Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II

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Overview

The Untold Story of the American Entrepreneur Who Helped Build the Atomic Bomb and Defeat the Nazis.
Legendary financier, philanthropist, and society figure Alfred Lee Loomis gathered the most visionary scientific minds of the twentieth century — Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and others — at his state-of-the-art laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, in the late 1930s. He established a top-secret defense laboratory at MIT and personally bankrolled ...

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Tuxedo Park: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos

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Overview

The Untold Story of the American Entrepreneur Who Helped Build the Atomic Bomb and Defeat the Nazis.
Legendary financier, philanthropist, and society figure Alfred Lee Loomis gathered the most visionary scientific minds of the twentieth century — Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and others — at his state-of-the-art laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York, in the late 1930s. He established a top-secret defense laboratory at MIT and personally bankrolled pioneering research into new, high-powered radar detection systems that helped defeat the German Air Force and U-boats. With Ernest Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, he pushed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to fund research in nuclear fission, which led to the development of the atomic bomb.
Jennet Conant, the granddaughter of James Bryant Conant, one of the leading scientific advisers of World War II, enjoyed unprecedented access to Loomis' papers, as well as to people intimately involved in his life and work. She pierces through Loomis' obsessive secrecy and illuminates his role in assuring the Allied victory.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Alfred Loomis was one of the wealthiest men in America during the 1930's. A scientist himself, his funding of a secret group of scientists in the Tuxedo Park suburb of New York City led to the development of such advances as radar and nuclear weaponry. Not much has been known about the mysterious Mr. Loomis -- until now, with the publication of Jennet Conant's insightful biography of the elusive figure.
From the Publisher
Jonathan Yardley The Washington Post Remarkable...the story of a genuinely extraordinary man [told] uncommonly well.

Kurt Vonnegut A brilliant account of the all but vanished reputation of an amateur physicist who became a friend and peer of the greatest scientists of his time.

Timothy Ferris Jennet Conant's Tuxedo Park illuminates an important but little-known chapter in American science, and does it with a deft, knowing touch that brings it to life.

The Washington Post Book World The story of how radar made its passage from the drawing board into the cockpits of Allied fighter planes is incredibly dramatic, and Jennet Conant tells it uncommonly well.

The Wall Street Journal Understanding just how America wins wars is a pressing task these days, which makes the story of Alfred Loomis especially timely — and instructive....[His] remarkable story is being told now only thanks to Ms. Conant, a journalist who combines a graceful writing style with her own family connections to his secretive life.

New Yorker
In the prewar years, Alfred Lee Loomis was one of the most powerful men on Wall Street. But he was also a crucial, if heretofore unsung, figure in the evolution of experimental physics in America. In this brisk, entertaining biography, Loomis emerges as "the last of the great amateurs," a gentleman scientist in the mold of Benjamin Franklin, with a quintessentially American interest in practical, rather than merely theoretical, work. Both patron and player, he turned his massive Tuxedo Park home into a kind of Yaddo for scientists, while also helping to develop a host of inventions, including the atom-smashing cyclotron. Once the Second World War began, he became a central figure, along with his friends Vannevar Bush and Ernest Lawrence, in the orchestration of American science's contribution to the war effort. Conant shows how Loomis, as the head of the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory, dexterously governed "a scientific republic" of physicists who ended up making major contributions to anti-submarine warfare, radar, and the accuracy of night bombing. Her group portrait offers a healthy reminder of how much good science depends on community and collaboration, not solitary genius.
Publishers Weekly
Alfred Lee Loomis (1887-1975) made his fortune in the 1920s by investing in public utilities, but science was his first love. In 1928, he established a premier research facility in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., that attracted such brilliant minds as Einstein, Bohr and Fermi and became instrumental in the Allies' WWII victory. Conant, a magazine writer, draws on studies, family papers and interviews with Loomis's friends, family and colleagues (she's a relative of two scientists who worked with Loomis) to trace the story of the tycoon's professional and social life (the latter fairly racy). At the Tuxedo Park lab, Loomis attracted top-flight scientists who experimented with sound, time measurement and brain waves. During WWII, he established a laboratory at MIT (the "rad lab") where radar was developed. He also served as a conduit between civilian scientists and Roosevelt's military establishment. Although he lost some of his top people to the Manhattan Project, the "rad lab" was a major contributor to the allies' defense. In his well-publicized personal life, Loomis angered family members by trying to have his emotionally unstable wife institutionalized while he pursued an affair with another woman. Through Conant's spare, unobtrusive prose and well-paced storytelling, Loomis emerges as a contradictory man who craved scientific accomplishment and influence, but rarely took credit for himself. Those interested in science or WWII history will appreciate this well-researched bio. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
More than a vivid biography of Alfred Lee Loomis, this is a bright and intelligent portrait of a season of science in America that changed history. Conant, who has been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Esquire, and GQ, follows Loomis, a son of privilege, through his several incarnations as lawyer, financier, and scientist. Using his immense wealth, Loomis, one of the few tycoons to survive the Great Depression intact, founded his own private laboratory in Tower House, his mansion within the exclusive New York enclave of Tuxedo Park. Here, he and the many scientific worthies he attracted conducted brainwave research as well as the seminal microwave studies that led to the development of radar systems crucial to Allied victory in World War II. Conant is so good at capturing the high-spirited, freewheeling methodology brought to bear on the many critical research projects that one sometimes forgets that the precocious upstarts behind the method were greatly responsible for saving the world from fascism. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. Michael F. Russo, Louisiana State Univ. Libs., Baton Rouge Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An examination of the remarkable role of the shadowy but powerful "amateur physicist" whose intellect and energy spurred critical scientific research that shortened and helped win WWII. The author cites the association of Alfred Lee Loomis with her grandfather James Conant (president of Harvard for 20 years) to underscore her fascination with what, in the absence of extensive personal records, sometimes reads like fiction. Shrewd enough as a young investment banker to convert the bulk of his investments into a pile of cash on the brink of the Depression, Loomis got only richer as Wall Street foundered. He had all anyone could want in cars, yachts, and island hideaways (Hilton Head), so he funded his principal avocation: scientific investigation. The physics laboratory he had built into his mansion in the gilt-edged community of Tuxedo Park, New York, matched almost anything industry or academia could offer. At first, the scientific community called him an "eccentric dabbler," but soon figures like Bohr, Fermi, Einstein, and Ernest Lawrence were cajoled into visits to Tuxedo Park, finding their host to be a serious thinker and accomplished experimenter who could also pour bathtub gin with a steady hand on the butler's night off. Fascinated by physical phenomena, Loomis had investigated everything from ultrasonics to brain waves as the world moved toward war in 1940. Realizing early on that R&D would be critical to Allied success, he parlayed his influence, charm, and connections (Secretary of War Henry Stimson was a cousin) into a key management role in the refinement of super-secret radar technology and, later, into championing the nuclear fission projects that led to the first atomicbomb. Following a scandalous divorce, Loomis lived out his life in relative obscurity, hastened into oblivion by the intense desire for privacy that had always kept him out of the limelight Remarkable and remarkably told, as if F. Scott Fitzgerald had penned Batman.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684872889
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 4/29/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 152,512
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.44 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennet Conant

Jennet Conant is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington and Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. A former journalist, she has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Patron

Ward was smiling but that did not mean that he was amused. The smile was a velvet glove covering his iron determination to get under way without any lost motion.

— WR, from Brain Waves and Death

On January 30, 1940, shortly after ten P.M., the superintendent of the building at 116 East 83rd Street noticed that a bottle of milk delivered that morning to one of his tenants had remained in front of the door all day. The young man who rented the three-room apartment had not said anything about going out of town. He was a conspicuous fellow, extremely tall — at least six feet four — and lean, with piercing blue eyes and a shock of dark hair. After knocking repeatedly and failing to get an answer, the superintendent notified the police.

William T. Richards was found dead in the bathtub with his wrists slashed, blood from his wounds garlanding the walls of the bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, his head resting on a pillow. A razor blade lay by his hand. He was a former chemistry professor at Princeton University who was currently employed as a consultant at the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York. He was thirty-nine years old. His personal papers mentioned a mother, Miriam Stuart Richards, living in Massachusetts, and the detective at the scene asked the Cambridge police to contact her. As The New York Times reported the following morning, William Richards was from a prominent Boston family, son of the late professor Theodore William Richards of Harvard, winner of a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and the brother of the former Grace (Patty) Thayer Richards, wife of the president of Harvard, James B. Conant.

Although his death was clearly a suicide, everything possible was done to hush up the more unpleasant aspects of the event, and the Boston papers never published the details. Richards' brother, Thayer, was immediately dispatched to New York, and he saw to it that most of what had transpired was concealed from his mother and sister. A suicide note that was found by the tub was destroyed, and its contents were never revealed. The Richards family was naturally concerned about its reputation, but there were also pressing concerns, of a rather delicate nature, that made it vitally important that Bill's suicide be kept as quiet as possible. Miriam Richards, desperate to avoid any scandal, drafted a reassuring letter attempting to put the untimely death of her son in a better light, copies of which she sent out to important friends and relations. She explained that Bill had long been "nervously, seriously ill" and had never properly recovered from severe abdominal surgery several years earlier. She also supplied him with an end that left open the possibility that his death was accidental, writing that "Bill died of an overdose of a sleeping draught." It is entirely possible that this is what she had been told.

