years that the mansion named Tower House stood vacant, its weather-beaten battlements and broken windows had given rise to all sorts of sinister tales. Now the place took on a new air of mystery, as trucks arrived with load after load of exotic machinery. Behind those stone walls, Loomis was converting Tower House into a state-of-the-art laboratory. The elegant bedrooms and lounges, grand salon and ballroom, were fitted out to house the scientists that Loomis began inviting to Tuxedo Park. For many of them, coming from cash-strapped universities in the middle of the Great Depression, it was like traveling to another world.
JENNET CONANT: You get off at the train station and Alfred Loomis' Rolls comes up and picks you up, and drives you through these enormous stone gates. And you start climbing up these winding, narrow roads, passing forty-bedroom mansions with stable houses and guest houses. And you arrive at the Tower House, and the butler welcomes you.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: I can't imagine what Loomis's neighbors thought, because many of these people who arrived, first of all, they were foreigners. Many of them spoke with foreign accents. They're also Jews, and Jews are simply not allowed to live in Tuxedo Park.
JENNET CONANT: There is all kinds of gossip and all kinds of whispering about what's going on up there. The newspapers have covered some of the more sensational of Alfred's experiments. There are rumors that he is killing fish, dissecting frogs, and there is something that the newspapers have dubbed, “The Whispers of Death.”
NARRATOR: Rumors of a secretive wealthy eccentric conducting strange experiments in a remote Gothic mansion were too good for the press to resist.
JACKIE QUILLEN: Alfred abhorred publicity, he ran from it. And I remember when I was married there was a picture of me in the New York Times with my husband. And about a week later, when we got back from our honeymoon, he had kept the picture, and he pointed to it and he said, “that will be one of two times your face will appear in the newspaper.” And the second time being my death. And that was that.
NARRATOR: Loomis hated any breach in his wall of privacy, to the point that resented his own servants. In order to escape them Loomis built an ultra-modern residence adjacent to the laboratory whose chief virtue was a “servantless existence.” Loomis built a sanctuary of his own design, a hideaway in which everything was subsumed in scientific exploration. More and more, even his wife found herself on the outside.
JENNET CONANT: Ellen was very supportive of her husband. She tried to keep up, she tried to have a sort of lively interest in his inquiries. She tried to be housekeeper, helpmate, and doer of odd jobs, to have some role in this new scientific hobby that seemed to consume all of her husband's passion and time.
JACKIE QUILLEN: Little by little, she felt the distance. And I think she just didn't know how to stop it from growing. And then began the migraine headaches, and there was no bringing her back to her joyful, prettiest girl in Boston that he married.
NARRATOR: The Loomis boys - Lee, Farney, and Henry - were sent away to boarding school at the age of seven, as Alfred had been. When they came home for holidays and vacations they loved working with their father in the lab, but he took little interest in their lives. Their efforts to please usually went unnoticed, as when Farney came home from boarding school, confident that he was finally good enough to play chess with his father.
MARY LOOMIS: His father finally said,”Okay, well, you set up the board on the porch.”
Alfred never came out onto the porch, never left his chair in the living room, and beat him in some very small number of moves. And so Uncle Farney was just devastated. It never occurred to Alfred that he could have been a little gentler. My dad described his father as not having any of the emotional pieces, none of the sentimentality that you would associate with fatherhood.
SCENE 2: THE PALACE OF SCIENCE 1929-1938
NARRATOR: Loomis was living a double life, spending his days on Wall Street and his evenings and weekends in the lab. By the beginning of 1929 Loomis and Thorne had become, as Fortune magazine put it, banker and spokesmen for America’s booming electrical industry. But even as their business was growing by leaps and bounds, Loomis was starting to feel that there was something very wrong with the stock market.
MARY LOOMIS: When my father was a little boy, the family went to England, on this big cruise ship. Dad shared with me that one day on the trip Alfred was just doing a bunch of calculations. And then was suddenly standing up saying that he was going to send a cable to his partner, his brother-in-law, Landon Thorne, to tell him to sell everything and buy gold.
