The Chemical Educator, Vol. 6, No. 2, S1430-4171(01)02472-9, 10.1007/s00897010472a, © 2001 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
Arnold O. Beckman: One Hundred Years of Excellence. By Arnold Thackray and Minor Myers, Jr. Special folio volume in the Chemical Heritage Foundation Series in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Includes CD-ROM video. Chemical Heritage Foundation: Philadelphia, PA, 2000. Illustrations. xvii + 379 pp, 23.8 ´ 28.8 cm. $65.00, hardcover. ISBN 0-941901-23-8.
On April 7–8, 2000 the California Institute of Technology commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Beckman Institute on the Pasadena campus with a two-day, four-session symposium dubbed the “Beckmanfest,” featuring a dozen speakers, including a Nobel chemistry laureate (Thomas R. Cech), discussing cutting-edge research and developments at the point where chemistry and biology interact. Each session featured two well-known researchers, whose presentations were separated by that of a Beckman Young Investigator (Since its founding in 1991, the Beckman Young Investigator program has supported the work of 150 fledgling scientists). Also, a gala dinner was held on April 10 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the chemist–inventor–entrepreneur–philanthropist whose gifts to Caltech have shaped the campus in profound ways. Beckman’s centennial birthday was also commemorated by the publication of a profusely illustrated, luxurious, oversized volume that documents the life and achievements of a man who has literally become a legend in his own time.
Arnold Orville Beckman was born on April 10, 1900 in the small farming community of Cullom, Illinois, the son of blacksmith George W. Beckman and Elizabeth Ellen Beckman (née Jewkes). His mother inculcated in him the importance of disciplined effort in achieving success, a trait that became a characteristic of his life and career, and chores were a regular part of home life. At the age of nine Arnold, nicknamed “Hoot” by his friends, found a copy of Joel Dorman Steele’s Fourteen Weeks in Chemistry, and he became hooked on “the central science.” For his tenth birthday, his father built him a small “shop” behind the house for his chemistry experiments. At the age of twelve, Arnold became a grocery clerk and “resident chemist” in a general store, where he was the “official cream tester.” In 1912 Arnold’s mother died, and in 1914 his father moved the family to Normal, Illinois so that the children (Arnold, his older half-brother Fred, and younger sister Wilma) could acquire a better education. A year later they moved to nearby Bloomington, Illinois. While attending University High School in Normal, where he took a number of college-level chemistry courses, Arnold earned money as a consulting analytical chemist at Bloomington’s Union Gas & Electric Company (he had business cards printed, and his home laboratory became “Bloomington Research Laboratories,” of which he was “Chief Scientist”). He also had a regular job as movie-house pianist for silent films, and he had his own dance band. In 1918 he graduated as valedictorian with the highest average ever attained by a University High student.
The United States had entered World War I, and in August 1918 Beckman joined the U.S. Marines and spent three months in boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina before reporting to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a major embarkation point for troops headed for Europe. His train arrived late, another contingent had sailed in place of his unit, and the
Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. After eating a Thanksgiving Day dinner, his unit was ordered to attend a second dinner arranged by the Red Cross to honor Marines returning from France; because of the high casualty rate, not enough men had returned to fill the tables. Here he met and fell in love at first sight with 17-year-old Mabel S. Meinzer of Brooklyn, who was helping her mother serve food. As Beckman later said, “Luck has played a big role in my life—finding a chemistry textbook and meeting my wife through lucky circumstance.” The two lovers did not become engaged until four and a half years later or marry until six and a half years later when Beckman had established himself financially, but their romance continued by frequent correspondence.
Beckman was discharged from the service in January 1919. That summer he hopped a freight train and earned money in Ashton, Idaho, where he played the piano in a theater. In the fall he enrolled in the University of Illinois intending to become an organic chemist, but he developed an extreme sensitivity to organic mercury compounds, a project assigned to him by Carl Shipp (“Speed”) Marvel, so he switched his major. He received his B.S. degree in chemical engineering in 1922 and his M.S. degree in physical chemistry in 1923.
Attracted to the West and determined not to get all his training at one school, Beckman decided to pursue his doctorate at the California Institute of Technology, then a very new and very small institution. However, he longed for Mabel, whom he had seen only once since they first met. In 1924 he abandoned his graduate studies to find a well-paying job in New York and to be near Mabel. After a single interview he received an offer of a job as a chemist at Standard Oil of New Jersey’s Bayonne, New Jersey refinery.