"William Theodore Richards was beyond any doubt one of the most brilliant members of our class," began his Harvard obituary, based on the fond reminiscences of his friends and scientific colleagues. He was interested in new scientific phenomena, the originality of his ideas leading him into experimental work. But he had the kind of restless, wide-ranging intelligence — he was a talented painter and musician and briefly considered playing the cello professionally — that made him, according to one friend, "a veritable Renaissance man." He was a chemist at his father's insistence, but his heart was not in it, and he found it difficult to force himself to undertake the routine proofs and laborious accumulation of data that would have given him more publishable material and more recognition in his field. He had "a mentality which could be called great," wrote his classmate Leopold Mannes, a fellow scientist and musician, who speculated that Richards despaired of ever meeting the onerous demands he imposed on himself. "In his attitude towards life, towards science, towards music — of which he had an astounding knowledge and perception — and towards literature, he was a relentless perfectionist, and thus his own implacable judge. No human being could be expected fully to satisfy such standards."

Richards was a solitary man, confining his friends to a small, clever circle. He kept most of his contemporaries at bay with his caustic wit, which made quick work of any human frailty, whether at his own expense or someone else's. With complete abandon, he would ruthlessly mimic anyone from Adolf Hitler to some sentimental woman who had been foolish enough to confide in him. To most, he seemed cordial, cold, and a bit superior, his moodiness exacerbated by periods of poor health and depression. He eventually quit his job at Princeton and moved to New York, where he worked part-time as a chemical consultant while devoting himself to an arduous course of psychotherapy. The Harvard memorial notes concluded that "after a brave struggle for ten years to overcome a serious neurosis, which in spite of treatment grew worse, Bill died by his own hand."

Richards' death was nevertheless "shocking" to Jim Conant and his wife, Patty. Richards had celebrated Christmas with them only a few weeks before and had stayed in the large brick mansion at 17 Quincy Street that was the official residence of the Harvard president. Although his psychological condition had always been precarious, he had seemed "to be making real progress," his mother later lamented in a letter to a close family friend, so much so that "last summer and autumn he was so happy and well that for fun he wrote a detective story." Richards had submitted the manuscript to Scribner's, which "had at once accepted it."

Just a few weeks after he took his own life, his book, Brain Waves and Death, was published under the pseudonym "Willard Rich." It was, in most respects, a conventional murder mystery, with the added interest of being set in a sophisticated modern laboratory, where a group of eminent scientists are hard at work on an experiment designed to measure the electrical impulses sent out by the brain. In a twist on the standard "hermetically sealed room" problem, Richards staged the murder in a locked experimental chamber that is constantly monitored by highly sensitive listening devices and a camera. The book earned respectful reviews, with The New York Times describing the story as "ingeniously contrived and executed" and awarding Willard Rich "an honorable place in the ranks of mystery mongers." None of the critics were apparently aware that the author was already dead or that he had rather morbidly foreshadowed his imminent demise in the book, in which the first victim is a tall, arrogant young chemist named Bill Roberts.

At the time, only a small group of elite scientists could have known that while the method Richards devised to kill off his literary alter ego was of his own invention — a lethal packet of poison gas that was frozen solid and released into the atmosphere when warmed to room temperature — the actual science and the laboratory itself were real. George Kistiakowsky, a Harvard chemistry professor and one of Richards' closest friends and professional colleagues, guessed the truth immediately, "that it was a take-off on the Loomis Laboratory and the characters frequenting it." Despite its contrived plot, the book was essentially a roman à clef. No one who had ever been there could fail to recognize that the "Howard M. Ward Laboratory" was in reality the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park and that the charismatic figure of Ward himself was transparently based on Alfred Lee Loomis, the immensely wealthy Wall Street tycoon and amateur physicist who, among his myriad inventions, claimed a patent for the electroencephalograph, a device that measured brain waves.

The opening paragraphs of the book perfectly captured Loomis' rarefied world, where scientists mingled with polite society and where intellectual problems in astronomy, biology, psychiatry, or physics could be discussed and pursued in a genteel and collegial atmosphere:

The Howard M. Ward Laboratory was not one of those hospital-like institutions where Pure Science is hounded grimly and humorlessly as if it were a venomous reptile; the grounds of the Laboratory included a tennis court, bridle paths, and a nine-hole golf course. Guests there did not have to confine themselves to science, they could live fully and graciously.

It was Richards who had first told Kistiakowsky about Loomis' private scientific playground in Tuxedo Park, a guarded enclave of money and privilege nestled in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains. Tuxedo Park, forty miles northwest of New York City, had originally been developed in 1886 by Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco magnate, as a private lakefront resort where his wealthy friends could summer every year. The rustic retreat became the prime meeting ground of American society, what Ward McCallister famously called "the Four Hundred," where wealthy moguls communed with nature in forty-room "cottages" with the required ten bedrooms, gardens, stables, and housing for the small army of servants required for entertaining in style. Leading members of the financial elite, such as Rockefellers and Morgans, numbered among its residents, as did Averell Harriman, who occupied a vast neighboring estate known as Arden. Over the years, Tuxedo Park, with its exclusive clubhouse and fabled balls, had taken on all of the luster and lore of a royal court, and although it had dimmed somewhat since the First World War, it still regarded itself as the Versailles of the New York rich.

Loomis, a prominent banker and socialite, was very much part of that world and owned several homes there. According to Richards, however, Loomis was also somewhat eccentric and disdained the glamorous swirl around him. He had developed a passion for science and for some time had been leading a sort of double life: as a partner in Bonbright & Co., the thriving bond investments subsidiary of J. P. Morgan, he had amassed a substantial fortune, which allowed him to act as a patron somewhat in the manner of the great nineteenth-century British scientists such as Charles Darwin and Lord Rayleigh. To that end, Loomis had purchased an enormous stone mansion in Tuxedo, known as the Tower House, and turned it into a private laboratory where he could give free rein to his avocation — primarily physics, but also chemistry, astronomy, and other ventures. He entertained lavishly at Tower House and invited eminent scientists to spend long weekends and holidays as his guests. More to the point, as Richards told Kistiakowsky, Loomis also extended his hospitality to "impecunious" young scientists, offering them stipends so they could enjoy elegant living conditions while laboring as skilled researchers in his laboratory.

Richards had seen to it that Kistiakowsky — "Kisty" to his pals — secured a generous grant from the Loomis Laboratory. The two had met and become fast friends at Princeton in the fall of 1926, when as new chemistry teachers they were assigned to share the same ground-floor laboratory. They were both tall, physically imposing men, with the same contradictory mixture of witty raconteur and reserved, introspective scientist. In no time they had discovered a mutual fondness for late night philosophizing and bathtub gin. As this was during Prohibition, the Chemistry Department had to sponsor its own drinking parties, and the two chemists "doctored" their own mixture of bootleg alcohol and ginger ale with varying degrees of success. Richards, who was subsidized by his well-heeled Brahmin family, had soon noticed that his Russian colleague, a recent émigré who sent money to his family in Europe, was having difficulty managing on the standard instructor's salary of $160 a month. Knowing any extra source of funds would be welcome, Richards had put in a good word with Loomis, just as he had when recommending Kistiakowsky to his "uncle Lawrence" — A. Lawrence Lowell, who was then president of Harvard, and Bill's uncle on his mother's side. Grinning into the phone, he had provided assurances that Kistiakowsky was not some "wild and woolly Russian" and, despite being just off the boat, was "wholly a gentleman, had proper appearance and table manners, etc."

Richards' own introduction to Loomis had happened quite by accident a few months prior to his arrival at Princeton. While Richards was completing his postdoctoral studies at Göttingen, he had been sitting in the park one Sunday morning, idly reading Chemical Abstracts, when a paragraph briefly describing an experiment being carried on in the "Loomis Laboratory" had caught his eye. He had immediately sent off a letter to the laboratory, "suggesting that certain aspects of the experiment could be further developed," and he had even outlined what the result of this development would probably be. Some months later, he received a response from the laboratory informing him that they had carried out his suggestions and the results were those he had anticipated. This had been followed by a formal invitation to work at the Loomis Laboratory.

Over the years, Richards and Kistiakowky had often commuted from Princeton to Tuxedo Park together on weekends and holidays and had conducted some of their research experiments jointly. Richards had arranged for them both to spend the summer of 1930 as research fellows at the Loomis Laboratory. What a grand time that had been. Not only was the room and board better than that of any resort hotel, but weekend recreation at Tower House — when the restriction against women was relaxed — included festive picnics, drinks, parties, and elaborate black-tie dinners. Back then, they had both been ambitious young chemists at the beginning of their careers and had reveled in the chance to work with such legendary figures as R. W. Wood, the brilliant American experimental physicist from Johns Hopkins, whom Loomis had lured to Tuxedo Park as director of his laboratory. Working alongside Loomis and a long list of distinguished collaborators, they had carried out series of original experiments, including some of the first with intense ultrasonic radiation, and had proudly seen their lines of investigation published in scientific journals and taken up by laboratories in America and Europe.

