I have had a latent interest in amateur invention since I first read a book on Sir George Cayley. Cayley was a gentleman inventor, born in 1777 who practised his inventing on an estate in Cumbria that had been passed down through -six- generations of his family, along with his title.
Among his achievements were a fountain pen, a caterpillar track (for gardening), an aeroplane which it seems likely would have flown one hundred years before the Wright Brothers (Cayley died in 1857) had Cayley not half-killed too many of his butlers in prototypes so that none were willing to trial it.
He even confounded office clichés everywhere by literally re-inventing the wheel: using a hub and rim joined by spokes under tension he invented the wheel which is now common to most modern bicycles.
His particular interest in invention stemmed from the early encouragement of his mother. Recognising his ability and his interest in the mechanics of nature she encouraged young George to carry around a notebook and to record his observations. Early examples of his notetaking include a detailed analysis of the wings of a hummingbird – an early sign of his interest in flight.
The story of George Cayley is a seemingly purist tale of personal interest and exploration leading to creation and change. Somewhat luxuriously, Cayley’s explorations of science were disconnected from the market forces driving commercial discoveries and his ideas were permitted to gestate at their natural pace.
The story of Alfred Loomis is quite the opposite. Born to relative but not independent wealth, Loomis attended Harvard and then picked up the mantle of his family’s fortunes, starting out as a lawyer and then shortly after by forming a fund on Wall Street with a cousin and, as you might say, ‘cleaning up.’ Over the period of nine years they bought and held significant if not controlling interests in almost every major utility in America. During the Great Depression, Loomis’ personal wealth increased by nearly fifty million dollars.
Moving from a largely non-existent, middle class affluence to an extreme of money and influence in his forties, Loomis bought himself the freedom to explore his exuberant scientific interests – including entertaining and sponsoring the greatest scientists of his age, and procuring vast quantities of the most expensive equipment then available to mankind.
His extraordinary intellectual capabilities (which included the ability to play at least two chess games at once with his backed turned to both boards whilst maintaining a lively conversation with his dinner guests) allowed him to pick up a new field of science in a few short months. His incredible financial wealth and broad connections, facilitated the introductions he required to attract the finest scientific talent in each field to his personal laboratory at Tuxedo Park, just south of New York where his voracious appetite for advancement drove great leaps forward in each field in a short space, before his attention to turned to a new topic following which the money, equipment and scientists were parcelled off to a long term home such as Harvard or MIT.
Among his interests (and his most significant discoveries) number a venture into the short wave radio spectrum which led to advances in portable radar such that it could be mounted on ships and aeroplanes, early understandings of brain wave patterns during sleep, advancements in fusion technologies (in particular the cyclotrons capable of generating sufficient voltage to split an atom) that made the splitting of the atom a reality and ended the war.
Having worked with Thomas Edison during World War I, he took to heart Edison’s belief that the US should spend on the advancement of its weaponry in peacetime, in order to have it ready for the arrival of conflict. The pattern of news from Germany in the ‘30s redoubled this conviction in Loomis, in spite of the Roosevelt government’s passive stance towards Hitler. One of Loomis’s first acts of patriotism in this regard was to build a scaled down and improved tank which he used to drive to the train station to collect his guests. Henry Stimson (a long-time friend of Loomis and then Secretary fo State to Roosevelt) reportedly announced “This is how one protects the country” as they drove to the Loomis mansion in Tuxedo.
Tuxedo Park presents Loomis as a dispassionate and deeply scientific man. He seems without vanity and without extremes of emotion; cold yet luminary, his achievements have outlived his name in most areas of his life. This book, Tuxedo Park, is a reminder of Loomis’s incredible potency and yet it is the only mark of his face left on an earth otherwise deeply scarred by some of the most impressive and atrocious discoveries that he was part of, none more so than the atom bomb.
That he has largely fallen from record, a side note in the margins of a colourful and often re-written history of our early twentieth century wars, is a mark of his amateurism. He existed in the margins and that is where he has remained. Yet it is clear that he was not an amateur by any means, not in the romantic sense and certainly not in the derogatory sense. He was a brilliant inventor, a gifted financier and an arch power-broker: perhaps he could not have successfully been one without the others, but it seems doubtful that such advances could have been achieved without that rare and extraordinary blend of skills – advances that stopped the course of a war and changed the world we live in forever. If there was ever an argument for reading in the margins, Alfred Loomis was its embodiment.