However, fate again intervened (Beckman described his life as a mixture of “pluck and luck”). He arranged to meet and “chew the fat” in New York with Todd Nies, a former Caltech student who was employed at Western Electric’s Engineering Department, later to become the most famous of all industrial research laboratories—Bell Laboratories. Nies introduced him
to a colleague, Walter Andrew Stewhart, later known as the father of statistical quality control. One of Beckman’s special gifts has been his uncanny ability to sense the “sweet spot” where excellence and opportunity come together. He became Stewhart’s first technical employee in the new Inspection Engineering Department of Bell Laboratories, where he spent two years (1924–1926) learning about electronic technology, the vacuum tube, and statistical quality control in manufacturing (considered by some to be “a third wave of the Industrial Revolution”) and the structure of research and development as practiced in the most renowned of industrial research centers. Less than a decade later, he would make the “marriage of chemistry and electronics” a reality. In Beckman’s words, “If I’d never gone to Bell Labs, I might not have developed any interest in electronics.”
On June 10, 1925 Beckman married Mabel in Bayside, Long Island, and in the fall of 1926 he returned to Caltech. During their cross-country trip he improved his Model T Ford by placing a bicycle valve through the gas cap to solve a problem encountered when climbing hills. In 1928 he received his Ph.D. degree for research on the photochemical decomposition of hydrazine, supervised by Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson. In the course of related work on hydrogen azide he invented a quartz-fiber manometer, resulting in his first scientific publication (J. Optical Soc. Amer. 1928, 16, 276–277). On September 18, 1928 he received his first patent (U.S. 1,684,659)—for a “signaling device” that could be attached to a car’s speedometer that would buzz when a preset speed had been reached.
Almost immediately after earning his doctorate, Beckman was appointed an instructor at Caltech, and a year later, assistant professor. Although he continued his photochemical research and was becoming known as a master of experimental apparatus and instrumentation, his primary interest lay in teaching. Still he found time to act as a scientific and technical consultant and expert scientific witness. In 1934 he began to advise the National Postal Meter Company of Los Angeles, which on November 26, 1934 established a subsidiary company called the National Inking Appliance Company, with Beckman as vice president. He received his second (Inking
Reel, U.S. Patent 2,038,706, April 28, 1936) and third (Inking Device, U. S. Patent 2,041,740, May 26, 1936) patents.Because Mabel was unable to have children, the Beckmans adopted Gloria Patricia (“Patty”) and Arnold Stone (“Arnie”) in 1936 and 1937, respectively.
Beckman’s next inventionnot only revolutionized chemistry in a number of ways but also changed the course of his life. Glen Joseph, a chemist at the California Fruit Growers Exchange laboratory who had been a former business manager of The Illinois Chemist, the University of Illinois magazine that Beckman had edited during his senior year, turned to Beckman for help in getting consistent measurements of the acidity of lemon juice as part of his research on by-product processes. The sulfur dioxide used as a preservative bleached litmus paper and “poisoned” the hydrogen electrode, and the sensitive galvanometer used to measure the current produced by the glass electrode often failed. Beckman substituted a rugged vacuum tube for the galvanometer to amplify the current so that a sturdier, glass electrode could be used. Beckman had again illustrated his dictum, “When you’re faced with the necessity to do something, that’s a stimulus to invention.” In his words, “If Dr. Joseph hadn’t come in with his lemon-juice problem, chances are I never in the world would have thought about making a pH meter.”
Beckman’s “acidimeter” (U.S. Patent 2,058,761, filed June 8, 1934, issued October 27, 1936), later called the pH meter, was revolutionary in two ways: the highly sensitive amplifier was an electronic innovation, and his idea of building an integrated chemistry instrument around it was also new. For the first time scientists could buy a portable, precision instrument and immediately make quick, simple, and reliable measurements that required no expertise in chemistry or electronics, leaving them free to focus on discoveries instead of tinkering with wires and meters. Its advent marked the “opening commercial move” in the 20th century’s instrumentation revolution that has “made the research frontier ever more accessible to ever greater numbers of investigators and that has made possible the exponential growth of scientific knowledge.”