Kistiakowsky, who by then had joined Harvard's Chemistry Department and become close friends with Conant, never publicly revealed that Richards' book was based on Loomis and the brain wave experiments conducted at Tower House. In his carefully composed entry in Richards' Harvard obituary, he made only a passing reference to a "Mr. A. L. Loomis of Tuxedo Park," diplomatically noting that Richards' work at the laboratory had afforded him "one of the keenest scientific pleasures of his career." However, it is typical that he could not resist dropping one hint. Observing that very few physical chemists possessed his late friend's keenness of mind, Kistiakowsky concluded that no one could ever match Richards' own concise presentation of his work, "which was always done in the best literary form."

At the time of Richards' death, Kistiakowsky was still working for Loomis on the side. But the stakes were much higher now, and the project he had undertaken was so secret, and of such fearful importance, that Richards' parody of the Loomis Laboratory must have struck him as a wildly precipitous and ill-conceived prank. Richards had always thumbed his nose at authority and convention and had been disdainful of the narrow scope of his scientific colleagues, whom he once complained talked about "nothing but the facts, the fundamental tone of life, while I prefer the inferred third harmonic." But for Kistiakowsky, a White Russian who at age seventeen had battled the advancing Germans at the tail end of World War I, and then fought the Bolsheviks before being wounded and forced to flee his country, the prospect of another European war took precedence over everything. While in the past he might have joined Richards in poking fun at Loomis and his collector's attitude toward scientists, Kistiakowsky now appreciated him as a man who knew how to get things done. Loomis was a bit stiff, with the bearing of a four-star general in civilian clothes, but he was strong and decisive.

Kistiakowsky did not have to be told to be discreet, though he may have been. Loomis was furious about the book and threatened to sue for libel. He was an intensely private man and was horrified at the breach of trust from such an old friend. Richards had been a regular at the Tower House for more than ten years and was intimately acquainted with the goings-on there. In the months directly preceding his suicide, Loomis had plunged the laboratory into highly sensitive war-related research projects. Loomis wanted no part of the gossip and notoriety that might result either from Richards' unfortunate death or his book.

Neither did Jim Conant, who regarded the book as a source of acute embarrassment. It was bad enough that his wife's family continuously vexed him with their financial excesses and emotional crises, here was his brother-in-law stirring up trouble from the grave with this incriminating tale. Patty Conant was so distressed that she begged her brother, Thayer, to have the book recalled at once. But it was too late for that, and it was not long before Conant discovered that Brain Waves and Death was not Richards' only legacy.

With his instinctive ability to home in on the latest developments on the frontiers of research, Richards had followed up his first book with something far more sensational. Among the papers collected from his apartment after his death was the draft of a short story entitled "The Uranium Bomb." It was written once again under the pseudonym Willard Rich. The slim typed manuscript, bearing the name and address of his literary agent, Madeleine Boyd, on the front cover, was clearly intended for publication. Richards was an avid reader of Astounding Science Fiction and probably intended to place his story in the magazine, which regularly carried the futuristic visions of H. G. Wells and was a popular venue for the doomsday fantasies of scientists who were themselves good writers. Richards' story opens with the meeting in March 1939 between a rather callow young chemist named Perkins (Richards) and a Russian physicist named Boris Zmenov, who tries to enlist the well-connected American to warn his influential friends, and ultimately the president, "to suppress a threat to humanity." The Zmenov character, who is convinced the Nazis want to build a bomb, explains that there had been a breakthrough in atomic fission: the uranium nucleus had been split up, with the liberation of fifty million times as much energy as could be obtained from any other explosive. "A ton of uranium would make a bomb which could blow the end off Manhattan island."

Richards outlined Zmenov's theory, "tossed off with the breezy impudence of a theoretical physicist," describing the principles of atomic fission and the chain reaction by which an explosion spreads from a few atoms to a large mass of material, thereby generating a colossal amount of power. When Perkins professes disbelief, Zmenov becomes furious: "I am on the verge of developing a weapon," he declares, "which will be the greatest military discovery of all time. It will revolutionize war, and make the nation possessing it supreme. I wish that the United States should be this nation, but am I encouraged? Am I assisted with the most meager financial support? Bah."

As Conant read the manuscript, he realized it was an accurate representation of the facts as far as they were known. While not exactly common knowledge, Conant was aware that a great deal of information about uranium had been leaking out in scientific conferences and journals over the past year. His brother-in-law could have easily picked up many of his ideas just from reading The New York Times, which had extensively covered the lecture appearances of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his outspoken remarks about the destructive potential for fission. Even Newsweek had reported that atomic energy might create "an explosion that would make the forces of TNT or high-power bombs seem like firecrackers." For his part, Conant, an accomplished scientist who had been chairman of Harvard's Chemistry Department before becoming president of the university, was far from convinced atomic fission was anywhere near to being used as a military weapon. He was still inclined to believe the only imminent danger from fission was to some university laboratories. But he was not ready to dismiss it, either.

Richards' story was disturbing, and if it cut as close to the bone as his novel had, it was potentially dangerous. There were too many familiar names for comfort, including an acquaintance "prominent in education circles" by the name of "Jim," which Conant must have read as a sly reference to himself. More troubling still, the physical description of Zmenov — very short, round, and excitable — matched that of the Hungarian refugee scientist Leo Szilard, who was known to be experimenting with uranium fission at Columbia University in New York. Szilard was always agitating within the scientific community about the importance of fission and had even formed his own association to solicit funds for his work. In a scene that rang especially true, Perkins arranges for Zmenov to meet a wealthy banker, and Zmenov is crestfallen when he does not pull out his checkbook. "Perhaps Zmenov thought all bankers were crazy to find something to sling their money into," Richards wrote in yet another thinly disguised account of Loomis' exploits. This time, Harvard's cautious president did not wait for Loomis to tell him that the story revealed too great a knowledge of high-level developments in the scientific world, and at the very moment external pressures were coming to a peak. Conant made sure the story was suppressed.

Conant was too guarded to ever fully confide his doubts in anyone, but he expressed some of his reservations to his son, Ted, who was thirteen years old at the time. The boy had come across the story when going through the boxes of books and radio equipment Richards had left to him and insisted that it ought to be published according to the wishes of his beloved uncle. Anything short of that, he argued, "was censorship." The fierce row between father and son that followed was memorable because it was so rare. Conant was a calm, controlled man who rarely lost his temper. He was also coldly practical and not given to old-fashioned sentiment. His angry retort that Richards' story was "outlandish" and "unworthy of him," coupled with his uncharacteristic claim that "the family honor was at stake," suggested there was something more to his opposition than he was letting on. His son reluctantly let the matter drop.

By the time Conant discovered Richards' manuscript, many of the events described in the story, although slightly distorted, had in fact already transpired. Szilard had befriended Richards and was regularly updating him on the work he was carrying on with the Italian émigré physicist Enrico Fermi, who had won a Nobel Prize and had recently joined the staff of Columbia University. After the French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie published his findings on uranium fission, Fermi lost patience with Szilard's passion for secrecy and insisted that their recent experiments be published. In a hasty note to Richards on April 18, 1939, Szilard broke the news:

Dear Richards: —

It has now been decided to let the papers come out in the next issue of Physical Review, and I wanted you to be informed of this fact.

With kind regards,

yours,

[Leo Szilard]

As Richards cynically noted in his story, Szilard's interest in him was primarily as a link to private investors like Loomis, whom Szilard desperately wanted to bankroll the costly experiments he planned to do at Columbia University. At the same time, Szilard had been busy wooing other Wall Street investors, enticing them with the promise of cheap energy. In a letter to Lewis L. Strauss, a New York businessman interested in the atom's commercial potential, Szilard wrote tantalizingly of "a very sensational new development in nuclear physics" and predicted that fission "might make it possible to produce power by means of nuclear energy." At one point, Szilard arranged for himself and Fermi to have drinks at Strauss' apartment and asked Strauss to invite his wealthy acquaintance Lord Rothschild, but the two physicists could not persuade the English financier to underwrite their chain reaction research. Part of the problem was that while Szilard needed backers, he was desperately afraid Germany would realize fission's military potential first. He was obsessed with secrecy. He was determined to protect his discoveries and cloaked his project in so much mystery that he often appeared as "paranoid" as Richards portrayed him in his sharp caricature. After all his efforts to find private investors had met with failure, Szilard wrote to Richards on July 9, 1939, pleading for money to prove "once and for all if a chain reaction can be made to work." His tone was urgent:

Dear Richards:

I tried to reach you at your home over the telephone, but you seemed to be away, and so I am sending this letter in the hope that it might be forwarded to you. You can best see the present state of affairs concerning our problem from a letter which I wrote to Mr. Strauss on July 3rd, a copy of which I am enclosing for your information and the information of your friends. Not until three days ago did I reach the conclusion that a large scale experiment ought to be started immediately and would have a good chance of success if we used about $35,000 worth of material, about half this sum representing uranium and the rest other ingredients...I am rather anxious to push this experiment as fast as possible...I would, of course, like to know whether there is a chance of getting outside funds if this is necessary to speed up the experiment, and if you have any opinion on the subject, please let me know.