JACQUELINE LOOMIS: And Landon did just that. Landon did not hesitate. He sold everything they had. Which was remarkable, you know, after working and working to build up their resources to turn around and sell them immediately.
NARRATOR: Over the next months, as stocks soared, Loomis and Thorne quietly pulled their money out of the market. Then came Black Thursday. On October 24 1929 stock prices plummeted, and stunned investors saw their entire net worth wiped out overnight. Loomis and Thorne came through without a scratch.
JENNET CONANT: They were sitting on a mountain of cash when the market broke. It meant that he had money to invest. And Alfred Loomis made a second fortune – apparently $30 to $40 million more - during the Depression.
NARRATOR: In the spring of 1933 Loomis abruptly walked away from Wall Street. At last he could devote himself to science. The upshot was a stream of discoveries.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: He discovered - I hate to think how he figured it out - that by subjecting a person to these very strong high frequency sound waves, it created a fever. There were some conditions where you needed to induce a fever. Now previous to this, they had to actually give the subject malaria. And if you can imagine how horrific that would have been, well, to cure you we have to give you malaria. Now they could actually induce the fever by using these high-frequency sound waves.
JENNET CONANT: Loomis buys the most precise clocks ever made, the most expensive state-of-the-art crystals for his experiments. He becomes a leading authority in precise measurements of time.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: And then there's this work, the study of brain waves. Most doctors didn’t believe that brain waves existed and Loomis decided well, their equipment isn’t good enough. And it's through Loomis' work that the basic stages of sleep are for the first time measured and systematically described.
NARRATOR: For the sleep experiments, Loomis enlisted his son Henry, who had a knack for falling asleep despite the web of wires and sensors that were applied to his head and body. Once, when the sensors indicated that the boy was in a deep sleep, Alfred whispered that Henry’s beloved sailboat had caught fire.
JACQUELINE LOOMIS: Henry flew out of the cot. The wires went flying everywhere and he tried to scramble up the side of the wall, thinking he was going to put out a fire. So they discovered that even when we’re in deep sleep, we're still conscious of activity around us. [LAUGH] Henry loved it.
MICHAEL HILTZIK: There was so much that went on at Tower House. This was serious research that was being done by the best physicists, the best engineers, the best scientists of the time. Six or eight or ten papers came out of Tower House every year. They were respected, they were important.
JENNET CONANT: It's beyond a scientific playground. I mean 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.
SCENE 3: DARK DAYS 1938-1940
JACKIE QUILLEN: Alfred’s life was this passion for science. He simply wasn't at home. And Ellen just floated in the back. In her letters Ellen said “Oh I wish I knew more about what Alfred is doing, he seems so happy in the laboratory.” Well Manette did know what he was doing in the laboratory.
NARRATOR: One of the few women who was welcome inside the male world of Tower House was Manette Hobart, the wife of Loomis’s longtime protégé. In the late 1930s Manette’s husband left Tuxedo Park for an extended research program.
JACQUELINE LOOMIS: While he was gone, why Manette was there on site, the two of them I guess were somewhat thrown together.
JACKIE QUILLEN: How did Alfred fall in love with her? Because she was interesting. And she didn't have the headaches. She was the new woman, the modern woman. And my God, she was interested in science. And she was very drawn to Alfred.
NARRATOR: As Alfred’s personal life took on another hidden dimension, political turmoil began casting a shadow over his palace of science.
Archival Footage: Senator Nye - Americans want no more war. Most of all, they want no more participation in foreign wars.
NARRATOR: As Europe teetered on the brink of war, America seethed with anger.
JENNET CONANT: The country was overwhelmingly isolationist. And not only that, but the feeling was very, very bitter.
Woman 1 – I haven’t the slightest idea of European affairs.
Man 1 – Let Europe fight her own battles.
JENNET CONANT: You had very respected American figures talking about the corrupt munitions industry and the British plutocrats trying to get Americans involved in the coming war.
