Gary Loomis Interview Part 1 - The Legend Lives (much to our relief)
The Birth of Graphite: Gary Loomis wasn’t the first person to bring the material we all know as graphite into the fishing industry but he played a major role in the beginning years of its use.
“Fenwick introduced the first graphite rod at the 1973 AFTMA show in Chicago,” Loomis said. “I saw those first prototype rods and instantly fell in love with them. They were lighter, stiffer and more sensitive than anything I had ever felt before in my life. I knew we needed to move in that direction at Lamiglas but the owners didn’t agree with my vision. So, like any good employee, I didn’t listen to them and started on my quest to learn all I could about the new material. My first R&D budget for the development of a graphite rod was $250 and by the time I spent that, I’d convinced Lamiglas it was a worthwhile venture to chase. My next budget was for $5,000 but the catch was I had to have six different rods ready for the next year’s AFTMA show. That’s where the first hurdle started.
Gary Loomis is an avid steelhead fisherman and it was the pursuit of these fish that lead him into the rod building industry.
“I went to the Seattle library to see what I could find about the material and only found one article. It was pretty vague, but mentioned that it was being worked on at Boeing (the airplane company formerly based out of Seattle)” he said. “So I went to the Boeing employee gate and asked every individual coming in and going out if they knew about or knew of someone who knew about graphite.
“Without finding anyone the first day I went again the next day,” he added. “As I stood at the gate that day, an employee who had seen me the day before saw me and said, 'weren't you here yesterday?' ‘Yep, and I'll be here tomorrow.’ The employee told me that I should go to the other gate where a majority of the engineers went through. I went to that gate and found a gentleman by the name of Harry Mathison. He was one of four composite engineers in the world at that time and he agreed to talk with me about graphite.
“I took him to dinner that first time and then breakfast, and then lunch and this went on for days until I convinced him to help me design some rods. He got some more engineers involved and we set forth to develop the only large-scale deflection program in the world for graphite tubes. You see, the material was still so new, and was only being used to make airplane wings, that a tube deflection code had yet to be developed for graphite.
“In order to make the code, we had to make a number of different graphite tubes, break test them and then enter the data into the code,” he said. “This would allow us to design different blanks on the computer prior to actually making them in order to see how they would flex under strain.
“Six months later (in 1974) we had the deflection code and 32 models of rods – unfortunately they weren’t as light or felt as good as the original rods I’d seen from Fenwick,” he said. “Instead of being 6-times lighter than the same type of glass rods, ours were 3-times lighter. What I didn’t know at the time was Fenwick was having major breakage problems with their blanks.
“Our time and money spent on developing the deflection code ended up putting us way ahead of the game when it came to graphite rod construction,” he said. “Our rods may not have been as light as Fenwick’s but they didn’t break.
“The trouble Fenwick was having was; one, they didn’t enlist a composite engineer to help with the design of the blanks and, two, they didn’t realize that graphite, although 6-times lighter than glass was only half as strong. Therefore, when they reduced the weight by six they actually decreased the strength of the rod by 12.
“Back then Fenwick was considered the God of the rod industry and here we are at AFTMA trying to convince people that graphite was a superior material to glass. Unfortunately, Fenwick’s breakage problems were working against us because of their reputation in the industry. That entire first year we debuted the rods I wasn’t trying to sell rods – I was trying to sell graphite. So at the show in order to prove the strength of our rods, I made a little durability test for people to try out.
“What I did was make a 6-inch by 6-inch box out of plywood and I placed 5 pounds of lead in it,” he said. “I closed up the box and attached a swivel to the top. Then I took one of our 9-foot, 8-weight fly rods (with reel and line) and when someone would come to our booth, I’d hand them the rod and tell them if they can guess how much weight was in the box by lifting it up with the rod, they’d win the entire combo at the end of the show.
“That week, Wednesday through Sunday, I had over 800 people attempt the challenge. Eighty-percent of the people who tried couldn’t budge the box, 20 percent could barely lift the box and maybe only 1 percent could lift it.
“Then late on Sunday afternoon a big, tall gentleman came up to the booth, I showed him the rod and challenged him to lift the box. He felt the rod and handed it back to me saying, ‘nice rod.’ I said, ‘no, you have to lift the weight with the rod.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to break your rod.’
“At that point I told him the rod would take 8 pounds of weight on the vertical and he asked me if I knew what vertical meant. I said, ‘I did,’ and challenged him again. By then we had 300 people gathered around us, and a $600 bet going, and still, unbeknownst to me, I didn’t realize who this gentleman was.
“He was having a little difficulty lifting the box so I told him I’d lift it if he needed help. That didn’t settle too well with him and he heaved with all his might and lifted the weight 5 feet off the ground. As he got the weight off the ground, he screamed, ‘this is a hell of a rod.’
“The gentleman turned out to be Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams – one of my childhood heroes. That year he bought 13 rods from me.”
“If graphite is designed and built with respect to the material and its properties, it is strong,” he said. “Because I had enlisted experts in the field of composites and structures, Lamiglas became the first rod manufacturer to make a reliable graphite rod.”