If you think a discussion of the matter would be of interest I shall of course be very pleased to take part in it...Please let me know in any case where I can get hold of you over the telephone and your postal address.

During the summer of 1939, Szilard and Fermi worked out the basis for the first successful chain reaction in a series of letters. Encouraged by their correspondence, but frustrated by his continued failure to enlist any financial support for his experiments, Szilard turned to his old mentor, Albert Einstein, for help. Einstein was sixty years old and famous, someone with enough stature to lend credibility to his cause. After meeting with Szilard and reviewing his calculations, Einstein was quickly persuaded that the government should be warned that an atomic bomb was a possibility and that the Nazis could not be allowed to build such an unimaginably powerful weapon. On August 2, Szilard drafted the final version of the letter Einstein had agreed to send to the president. Szilard called a part-time stenographer at Columbia named Janet Coatesworth and, speaking over the telephone in his thick Hungarian accent, dictated the letter to "F. D. Roosevelt, president of the United States," advising him that "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" could now be constructed. By the time Szilard read her the signature, "Yours very truly, Albert Einstein," he was fully aware that the young woman thought he was out of his mind. That incident, no doubt exaggerated in Szilard's gleeful retelling, bears close resemblance to a passage in Richards' story in which a young secretary comes to see Perkins and confides her concerns about Zmenov. "I'm afraid he's getting himself into the most dreadful trouble," she tells him. "You know how impetuous he is. He's a genius, and when other people don't see that, he gets impatient."

Einstein's letter to Roosevelt would result in the convening of a government advisory committee to study the problem. Roosevelt appointed Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards, the government's bureaucratic physics laboratory, as chairman. On October 21, 1939, Szilard went to Washington and reported to the first meeting of the Briggs Advisory Committee on Uranium. He explained how his chain reaction theory worked and put in his usual plea for funds to conduct a large-scale experiment — the same test he had been writing to Richards about for months. To Szilard's astonishment, the committee agreed to give him $6,000 for his uranium research.

Even then, Szilard did not cease his efforts at fund-raising and kept up his letters and calls to promising prospects. Twelve days after the meeting in Washington, he sent a brief note to Richards and included an eight-page memorandum for his "personal information only," summing up his report to the Briggs committee. The memo laid out exactly how much uranium and graphite he and Fermi would need for their experiments, how much it would probably cost, and which companies could supply the materials — a blueprint for building a bomb. "It seems advisable we should talk about these things in greater detail before you take up the matter with a third person..."

Szilard was never able to pin down the elusive Loomis, who a few months later would decide to back Fermi's chain reaction research. Four years later, Szilard wrote to Loomis directly, requesting an appointment to see him, and recalled his previous attempts to contact him: "I regretted very much not having been able to meet you in March and again in July of 1939 and am inclined sometimes to think that much subsequent trouble would have been avoided if a contact with you had been established at that time."

There are no records indicating whether Conant had any knowledge of Szilard's regular correspondence with Richards or his attempts to use him as a conduit to Loomis. But by the spring of 1940, when Conant found Richards' story, any public mention of atomic energy's military potential would have made the Harvard president uneasy. War had overtaken Europe, and there was already speculation about how long England would be able to fend off a German invasion. Although America was still resolutely isolationist, Conant and other leading scientific advisers to the president had been working to keep the government informed of any new developments of importance to national defense. The Briggs committee had been formed in response to the growing concern about how far along the Germans were in their atomic research. Many noted physicists, including Niels Bohr and Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, two Hungarians now teaching in the United States, were urging their European colleagues — notably the French nuclear scientist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the Viennese physicist Erwin Shrödinger, and the British physicist Paul Dirac — to exercise caution and were pushing for a publication ban on uranium fission. At the same time, Vannevar Bush, a tough-minded Yankee engineer who had recently resigned the vice presidency of MIT to head the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., was agitating for "an accelerated defense effort." Alarmed that the United States military was technologically unprepared for war, Bush was exploring ways to mobilize the country's scientists for war.

Conant was aware that Loomis was in the thick of these talks. With close ties in the worlds of finance, government, and science, Loomis had virtually unprecedented access to the men who would ultimately decide the country's future. Not only was he a tycoon with his own advanced laboratory at his disposal, he had the financial resources to underwrite any research project he found promising, even writing a personal check for $5,000 to help jump-start Harvard's nuclear physics research. He was an avid supporter of leading physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and his ambitious cyclotron project — which produced radioactive isotopes that might prove to be therapeutic or possibly provide clues to the exploitation of atomic energy — and was using his wide influence among corporate chiefs and Washington officials to help Lawrence secure more than $1 million in grant money from the Rockefeller Foundation. He was also a first cousin of Henry Stimson, who was a member of two Republican administrations and rumored to be President Roosevelt's choice as secretary of war. Because he had Stimson's confidence, Loomis was uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role as the country prepared for a war the Germans had already demonstrated would be, in Bush's words, "a highly technical struggle."

Of course, Loomis did not need anyone's permission to undertake his own investigation of the new machinery of war. He was enthusiastic about American know-how and was not inclined to sit idly by until the military, which he viewed as slow and hidebound by tradition, finally determined it was time to take action — particularly if just catching up with the Germans proved to be a monumental task. Long before the government moved to enlist scientists to develop advanced weapons, Loomis had assessed the situation and concluded it was critical that the country be as informed as possible about which technologies would matter in the future war. He scrapped all his experiments and turned the Tower House into his personal civilian research project, then began recruiting the brightest minds he could find to help him take measure of the enemy's capabilities and start working on new gadgets and devices for defense purposes.

How much Richards actually saw and heard at the Tower House, and how much he gleaned from Szilard or simply guessed at, is impossible to know. What had passed for science fiction and wild speculation only a short time ago was now no longer beyond imagining. His roman à clef provides a rare glimpse inside Loomis' empyrean of pure science just before they would all be cast out into a corrupt and violent world. In the final scene in his short story, Zmenov intentionally kills himself by detonating a small explosive "to prove forever that his theory is true." Richards realized the race to build the bomb was on and that the coming war would change everything. He understood that the leisurely, cloistered world of gentlemen scientists he had known at the Tower House was at an end, and the irony that his death coincided with the passing of an era did not escape him.

Years later, Kistiakowsky's widow, Elaine, would compare Richards' stories to passages in her husband's unfinished memoir, which he had been dictating into a tape recorder up to the time of his death in December 1982. She was amazed to learn how many details Richards had drawn directly from the period the two scientists had been involved with the Tower House — from its grand beginnings in 1926 to the day it was hastily shuttered in 1940. During the decade and a half Tower House flourished, Loomis played host to a remarkable group of young scientists at a moment when new discoveries were transforming all their fields and a spirit of intellectual excitement and experimentation fueled their research. It was hard to believe that in only a few years, that bright circle would not only build the radar system that would alter the course of the war, but would go on to create a weapon that would change the world forever. "It sounds like fiction," said Elaine. "It's incredible to me now, looking back, that it really happened."

Copyright © 2002 by Jennet Conant

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Table of Contents

Contents

MAP OF TUXEDO PARK

PREFACE

1 THE PATRON

2 BRED IN THE BONE

3 THE POWER BROKER

4 PALACE OF SCIENCE

5 CASH ON THE BARREL

6 RESTLESS ENERGY

7 THE BIG MACHINE

8 ECHOES OF WAR

9 PRECIOUS CARGO

10 THE BLITZ

11 MINISTER WITHOUT PORTFOLIO

12 LAST OF THE GREAT AMATEURS

Epilogue

Alfred L. Loomis' Scientific Publications

Author's Note on Sources

Acknowledgments

Index

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: The Patron

Ward was smiling but that did not mean that he was amused. The smile was a velvet glove covering his iron determination to get under way without any lost motion.

— WR, from Brain Waves and Death

On January 30, 1940, shortly after ten P.M., the superintendent of the building at 116 East 83rd Street noticed that a bottle of milk delivered that morning to one of his tenants had remained in front of the door all day. The young man who rented the three-room apartment had not said anything about going out of town. He was a conspicuous fellow, extremely tall — at least six feet four — and lean, with piercing blue eyes and a shock of dark hair. After knocking repeatedly and failing to get an answer, the superintendent notified the police.

William T. Richards was found dead in the bathtub with his wrists slashed, blood from his wounds garlanding the walls of the bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, his head resting on a pillow. A razor blade lay by his hand. He was a former chemistry professor at Princeton University who was currently employed as a consultant at the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park, New York. He was thirty-nine years old. His personal papers mentioned a mother, Miriam Stuart Richards, living in Massachusetts, and the detective at the scene asked the Cambridge police to contact her. As The New York Times reported the following morning, William Richards was from a prominent Boston family, son of the late professor Theodore William Richards of Harvard, winner of a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and the brother of the former Grace (Patty) Thayer Richards, wife of the president of Harvard, James B. Conant.