Man 2 - This time America should keep out, and I know I will.
JENNET CONANT: Loomis, on the other hand, is really out of step with the mainstream sentiment of the country. And that’s because he is talking to all of these European scientist who are coming, and they are watching with absolute dismay and horror, what is happening in Germany. He has no doubt that there will be a war, and that America will become involved.
JACKIE QUILLEN: By 1938 no Jew in Germany was allowed to hold an academic position. Alfred said to me that was a real warning bell for him. And Alfred began offering to pay, not only to bring them over, to house them, but found them jobs. He did that for a number of scientists. Because my gosh, there was real danger in the air.
NARRATOR: By the beginning of 1939, when Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi came to Tower House and raised the specter of a Nazi super-bomb, Loomis knew he had to do something. He shared his misgivings with kindred spirits like Karl Compton, the head of MIT, and Vannevar Bush at the Carnegie Institution. It was Compton who came up with the suggestion.
JENNET CONANT: Karl Compton says radar is going to be one of the most important weapons in the coming war. And they have a group at MIT that have been working on this radar, but it involves very expensive equipment, it involves planes. It needs financing, and they don't have the money for it at MIT.
NARRATOR: That spring, with Europe still at peace, Loomis dropped all of his other experiments and began studying radar with characteristic intensity. It was a new technology, with roots in several countries, including a far-fetched attempt by the British to defend against air attack.
ROBERT BUDERI: The British had a reward for anyone who could kill a sheep from a hundred yards, with the idea that that would lead to a death ray that could zap enemy pilots in the cockpit. And they reached out to a Scottish scientist, Robert Watson-Watt and said, “look into this.” It didn't take him long to rule out a death ray. But he came back with this idea of what he called radio detection, as opposed to radio destruction.
ANIMATION 1: Radar
ROBERT BUDERI: With radar, you're sending out a wave of energy, imagine if you dropped a pebble in a pond. That ripple it would start spreading out, and when it would hit something. A portion of that energy would come back to where it started.
NARRATOR: Loomis immediately focused on the next generation of the technology: microwave radar. If he could build a device that used high frequency radio waves, called microwaves, it would be more more compact, precise, and versatile than any radar system in the world.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: There’s a huge advantage with shorter wavelengths, and the fact that he's doing this as early as 1939 is quite extraordinary.
NARRATOR: There was one huge hurdle: in any radar system, the echo of a distant target is incredibly faint.
ANIMATION 2: Radar
ROBERT BUDERI: Going back to our pond analogy, if the ripple expanded as it went out 100 miles. Just think how weak and how diffuse that would be? And then the signal coming back to you is even weaker and more diffuse.
NARRATOR: In order to produce discernable echoes from distant targets, a radar system needed to transmit very strong radio waves. Engineers had mastered long wave radar transmitters, but nobody knew how to build a microwave device. It became Loomis’s Holy Grail. In the summer of 1940 he brought in a team of scientists to solve his transmitter problem.
JENNET CONANT: Radar devices at the time were very large and bulky. And they try and disguise the one they've got by putting it in a diaper truck, which they paint in the Tuxedo Park colors. And they're running this truck all over the golf course while Loomis's youngest son, Henry, pilots the plane for them to track.
NARRATOR: Loomis was working frantically, but making little progress on the transmitter. With every passing day, the need grew more urgent.
NARRATOR: When the German Army invaded France in May of 1940, it started to look as if America might soon be facing Hitler on its own. As the French forces collapsed, President Franklin Roosevelt created a small but powerful organization to develop the sophisticated new weapons that would be needed in a war with Nazi Germany. Loomis led the Microwave Radar Section. Loomis’s work was now a national concern, but it was going nowhere. All of his money, knowledge, and connections couldn’t solve the transmitter problem. His microwave radar program was all but dead, along with his notions of countering the Nazis. Loomis couldn’t know it, but even as he prepared to report his failure to Washington, British prime minister Winston Churchill was setting in motion a plan to turn the tide of war, that would put Loomis himself at center stage.