On April 8, 1935 National Inking Appliance Company became National Technical Laboratories (NTL) to signify its change from reliance on one product to a program resulting in novel commercial products. In 1939 Beckman resigned his Caltech professorship and began his career as a full-time instrument maker and entrepreneur, and instrument after instrument flowed from his creative, problem-solving imagination. During World War II he responded to the war effort by providing vital parts for radar and the Manhattan Project and by producing many critical innovations, most of them involving light. The Beckman DU spectrophotometer, which appeared in 1942, was “the first ready-to-use tool for determining the makeup of a given substance by analyzing the appearance of its absorption spectrum. It was a key ingredient in what historians have called the “second chemical revolution” (the first originating in 1789 with Lavoisier’s antiphlogiston chemistry) by making available powerful analytical techniques to increasing numbers of scientists so that complex, delicate measurements that had once required hours or days to perform could now be made in minutes with one instrument. It found application in the wartime projects producing penicillin, TNT, and synthetic rubber. Nobel chemistry laureate R. Bruce Merrifield called the DU “probably the most important instrument ever developed toward the advancement of bioscience.”
The DU was focused on the ultraviolet region of the spectrum, and at the request of the Office of Rubber Reserve, Beckman built infrared spectrophotometers (IR-1 to IR-4) for the synthetic rubber program. MIT’s Radiation Laboratory needed potentiometers for its radar systems, and Beckman obliged with the “Helipot” (a contraction of helical potentiometer), and he established the Helipot Corporation as a separate, subsidiary company. Wartime Beckman inventions for the Manhattan Project were the micro-microammeter (an outgrowth of the pH meter amplifier) and a quartz fiber dosimeter. He also formed a new corporation, Arnold O. Beckman, Inc. to market his oxygen analyzer, modified from Linus Pauling’s earlier instrument, for submarines and high-flying aircraft, which found postwar application for monitoring oxygen levels in incubators for premature infants—a harbinger of the use of instruments in clinical and biomedical applications.
By the end of the war Beckman had created new instruments and companies, fulfilled government contracts and expectations, entered the electronics market, and greatly expanded the production of his inventions. He now diversified and opened new and larger plants producing additional cutting-edge instruments and accessories such as mass spectrometers, mobile air quality laboratories, and automobile exhaust gas analyzers. On April 27, 1950 he renamed his main company Beckman Instruments Inc., which led the American instrumentation industry in experiencing the phenomena of spin-offs, job-hopping (several of his most important employees left to found their own firms), and entrepreneurship that characterize today’s new industries.
Beckman became a civic spokesman on science- and technology-related public issues. In 1954 he was appointed chairman of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce’s Air Pollution Committee. In 1955 he became vice president of the Chamber, and on January 25, 1956 he became president of the Chamber, where he focused his attention on air pollution, especially smog, and the “scientific-technical-industrial-educational nexus emerging in the region.” In 1967 he became president of the California Chamber of Commerce, and in 1970 President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to a 4-year membership on the Federal Air Quality Board, which brought Beckman national visibility.
Always on the cutting edge of economic and technological developments, Beckman became a global leader in instrumentation by opening an international subsidiary in Germany in 1953, followed by ones in Scotland, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Not all Beckman’s endeavors were successful. (He always said, “If you’re not taking risks, you’re probably not doing very much.”) Together with Caltech graduate and 1956 Nobel physics laureate William B. Shockley, Beckman formed the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories, a subsidiary of Beckman Instruments, to manufacture silicon semiconductors. The venture was unsuccessful (Beckman always insisted, “I’m a teacher, not a businessman”), but by locating the firm alongside Hewlett-Packard in the Stanford Industrial Park, it initiated the chain of events leading to the birth of Silicon Valley and the U.S. semiconductor, computer, and Internet industry. The Beckman Systems Division, formed in 1957, long before computers were common, manufactured computer systems to deal with the vast amounts of data telemetered back to Earth from satellites and unmanned spacecraft. Other new Beckman instruments were the gas chromatograph and his Spinco Division’s analytical centrifuge.