Although his death was clearly a suicide, everything possible was done to hush up the more unpleasant aspects of the event, and the Boston papers never published the details. Richards' brother, Thayer, was immediately dispatched to New York, and he saw to it that most of what had transpired was concealed from his mother and sister. A suicide note that was found by the tub was destroyed, and its contents were never revealed. The Richards family was naturally concerned about its reputation, but there were also pressing concerns, of a rather delicate nature, that made it vitally important that Bill's suicide be kept as quiet as possible. Miriam Richards, desperate to avoid any scandal, drafted a reassuring letter attempting to put the untimely death of her son in a better light, copies of which she sent out to important friends and relations. She explained that Bill had long been "nervously, seriously ill" and had never properly recovered from severe abdominal surgery several years earlier. She also supplied him with an end that left open the possibility that his death was accidental, writing that "Bill died of an overdose of a sleeping draught." It is entirely possible that this is what she had been told.

"William Theodore Richards was beyond any doubt one of the most brilliant members of our class," began his Harvard obituary, based on the fond reminiscences of his friends and scientific colleagues. He was interested in new scientific phenomena, the originality of his ideas leading him into experimental work. But he had the kind of restless, wide-ranging intelligence — he was a talented painter and musician and briefly considered playing the cello professionally — that made him, according to one friend, "a veritable Renaissance man." He was a chemist at his father's insistence, but his heart was not in it, and he found it difficult to force himself to undertake the routine proofs and laborious accumulation of data that would have given him more publishable material and more recognition in his field. He had "a mentality which could be called great," wrote his classmate Leopold Mannes, a fellow scientist and musician, who speculated that Richards despaired of ever meeting the onerous demands he imposed on himself. "In his attitude towards life, towards science, towards music — of which he had an astounding knowledge and perception — and towards literature, he was a relentless perfectionist, and thus his own implacable judge. No human being could be expected fully to satisfy such standards."

Richards was a solitary man, confining his friends to a small, clever circle. He kept most of his contemporaries at bay with his caustic wit, which made quick work of any human frailty, whether at his own expense or someone else's. With complete abandon, he would ruthlessly mimic anyone from Adolf Hitler to some sentimental woman who had been foolish enough to confide in him. To most, he seemed cordial, cold, and a bit superior, his moodiness exacerbated by periods of poor health and depression. He eventually quit his job at Princeton and moved to New York, where he worked part-time as a chemical consultant while devoting himself to an arduous course of psychotherapy. The Harvard memorial notes concluded that "after a brave struggle for ten years to overcome a serious neurosis, which in spite of treatment grew worse, Bill died by his own hand."

Richards' death was nevertheless "shocking" to Jim Conant and his wife, Patty. Richards had celebrated Christmas with them only a few weeks before and had stayed in the large brick mansion at 17 Quincy Street that was the official residence of the Harvard president. Although his psychological condition had always been precarious, he had seemed "to be making real progress," his mother later lamented in a letter to a close family friend, so much so that "last summer and autumn he was so happy and well that for fun he wrote a detective story." Richards had submitted the manuscript to Scribner's, which "had at once accepted it."

Just a few weeks after he took his own life, his book, Brain Waves and Death, was published under the pseudonym "Willard Rich." It was, in most respects, a conventional murder mystery, with the added interest of being set in a sophisticated modern laboratory, where a group of eminent scientists are hard at work on an experiment designed to measure the electrical impulses sent out by the brain. In a twist on the standard "hermetically sealed room" problem, Richards staged the murder in a locked experimental chamber that is constantly monitored by highly sensitive listening devices and a camera. The book earned respectful reviews, with The New York Times describing the story as "ingeniously contrived and executed" and awarding Willard Rich "an honorable place in the ranks of mystery mongers." None of the critics were apparently aware that the author was already dead or that he had rather morbidly foreshadowed his imminent demise in the book, in which the first victim is a tall, arrogant young chemist named Bill Roberts.

At the time, only a small group of elite scientists could have known that while the method Richards devised to kill off his literary alter ego was of his own invention — a lethal packet of poison gas that was frozen solid and released into the atmosphere when warmed to room temperature — the actual science and the laboratory itself were real. George Kistiakowsky, a Harvard chemistry professor and one of Richards' closest friends and professional colleagues, guessed the truth immediately, "that it was a take-off on the Loomis Laboratory and the characters frequenting it." Despite its contrived plot, the book was essentially a roman à clef. No one who had ever been there could fail to recognize that the "Howard M. Ward Laboratory" was in reality the Loomis Laboratory in Tuxedo Park and that the charismatic figure of Ward himself was transparently based on Alfred Lee Loomis, the immensely wealthy Wall Street tycoon and amateur physicist who, among his myriad inventions, claimed a patent for the electroencephalograph, a device that measured brain waves.

The opening paragraphs of the book perfectly captured Loomis' rarefied world, where scientists mingled with polite society and where intellectual problems in astronomy, biology, psychiatry, or physics could be discussed and pursued in a genteel and collegial atmosphere:

The Howard M. Ward Laboratory was not one of those hospital-like institutions where Pure Science is hounded grimly and humorlessly as if it were a venomous reptile; the grounds of the Laboratory included a tennis court, bridle paths, and a nine-hole golf course. Guests there did not have to confine themselves to science, they could live fully and graciously.

It was Richards who had first told Kistiakowsky about Loomis' private scientific playground in Tuxedo Park, a guarded enclave of money and privilege nestled in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains. Tuxedo Park, forty miles northwest of New York City, had originally been developed in 1886 by Pierre Lorillard, the tobacco magnate, as a private lakefront resort where his wealthy friends could summer every year. The rustic retreat became the prime meeting ground of American society, what Ward McCallister famously called "the Four Hundred," where wealthy moguls communed with nature in forty-room "cottages" with the required ten bedrooms, gardens, stables, and housing for the small army of servants required for entertaining in style. Leading members of the financial elite, such as Rockefellers and Morgans, numbered among its residents, as did Averell Harriman, who occupied a vast neighboring estate known as Arden. Over the years, Tuxedo Park, with its exclusive clubhouse and fabled balls, had taken on all of the luster and lore of a royal court, and although it had dimmed somewhat since the First World War, it still regarded itself as the Versailles of the New York rich.

Loomis, a prominent banker and socialite, was very much part of that world and owned several homes there. According to Richards, however, Loomis was also somewhat eccentric and disdained the glamorous swirl around him. He had developed a passion for science and for some time had been leading a sort of double life: as a partner in Bonbright & Co., the thriving bond investments subsidiary of J. P. Morgan, he had amassed a substantial fortune, which allowed him to act as a patron somewhat in the manner of the great nineteenth-century British scientists such as Charles Darwin and Lord Rayleigh. To that end, Loomis had purchased an enormous stone mansion in Tuxedo, known as the Tower House, and turned it into a private laboratory where he could give free rein to his avocation — primarily physics, but also chemistry, astronomy, and other ventures. He entertained lavishly at Tower House and invited eminent scientists to spend long weekends and holidays as his guests. More to the point, as Richards told Kistiakowsky, Loomis also extended his hospitality to "impecunious" young scientists, offering them stipends so they could enjoy elegant living conditions while laboring as skilled researchers in his laboratory.

Richards had seen to it that Kistiakowsky — "Kisty" to his pals — secured a generous grant from the Loomis Laboratory. The two had met and become fast friends at Princeton in the fall of 1926, when as new chemistry teachers they were assigned to share the same ground-floor laboratory. They were both tall, physically imposing men, with the same contradictory mixture of witty raconteur and reserved, introspective scientist. In no time they had discovered a mutual fondness for late night philosophizing and bathtub gin. As this was during Prohibition, the Chemistry Department had to sponsor its own drinking parties, and the two chemists "doctored" their own mixture of bootleg alcohol and ginger ale with varying degrees of success. Richards, who was subsidized by his well-heeled Brahmin family, had soon noticed that his Russian colleague, a recent émigré who sent money to his family in Europe, was having difficulty managing on the standard instructor's salary of $160 a month. Knowing any extra source of funds would be welcome, Richards had put in a good word with Loomis, just as he had when recommending Kistiakowsky to his "uncle Lawrence" — A. Lawrence Lowell, who was then president of Harvard, and Bill's uncle on his mother's side. Grinning into the phone, he had provided assurances that Kistiakowsky was not some "wild and woolly Russian" and, despite being just off the boat, was "wholly a gentleman, had proper appearance and table manners, etc."

Richards' own introduction to Loomis had happened quite by accident a few months prior to his arrival at Princeton. While Richards was completing his postdoctoral studies at Göttingen, he had been sitting in the park one Sunday morning, idly reading Chemical Abstracts, when a paragraph briefly describing an experiment being carried on in the "Loomis Laboratory" had caught his eye. He had immediately sent off a letter to the laboratory, "suggesting that certain aspects of the experiment could be further developed," and he had even outlined what the result of this development would probably be. Some months later, he received a response from the laboratory informing him that they had carried out his suggestions and the results were those he had anticipated. This had been followed by a formal invitation to work at the Loomis Laboratory.