SCENE 4: THE MAGNETRON 1940-1941
RADIO ANNOUCER: From shortly after six o’clock until half past ten, the German air force carried out one of the most devastating raids of the war. Their main target was the city of London.
JENNET CONANT: The British have their backs to the wall. They were going to need America's assistance. And so Churchill decided to make what really was one of the greatest gambles of the war.
MICHAEL HILTZIK: The British had all of these great inventions and discoveries that they had developed in the years leading up to the war. What they didn't have was the capacity or the resources to develop them further.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: So in the summer of 1940, the British simply said, let's just give them everything. And hopefully, the Americans will reciprocate. It’s one of the most extreaordinary events of the Second World War.
NARRATOR: For Alfred Loomis, the drama began with an urgent summons to Washington. A delegation of Britain’s leading military scientists, led by Sir Henry Tizard, had arrived for a series of top-secret meetings with their American counterparts. The night before the meetings were to begin, September 19, 1940, Loomis invited members of the Tizard Mission to his palatial suite at the Wardman Park Hotel. It soon became clear that some of the Americans in the room still wanted nothing to do with Britain’s war.
JENET CONANT: The American admirals were very standoffish, and were very distrustful of this sort of scientific exchange with England; they did not want to reveal the Navy's secrets. Loomis, by contrast, was absolutely unabashed in his desire to help the British cause. And he really won the British over. They decided to put their cards on their table that night.
NARRATOR: Churchill had instructed his emissaries to hand over his country’s most precious military secrets to the Americans: jet engines, anti-submarine devices, proximity fuses, explosives, and more. But the biggest news came last.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: They reveal to Loomis the existence of this new type of radio tube called the cavity magnetron.
ROBERT BUDERI: The cavity magnetron was that extremely powerful microwave transmitter that Loomis was looking for. It was a thousand times better than anything the American's knew of.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: Suddenly microwave radar is possible. It's such a quantum leap forward in the technology, Loomis can not believe that such a thing is possible.
NARRATOR: “The atmosphere was electric,” one of the British scientists recalled. “They found it hard to believe what lay on the table in front of us might prove to be the salvation of the Allied cause.” The magnetron made microwave radar possible; but it was up to Alfred Loomis to make it a reality.
ROBERT BUDERI: You still needed to do a world of innovation. So then it became a decision, was it gonna be handed off to industry or was a new type of lab going to be set up. And there was a fight.
NARRATOR: Several companies were eager to get their hands on what promised to be a phenomenally lucrative program. Loomis avoided their advances. Instead, he proposed instead a new type of research operation, combining elements of industry, academia, and the military. He helped negotiate an agreement to house it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the few places that a large top-secret enterprise might go unnoticed. They named it “The Radiation Laboratory;” but everyone called it “The Rad Lab.”
MICHAEL HILTZIK: The Rad Lab was an important innovation in the organization of scientific research. You bring together hundreds of scientists, the best physicists, the best engineers, and you put them all to work together, in a interdisciplinary fashion. This was really the birth of big science.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: One of the reasons Loomis is so successful in the 1930s is because he has immense wealth. But if his personal fortune was $50 million, that pales in comparison to the billions of dollars that the government was going to spend on the radar program.
NARRATOR: The Rad Lab was going to need thousands of components – antennas, power supplies, and the like - and fast. Loomis summoned agents from five of the biggest manufacturing companies in America to his New York apartment, and had them bid for the production contracts then and there.
JENNET CONANT: The representatives said that they thought that they could possibly get their bids in under a month. And Loomis looked at them and said, no. I want your bids in at the end of the week. I want the components at the end of 30 days. He just let no obstacle stand in his way.
NARRATOR: Loomis had to recruit the best scientists in the country for a program that did not yet exist. For that, he turned to another Tower House regular, nuclear pioneer Ernest Lawrence. Recently Loomis had helped Lawrence raise over a million dollars to build a particle accelerator. Now, it was time for Lawrence to return the favor. From Loomis’s apartment, the most famous physicist in America started making calls.