Over the years, Richards and Kistiakowky had often commuted from Princeton to Tuxedo Park together on weekends and holidays and had conducted some of their research experiments jointly. Richards had arranged for them both to spend the summer of 1930 as research fellows at the Loomis Laboratory. What a grand time that had been. Not only was the room and board better than that of any resort hotel, but weekend recreation at Tower House — when the restriction against women was relaxed — included festive picnics, drinks, parties, and elaborate black-tie dinners. Back then, they had both been ambitious young chemists at the beginning of their careers and had reveled in the chance to work with such legendary figures as R. W. Wood, the brilliant American experimental physicist from Johns Hopkins, whom Loomis had lured to Tuxedo Park as director of his laboratory. Working alongside Loomis and a long list of distinguished collaborators, they had carried out series of original experiments, including some of the first with intense ultrasonic radiation, and had proudly seen their lines of investigation published in scientific journals and taken up by laboratories in America and Europe.

Kistiakowsky, who by then had joined Harvard's Chemistry Department and become close friends with Conant, never publicly revealed that Richards' book was based on Loomis and the brain wave experiments conducted at Tower House. In his carefully composed entry in Richards' Harvard obituary, he made only a passing reference to a "Mr. A. L. Loomis of Tuxedo Park," diplomatically noting that Richards' work at the laboratory had afforded him "one of the keenest scientific pleasures of his career." However, it is typical that he could not resist dropping one hint. Observing that very few physical chemists possessed his late friend's keenness of mind, Kistiakowsky concluded that no one could ever match Richards' own concise presentation of his work, "which was always done in the best literary form."

At the time of Richards' death, Kistiakowsky was still working for Loomis on the side. But the stakes were much higher now, and the project he had undertaken was so secret, and of such fearful importance, that Richards' parody of the Loomis Laboratory must have struck him as a wildly precipitous and ill-conceived prank. Richards had always thumbed his nose at authority and convention and had been disdainful of the narrow scope of his scientific colleagues, whom he once complained talked about "nothing but the facts, the fundamental tone of life, while I prefer the inferred third harmonic." But for Kistiakowsky, a White Russian who at age seventeen had battled the advancing Germans at the tail end of World War I, and then fought the Bolsheviks before being wounded and forced to flee his country, the prospect of another European war took precedence over everything. While in the past he might have joined Richards in poking fun at Loomis and his collector's attitude toward scientists, Kistiakowsky now appreciated him as a man who knew how to get things done. Loomis was a bit stiff, with the bearing of a four-star general in civilian clothes, but he was strong and decisive.

Kistiakowsky did not have to be told to be discreet, though he may have been. Loomis was furious about the book and threatened to sue for libel. He was an intensely private man and was horrified at the breach of trust from such an old friend. Richards had been a regular at the Tower House for more than ten years and was intimately acquainted with the goings-on there. In the months directly preceding his suicide, Loomis had plunged the laboratory into highly sensitive war-related research projects. Loomis wanted no part of the gossip and notoriety that might result either from Richards' unfortunate death or his book.

Neither did Jim Conant, who regarded the book as a source of acute embarrassment. It was bad enough that his wife's family continuously vexed him with their financial excesses and emotional crises, here was his brother-in-law stirring up trouble from the grave with this incriminating tale. Patty Conant was so distressed that she begged her brother, Thayer, to have the book recalled at once. But it was too late for that, and it was not long before Conant discovered that Brain Waves and Death was not Richards' only legacy.

With his instinctive ability to home in on the latest developments on the frontiers of research, Richards had followed up his first book with something far more sensational. Among the papers collected from his apartment after his death was the draft of a short story entitled "The Uranium Bomb." It was written once again under the pseudonym Willard Rich. The slim typed manuscript, bearing the name and address of his literary agent, Madeleine Boyd, on the front cover, was clearly intended for publication. Richards was an avid reader of Astounding Science Fiction and probably intended to place his story in the magazine, which regularly carried the futuristic visions of H. G. Wells and was a popular venue for the doomsday fantasies of scientists who were themselves good writers. Richards' story opens with the meeting in March 1939 between a rather callow young chemist named Perkins (Richards) and a Russian physicist named Boris Zmenov, who tries to enlist the well-connected American to warn his influential friends, and ultimately the president, "to suppress a threat to humanity." The Zmenov character, who is convinced the Nazis want to build a bomb, explains that there had been a breakthrough in atomic fission: the uranium nucleus had been split up, with the liberation of fifty million times as much energy as could be obtained from any other explosive. "A ton of uranium would make a bomb which could blow the end off Manhattan island."

Richards outlined Zmenov's theory, "tossed off with the breezy impudence of a theoretical physicist," describing the principles of atomic fission and the chain reaction by which an explosion spreads from a few atoms to a large mass of material, thereby generating a colossal amount of power. When Perkins professes disbelief, Zmenov becomes furious: "I am on the verge of developing a weapon," he declares, "which will be the greatest military discovery of all time. It will revolutionize war, and make the nation possessing it supreme. I wish that the United States should be this nation, but am I encouraged? Am I assisted with the most meager financial support? Bah."

As Conant read the manuscript, he realized it was an accurate representation of the facts as far as they were known. While not exactly common knowledge, Conant was aware that a great deal of information about uranium had been leaking out in scientific conferences and journals over the past year. His brother-in-law could have easily picked up many of his ideas just from reading The New York Times, which had extensively covered the lecture appearances of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his outspoken remarks about the destructive potential for fission. Even Newsweek had reported that atomic energy might create "an explosion that would make the forces of TNT or high-power bombs seem like firecrackers." For his part, Conant, an accomplished scientist who had been chairman of Harvard's Chemistry Department before becoming president of the university, was far from convinced atomic fission was anywhere near to being used as a military weapon. He was still inclined to believe the only imminent danger from fission was to some university laboratories. But he was not ready to dismiss it, either.

Richards' story was disturbing, and if it cut as close to the bone as his novel had, it was potentially dangerous. There were too many familiar names for comfort, including an acquaintance "prominent in education circles" by the name of "Jim," which Conant must have read as a sly reference to himself. More troubling still, the physical description of Zmenov — very short, round, and excitable — matched that of the Hungarian refugee scientist Leo Szilard, who was known to be experimenting with uranium fission at Columbia University in New York. Szilard was always agitating within the scientific community about the importance of fission and had even formed his own association to solicit funds for his work. In a scene that rang especially true, Perkins arranges for Zmenov to meet a wealthy banker, and Zmenov is crestfallen when he does not pull out his checkbook. "Perhaps Zmenov thought all bankers were crazy to find something to sling their money into," Richards wrote in yet another thinly disguised account of Loomis' exploits. This time, Harvard's cautious president did not wait for Loomis to tell him that the story revealed too great a knowledge of high-level developments in the scientific world, and at the very moment external pressures were coming to a peak. Conant made sure the story was suppressed.

Conant was too guarded to ever fully confide his doubts in anyone, but he expressed some of his reservations to his son, Ted, who was thirteen years old at the time. The boy had come across the story when going through the boxes of books and radio equipment Richards had left to him and insisted that it ought to be published according to the wishes of his beloved uncle. Anything short of that, he argued, "was censorship." The fierce row between father and son that followed was memorable because it was so rare. Conant was a calm, controlled man who rarely lost his temper. He was also coldly practical and not given to old-fashioned sentiment. His angry retort that Richards' story was "outlandish" and "unworthy of him," coupled with his uncharacteristic claim that "the family honor was at stake," suggested there was something more to his opposition than he was letting on. His son reluctantly let the matter drop.

By the time Conant discovered Richards' manuscript, many of the events described in the story, although slightly distorted, had in fact already transpired. Szilard had befriended Richards and was regularly updating him on the work he was carrying on with the Italian émigré physicist Enrico Fermi, who had won a Nobel Prize and had recently joined the staff of Columbia University. After the French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie published his findings on uranium fission, Fermi lost patience with Szilard's passion for secrecy and insisted that their recent experiments be published. In a hasty note to Richards on April 18, 1939, Szilard broke the news:

Dear Richards: —

It has now been decided to let the papers come out in the next issue of Physical Review, and I wanted you to be informed of this fact.

With kind regards,

yours,

[Leo Szilard]

As Richards cynically noted in his story, Szilard's interest in him was primarily as a link to private investors like Loomis, whom Szilard desperately wanted to bankroll the costly experiments he planned to do at Columbia University. At the same time, Szilard had been busy wooing other Wall Street investors, enticing them with the promise of cheap energy. In a letter to Lewis L. Strauss, a New York businessman interested in the atom's commercial potential, Szilard wrote tantalizingly of "a very sensational new development in nuclear physics" and predicted that fission "might make it possible to produce power by means of nuclear energy." At one point, Szilard arranged for himself and Fermi to have drinks at Strauss' apartment and asked Strauss to invite his wealthy acquaintance Lord Rothschild, but the two physicists could not persuade the English financier to underwrite their chain reaction research. Part of the problem was that while Szilard needed backers, he was desperately afraid Germany would realize fission's military potential first. He was obsessed with secrecy. He was determined to protect his discoveries and cloaked his project in so much mystery that he often appeared as "paranoid" as Richards portrayed him in his sharp caricature. After all his efforts to find private investors had met with failure, Szilard wrote to Richards on July 9, 1939, pleading for money to prove "once and for all if a chain reaction can be made to work." His tone was urgent:

Dear Richards:

I tried to reach you at your home over the telephone, but you seemed to be away, and so I am sending this letter in the hope that it might be forwarded to you. You can best see the present state of affairs concerning our problem from a letter which I wrote to Mr. Strauss on July 3rd, a copy of which I am enclosing for your information and the information of your friends. Not until three days ago did I reach the conclusion that a large scale experiment ought to be started immediately and would have a good chance of success if we used about $35,000 worth of material, about half this sum representing uranium and the rest other ingredients...I am rather anxious to push this experiment as fast as possible...I would, of course, like to know whether there is a chance of getting outside funds if this is necessary to speed up the experiment, and if you have any opinion on the subject, please let me know.

If you think a discussion of the matter would be of interest I shall of course be very pleased to take part in it...Please let me know in any case where I can get hold of you over the telephone and your postal address.

During the summer of 1939, Szilard and Fermi worked out the basis for the first successful chain reaction in a series of letters. Encouraged by their correspondence, but frustrated by his continued failure to enlist any financial support for his experiments, Szilard turned to his old mentor, Albert Einstein, for help. Einstein was sixty years old and famous, someone with enough stature to lend credibility to his cause. After meeting with Szilard and reviewing his calculations, Einstein was quickly persuaded that the government should be warned that an atomic bomb was a possibility and that the Nazis could not be allowed to build such an unimaginably powerful weapon. On August 2, Szilard drafted the final version of the letter Einstein had agreed to send to the president. Szilard called a part-time stenographer at Columbia named Janet Coatesworth and, speaking over the telephone in his thick Hungarian accent, dictated the letter to "F. D. Roosevelt, president of the United States," advising him that "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" could now be constructed. By the time Szilard read her the signature, "Yours very truly, Albert Einstein," he was fully aware that the young woman thought he was out of his mind. That incident, no doubt exaggerated in Szilard's gleeful retelling, bears close resemblance to a passage in Richards' story in which a young secretary comes to see Perkins and confides her concerns about Zmenov. "I'm afraid he's getting himself into the most dreadful trouble," she tells him. "You know how impetuous he is. He's a genius, and when other people don't see that, he gets impatient."

Einstein's letter to Roosevelt would result in the convening of a government advisory committee to study the problem. Roosevelt appointed Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards, the government's bureaucratic physics laboratory, as chairman. On October 21, 1939, Szilard went to Washington and reported to the first meeting of the Briggs Advisory Committee on Uranium. He explained how his chain reaction theory worked and put in his usual plea for funds to conduct a large-scale experiment — the same test he had been writing to Richards about for months. To Szilard's astonishment, the committee agreed to give him $6,000 for his uranium research.

Even then, Szilard did not cease his efforts at fund-raising and kept up his letters and calls to promising prospects. Twelve days after the meeting in Washington, he sent a brief note to Richards and included an eight-page memorandum for his "personal information only," summing up his report to the Briggs committee. The memo laid out exactly how much uranium and graphite he and Fermi would need for their experiments, how much it would probably cost, and which companies could supply the materials — a blueprint for building a bomb. "It seems advisable we should talk about these things in greater detail before you take up the matter with a third person..."

Szilard was never able to pin down the elusive Loomis, who a few months later would decide to back Fermi's chain reaction research. Four years later, Szilard wrote to Loomis directly, requesting an appointment to see him, and recalled his previous attempts to contact him: "I regretted very much not having been able to meet you in March and again in July of 1939 and am inclined sometimes to think that much subsequent trouble would have been avoided if a contact with you had been established at that time."

There are no records indicating whether Conant had any knowledge of Szilard's regular correspondence with Richards or his attempts to use him as a conduit to Loomis. But by the spring of 1940, when Conant found Richards' story, any public mention of atomic energy's military potential would have made the Harvard president uneasy. War had overtaken Europe, and there was already speculation about how long England would be able to fend off a German invasion. Although America was still resolutely isolationist, Conant and other leading scientific advisers to the president had been working to keep the government informed of any new developments of importance to national defense. The Briggs committee had been formed in response to the growing concern about how far along the Germans were in their atomic research. Many noted physicists, including Niels Bohr and Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner, two Hungarians now teaching in the United States, were urging their European colleagues — notably the French nuclear scientist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the Viennese physicist Erwin Shrödinger, and the British physicist Paul Dirac — to exercise caution and were pushing for a publication ban on uranium fission. At the same time, Vannevar Bush, a tough-minded Yankee engineer who had recently resigned the vice presidency of MIT to head the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., was agitating for "an accelerated defense effort." Alarmed that the United States military was technologically unprepared for war, Bush was exploring ways to mobilize the country's scientists for war.

Conant was aware that Loomis was in the thick of these talks. With close ties in the worlds of finance, government, and science, Loomis had virtually unprecedented access to the men who would ultimately decide the country's future. Not only was he a tycoon with his own advanced laboratory at his disposal, he had the financial resources to underwrite any research project he found promising, even writing a personal check for $5,000 to help jump-start Harvard's nuclear physics research. He was an avid supporter of leading physicist Ernest O. Lawrence and his ambitious cyclotron project — which produced radioactive isotopes that might prove to be therapeutic or possibly provide clues to the exploitation of atomic energy — and was using his wide influence among corporate chiefs and Washington officials to help Lawrence secure more than $1 million in grant money from the Rockefeller Foundation. He was also a first cousin of Henry Stimson, who was a member of two Republican administrations and rumored to be President Roosevelt's choice as secretary of war. Because he had Stimson's confidence, Loomis was uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role as the country prepared for a war the Germans had already demonstrated would be, in Bush's words, "a highly technical struggle."

Of course, Loomis did not need anyone's permission to undertake his own investigation of the new machinery of war. He was enthusiastic about American know-how and was not inclined to sit idly by until the military, which he viewed as slow and hidebound by tradition, finally determined it was time to take action — particularly if just catching up with the Germans proved to be a monumental task. Long before the government moved to enlist scientists to develop advanced weapons, Loomis had assessed the situation and concluded it was critical that the country be as informed as possible about which technologies would matter in the future war. He scrapped all his experiments and turned the Tower House into his personal civilian research project, then began recruiting the brightest minds he could find to help him take measure of the enemy's capabilities and start working on new gadgets and devices for defense purposes.

How much Richards actually saw and heard at the Tower House, and how much he gleaned from Szilard or simply guessed at, is impossible to know. What had passed for science fiction and wild speculation only a short time ago was now no longer beyond imagining. His roman à clef provides a rare glimpse inside Loomis' empyrean of pure science just before they would all be cast out into a corrupt and violent world. In the final scene in his short story, Zmenov intentionally kills himself by detonating a small explosive "to prove forever that his theory is true." Richards realized the race to build the bomb was on and that the coming war would change everything. He understood that the leisurely, cloistered world of gentlemen scientists he had known at the Tower House was at an end, and the irony that his death coincided with the passing of an era did not escape him.

Years later, Kistiakowsky's widow, Elaine, would compare Richards' stories to passages in her husband's unfinished memoir, which he had been dictating into a tape recorder up to the time of his death in December 1982. She was amazed to learn how many details Richards had drawn directly from the period the two scientists had been involved with the Tower House — from its grand beginnings in 1926 to the day it was hastily shuttered in 1940. During the decade and a half Tower House flourished, Loomis played host to a remarkable group of young scientists at a moment when new discoveries were transforming all their fields and a spirit of intellectual excitement and experimentation fueled their research. It was hard to believe that in only a few years, that bright circle would not only build the radar system that would alter the course of the war, but would go on to create a weapon that would change the world forever. "It sounds like fiction," said Elaine. "It's incredible to me now, looking back, that it really happened."

Copyright © 2002 by Jennet Conant

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
This book began four years ago when I picked up an old, dust-covered science fiction novel in my father's library. The book, boasting a lurid cover and entitled Brainwaves and Death, was written by my great-uncle William Richards, a gifted young chemistry professor at Princeton University, and had been published posthumously in 1940, only a few months after his suicide at the age of 39. I had heard stories about Richards' suicide, and the scandal surrounding his novel, which was said to be a roman à clef based on a group of famous scientists he had worked with in a private laboratory owned by an eccentric millionaire. My grandfather, who was then president of Harvard University, had been deeply embarrassed by the book and saw to it that an even more highly charged story by Richards -- predicting the imminent discovery of uranium fission and the creation of a terrifyingly powerful bomb -- was never published.