ROBERT BUDERI: The typical recruiting process might be, “I want you to come to MIT to work on this important project.” And the scientist would say, “what kind of project?” “An important project.” And they would drop everything and head to MIT. It was really amazing. In this first few weeks, they attracted six future Nobel laureates to this lab.
NARRATOR: In November 1940 Loomis's staff packed up their equipment, shuttered the Tower House lab forever, and headed to MIT. The Rad Lab consisted of a few dozen people; their experimental facility an unheated tarpaper structure on the roof of Building 6.
Loomis sketched a demanding schedule on a blackboard in the lab. They would focus on two microwave radar projects. The first, an airborne system, would be precise and powerful, yet small enough to fit into the nose of an aircraft. The other came straight out of science fiction: an automated antiaircraft gun that could track and shoot down planes on its own. The challenges were immense, and time was short. The Rad Lab was underway.
SCENE 5. THE WAR 1941-1945
NARRATOR: In the days and weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were shocked to discover the sorry state of their country’s military. There was one remarkable exception to the general shambles: America went to war with a radar program as advanced as any in the world.
ROBERT BUDERI: The Rad Lab was still relatively small, and this group felt a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that they had helped their nation be more prepared than ever would have been imaginable without them. And the stature of the lab was elevated instantly.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, military leaders became intensely interested in the Rad Lab. Pearl Harbor had provided a dramatic illustration of the importance of air power, and the inadequacy of existing defenses.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: When you see pictures of Second World War, say, attacks on American aircraft carrier, the entire sky is filled with anti-aircraft gun bursts. They’re basically putting up a curtain of steel which hopefully the aircraft will run into. One calculation has put it as high as 9,000 shells to bring down a single aircraft.
NARRATOR: Loomis’s automatic antiaircraft gun had the potential to fundamentally change that equation. But it involved some huge technical hurdles, chief among them the need for a radar device that could lock onto a single aircraft in a crowded sky and track it automatically.
ANIMATION 3: Conical scanning
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: One of Loomis' s really important ideas is the idea of conical scanning. With conical scanning you're not trying to hit the aircraft directly with your radar pulse. Instead you’re creating a rapid series of pulses, with the aircraft in the center of your cone. When the aircraft is in the middle of the cone, you get a nice, steady signal. But as the aircraft moves, the spot where the pulse is maximum shows the direction that the aircraft is moving. You can then have a system which moves the radar atenna to track the aircraft
NARRATOR: The device was ready for testing just four months after Pearl Harbor. It heralded the dawn of a new type of warfare. There was little human input. Instead a battery of four guns was aimed and fired by a radar-controlled computer, operated remotely from inside a darkened trailer. The remote controlled unit was a thousand times more accurate than manual guns, and unimpeded by cloud cover, or darkness. Witnesses marveled as the guns swiveled in unison, and fired at an invisible target in the night sky. Moments later an explosion miles overhead offered proof that the guns had found their target.
JENNET CONANT: This became a hugely important weapon because the Nazis would soon unveil the V1.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: The V-1 is a form of cruise missile. They're unmanned, they're shot from ramps on the French coast, and they're sent to land on British cities and explode, doing immense damage.
ROBERT BUDERI: This was an incredible innovation right there. Able to fly without pilots, to bomb enemy targets. Well, against that came the incredible innovation of the Allies able to track them and shoot them down.
JENNET CONANT: It was a battle between two robots. And this automatic anti-aircraft gun neutralized what the Germans had thought would be one of their greatest new weapons.
NARRATOR: Microwave radar revolutionized war. Installed on ships, submarines, bombers, and fighter planes, radar conferred the same, crucial, advantage: : an ability to see the enemy before being seen. But that was just the beginning. The breadth of Rad Lab innovation was on full display when the Allies invaded Normandy in June of 1944. Airplanes equipped with radar sets bombarded the French coastline; radar beacons guided parachute troops and glider borne infantry to their drop zones; a radar system in England tracked the progress of Allied fighters and spotted the enemy interceptors that followed.
A Rad Lab navigation system directed the invasion force, while radar-controlled guns protected the infantry from air attack. Alfred Loomis’s ambition was finally being realized: Allied scientists were overcoming Germany’s technological edge. And the Rad Lab was at the center of it.
SCENE 6: THE END 1945-1975
NARRATOR: By the spring of 1945 Loomis’s admirable public life stood in sharp contrast to his personal one. Alfred’s affair with Manette had become almost an open secret. For years, Loomis had been sending Ellen off to sanitariums, allegedly for her health. Now he tried to have her committed permanently. “No one was allowed to write or talk to her,” a daughter-in-law recalled. “No visits from the children, no calls from the husband. She thought she had been dumped there and abandoned.””
JENNET CONANT: Loomis had used his influence to have the doctor sign the papers. You know, he locked her away. It was a terribly frightening and nightmarish experience for her. And she never fully recovered.
NARRATOR: On April 4, 1945, Alfred and Ellen Loomis were divorced. A few hours later he and Manette were married.
JENNET CONANT: When his oldest son Lee return from war and discovered that his father had had his mother locked away, he went and rescued his mother. And she really lived the rest of her life pretty much as a recluse, cared for by nurses.
JACQUELINE LOOMIS: Henry, my husband, was devastated. He said he would never forgive his father for the fact of it happening so quickly.
NARRATOR: In the last weeks of the war, Time magazine readied a cover story about one of the great untold stories of the war: radar. The authors marveled at the scale of the operation: the Rad Lab had grown into an organization of nearly 4000 people spread over fifteen acres of floor space, with a budget close to $4 million a month.
MICHAEL HILTZIK: The Rad Lab pointed the way toward the creation of the military industrial complex. It was not only the transfer of big science into a government project, but it was a government project on an industrial scale.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: The Rad Lab really hallmarks a new type of science. Individual scientists, even one as wealthy as Loomis, simply can't compete. Loomis marks the end of the gentleman scientist with his private research laboratory.
NARRATOR: Time magazine’s focus was the profound effect of radar on the war.
DAVID ZIMMERMAN: Without radar it's hard to foresee that the Allies could have been successful. Radar was important in virtually every military theater, every type of military operation.
NARRATION: After toiling for years in secrecy, the radar men looked forward to their moment in the sun. But as the deadline for the August 20th issue approached, another story knocked radar off the front page forever.
ROBERT BUDERI: In quick succession, we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. And that completely stole the thunder from the Rad Lab. And yet, the Rad Lab was actually bigger than the bomb project and far more important to the war. The saying at the Rad Lab was, “The atomic bomb only ended the war. Radar won it.” And I think that's true, and Alfred Loomis was a key part of that.
NARRATOR: The Rad Lab at MIT closed its doors at the end of 1945, and was soon all but forgotten. Loomis never returned to Tuxedo Park. He sold Tower House the contents of the fabled laboratory were left for the trash.
JENNET CONANT: From the moment the war ended, Loomis really started to withdraw from public life. He did collect the Medal of Merit from Truman, but he turned down very large government jobs, he turned down university appointments.
NARRATOR: Alfred and Manette found tranquil lives on Long Island, where to some extent, they forgot about the world, and the world forgot about them. When Alfred Loomis died on August 11 1975 at the age of eighty-seven, his passing attracted little notice. He wouldn’t have wanted it otherwise. “He never needed the approval of other people,” a colleague recalled. “He was motivated purely by the facts of the case, purely the adventure.”
CONANT: Loomis foresaw the need, for new methods, new technology, and new science at a crucial time. By force of logic and enthusiasm and energy, he just made things happen.
BUDERI: Can you imagine doing something more important in your life? I mean really taking a front row seat at saving the world.