When finally I sat down to read the novel for the first time, I was immediately struck by the notion that if Richards' novel was indeed based on real characters and events, and the luxurious private scientific playground he described had actually existed in the 1930s, then it must have been quite a place -- and quite a story.

After rummaging through dozens of books, I learned that Richards had been in the employ of a powerful and mysterious Wall Street financier named Alfred Lee Loomis, who moonlighted as an amateur physicist in his spare time and whose private research facility, tucked away in an isolated mountaintop mansion in Tuxedo Park, had been the seat of top-secret defense research in the summer of 1939 -- almost two full years before America's reluctant entry into World War II.

Discovering that Loomis's deluxe laboratory was real was like tumbling down a rabbit hole in history and finding a secret, unexplored world. It also provided an entirely new vantage point on the war effort -- explaining why, when, and how so many leading American physicists banded together to help the British develop their radar defenses long before our country officially entered the war. Most people are now under the impression that it was a foregone conclusion that America would throw its money, intellectual resources, and military might behind helping the Allies defeat Nazi Germany, but in 1940, nothing could have been further from the truth. Powerful isolationist forces held sway in Washington, and with public sentiment overwhelmingly against joining the fight, President Roosevelt believed supporting England would cost him the 1940 election.

It is said that scientists have never been the best of prophets, but Loomis, who combined Wall Street savvy with an abundant knowledge of physics, proved to be an exception. He accurately foresaw that America's involvement in the war was inevitable, and that the country was woefully ill-equipped to protect its borders and its troops in the field -- as the devastating air strike on Pearl Harbor would make painfully clear. Surprise attacks, as it turns out, are never as completely unpredictable as political leaders would sometimes like to maintain. Using his enormous wealth and unparalleled contacts in industry, government, and the scientific establishment, Loomis was already working behind the scenes to mobilize the country for war when the Japanese attacked. He used his own fortune to jump-start defense-related research projects in the absence of public funds, and he organized physicists from the best universities across the country to work together and beat the Nazi war machine in building powerful new radar devices and creating the first atomic bomb.

That Loomis's name surfaces mainly as a footnote in most books on World War II is no accident. He fiercely guarded his privacy, disdained reporters and historians alike, and never once granted an interview about his considerable scientific achievements or his important role in the war. He was rich enough never to have to answer to anyone, and he never did.

The truth is, we will never know the whole story of how atomic power went from being "moonshine," as England's Lord Ernest Rutherford declared it in 1933, to a deadly certainty in 1945, but Loomis's story provides another piece of the puzzle. More important, as we ask ourselves once again what our country can do to prepare for a dangerous and uncertain future, it is instructive to look at what one civilian did to agitate for scientific research and to organize personnel and resources on the eve of battle. (Jennet Richards Conant)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2014

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2010

    First-class biography

    Excellent biography of a fascinating early-mid 20th century Renaissance Man-brilliant financier, scientist and patriot. A must for those interested in the early history of the Manhattan Project, American applied physics and technology. Also, a good insight into the mores of wealthy WASPs who lived in Tuxedo Park, NY

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2004

    How The WASPS Prosper

    This is a book that combines an interesting description of life in the 1920's and 1930's with a boring, superficial recitation of Alfred Loomis's involvement with science. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Loomis was extremely wealthy (so as to buy his way into scientific circles) because of family connections and because he engaged in insider trading during the 20's and got out just before the Crash. For instance, Mr. Loomis was stationed at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds during WWI because he was a relative of the Secretary of Defense so a phone call was made.... The author (another relative) justifies Loomis's conduct before the Crash because 'Nothing he did was illegal.' But after the Crash, laws were passed to specifically make what he did illegal. His story, then, is the same as Kenneth Lay with the difference that he has now had a glowing biography written about him. The author seems clueless as to all of this, and it hurts the book that she is apparently too close to the subject to be objective. As to the science, I don't feel the author has any real understanding of what science Loomis was involved in, and, as a consequence, she is unable to describe it to a lay reader. As a result, the latter part of the book reads like a series of press releases describing people running hither and thither. All and all, if you want to read about the science of this era, read 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb,' by Rhodes.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2002

    A good story...

    although a bit dry in some spots. There was a lot to be learned from this book such as how the political machinery was oiled in the 1940's, some basic physics and just who was Alfred Lee Loomis. Pretty fascinating material that might be a more interesting read as told in the roman a clef, Brain Waves and Death, written by Willard Rich (a pseudonym), James B. Conant's brother-in-law, which is essentially the original story of what went on at Tuxedo Park including the eventual suicide of its author.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2002

    A little-known amateur of science

    A fascinating story about a fascinating man and his little-known accomplishments. He had wealth and social cachet, he had the curiosity of a true science buff, he had great managerial and entrepreneurial ability, and he had almost limitless powers of persuasion, . On top of all that he had a commanding appearance, so handsome that Liam Neeson must surely play him in the movie. His history has been engagingly told by Jennet Conant, grandaughter of the "pasty-faced apothecary" who once ruled Harvard and contributed mightily to the Manhattan Project. If I give the book fewer than five stars, it is because I am less than persuaded by Ms. Conant's starry-eyed evaluation of her subject. For example, Chapter 3 deals with the decade of the 1920's, the years in which the foundations of modern physics were being laid. Yet the words'quantum mechanics' do not appear anywhere in the text of this chapter nor even in the index. Absent quantum mechanics, I find it hard to regard Loomis as a true physicist; rather he was a gifted tinkerer or gadgeteer in the classical mode. In particular, despite Ms. Conant, he will not bear comparison with the greatest of all science amateurs, John William Strutt, Third Baron of Rayleigh. The essential difference is that Loomis does not seem to have known any mathematics, without which no true physicist can function, whereas Lord Rayleigh was an applied mathematician of genius as well as a great experimentalist.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2002

    Great Story -- Dull Telling

    I doubt very seriously that without her family's obvious connections this author's work would have seen the light of day. A mediocre handling of a potentially marvelous story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2002

    For those who love history, but hate the historians way of telling it.

    I was OBSESSED with the purchase of this book, since seeing the author on tv (i am not an avid reader). The fact that the author is related to the parties in this amazing, but untold, piece of history even made me want to read it more. Ms. Conant writes in such a way as not to get bogged down in scientific writing, but in the personal tale of her family and those involved. This is the story about the truely gifted and patriotic bunch of genius' drawn together to twart one of the worst regimes in history. Here you see the formation of the secret lab at Tuxedo Park, and while everyone knows Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Robert Oppenheimer; hopefully after this book we will now remember James Conant, and Alfred Lee Loomis. I cannot remember the last book i actually devoured like this. My highest compliments to the author for getting me away from the tv, and into the quiet world of reading this page turner. thanks Nancy Mac

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2002

    Great for an alternative look at WW2

    For people like me, who enjoy seeng the war from various points of view, this is a great book. Buy it, read it, and enjoy!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2007

    Microwaves, Radar, Cyclotrons and affairs, Wow!!

    This is well documented, otherwise it would be unbelievable. I especially love the story of the actual trip of English radar parts 'the Tizard Mission' and the accidental discovery on how to get more energy from the magnitron. This personal touch about icons and their developements before and during WW II makes the book priceless. Alfred Loomis, a millionaire broker and lawyer, dabbled in science. He did the ground work for today's technology, radar, atomic energy, GPS. He collected friends, especially, European scientists, and would pay them to live at his expense, while they conducted experiments at Tuxedo Park. Before WW II, he was already published in medical, astronomy and physics journals. The book lists 5 pages of his publications and patents. He was able to foresee what our needs would be during WW II. He had to fight the military in getting them to accept that radar was needed. Then he presented the concept of radar in planes and on ships. When he went to Europe, he made connections that helped save the British Isles and for us to fight a successful war on two fronts. Not only did Loomis bring the scientific community together, but helped this community to stay focused on their own projects, in spite of jealousy or another project looking like it would be more fun. After the first two chapters, Conent is business-like in writing a book of this magnitude. She does an excellent job of explainning the importance of the work in layman's language most of the time. Conant's writing is uneven at first, because she seems to be trying to establish her creditals as a family member and her social status with Alfred Loomis. In this you can see the bad effects from writing for GQ, Vanity Fair, etc. Conent also tries to tell this story centered around a scientist relative, who killed himself. It greatly improves after she gets into the account. Hornfischer, author of 'The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors', is really impressed on how the ships' guns were controlled by a computer that read the radar. This is one of the projects that Alfred Loomis helped fund from his own bank account. Because of Loomis' financial connections, he was able to talk General Electric, Bell Laboratories and othe big companies to both fund and finish developing projects.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2002

    A story of a private individual ,whose contributions to science influence the outcome of the Second World War.

    This books reveals the significantimpact Alfred Lee Loomis had on the outcome of Word War II. He gathered together the most brilliant scientic minds of the times to explore the development and use of new weapons of war. His private funding and the promoting of scientific research within the scientific community had a great impact on World War II. As a distant cousin, I am pleased to see that his story is now coming to light.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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