In 1964 Beckman became chairman of the Caltech Board of Trustees, and in 1965 he resigned his presidency of Beckman Instruments but remained as chairman of its board of directors. For the next quarter century he developed inventions of excellence in science, public service, and philanthropy. In 1953 he had become the first Caltech alumnus to serve on its board of trustees, and in 1964 he became chairman of the board. In the latter year, the inaugural concert of the Beckman Auditorium, constructed through his and Mabel’s gift of one million dollars, was held, and in 1974, the year in which Beckman became a Caltech life trustee, the Beckmans donated six million dollars for the construction of the Mabel and Arnold Beckman Laboratories of Behavioral Biology.
In 1981 Beckman retired from Beckman Instruments to devote himself full-time to philanthropy as head of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, which had been incorporated in September 1977 to “support basic scientific research, with an emphasis on the forward looking in chemistry, biochemistry, medicine, and instrumentation.” The foundation’s goal was to donate not only income from, but the entire capital base of, the Beckmans’ fortune during their lifetimes. Beginning in 1983 they made five “megagifts,” resulting in (1) the Beckman Research Institute, City of Hope National Medical Center, Duarte, CA (1983); (2) the Beckman Laser Institute, University of California, Irvine, CA (1986); (3) the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science & Technology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (1989); (4) the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine, Stanford University (1989); and (5) the Beckman Institute, California Institute of Technology (1989). According to Harry B. Gray, director of the Caltech Beckman Institute since its inception, “The Institute is a fitting monument to Arnold. We are not only committed to excellent research…, but also to the invention of methods and instruments to enhance research at the interface of chemistry and biology.” An additional institute was the Beckman Center of the Academies of Sciences and Engineering, a conference center at Irvine, California that brings together industrialists and academics to encourage the application of science and technology and that also houses the Beckman Foundation.
On June 1, 1989 Mabel Beckman, Arnold’s companion for 64 years who had always served as his advisor and sounding board, died of cancer, a painful blow for him. After recovering from a broken hip and his grief over Mabel’s death, he decided that the foundation should be “recast as a foundation in perpetuity, spending only its income.” In 1993, because of declining health and the burden of administering the foundation (He once quipped, “It is more difficult to give money away than it was to make it”), he retired, but he continues as chairman emeritus of the foundation, which now has an expanded board of directors. The centenarian’s daughter Pat currently lives with him at Mabel’s and his home in Corona Del Mar.
In addition to the major gifts mentioned above, the foundation made many smaller bequests, too numerous to mention, that totaled millions. However, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at what is now the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Frederick P. Beckman Lecture Room at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, Illinois deserve to be cited here, for Arnold Thackray and Minor Myers, Jr., the authors of the book under review, are president of the CHF and Illinois Wesleyan, respectively. The authors have chronicled in fantastic detail the fascinating Horatio Alger story of Beckman’s life—a tale that we have only had space to sketch briefly above. They record the life of a poor Midwestern youth, whose integrity, discipline, and drive combined with his natural talent and remarkable instinct for opportunity enabled him to become “a creative solver of direct scientific and technological challenges,” as 1962 Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine James D. Watson terms him in the foreword to this handsome volume. Most of our generation have grown up with Beckman’s ingenious products, and we can nod in recognition with Watson’s statement, “Measurements with pH meter and spectrophotometer soon became integral to my life. My first two purchases for my Harvard lab were Beckman instruments, whose accuracy and reliability I never had to question.”
Thackray and Myers have drawn on a wide range of source materials—scientific articles, the historical literature, corporate documents, unpublished papers and letters, oral histories, interviews, and photographs, and they have left no stone unturned in their effort to produce a complete and balanced portrait of the public and private figure who, more than anyone else, played a central role in the 20th century’s instrumentation revolution, in California life, and in science-oriented philanthropy. In example after example they successfully capture Beckman’s humorous, knowledgeable, and fundamentally modest personality. Intended for the general nonscientific reader, the book includes dozens of separate sections, highlighted in light green, that provide background material on persons, theories, techniques, instruments, institutions, companies, and other topics as they arise in the text. This profusely illustrated volume contains no fewer than 355 pictures—formal portraits and informal snapshots, maps, patents, buildings, laboratories, apparatus and equipment, instruments, newspaper clippings, magazine and book covers, documents, letters, architectural designs, automobiles, advertisements, announcements, bulletins, computer systems, posters, groundbreaking and award ceremonies, offices, and a host of other items to complement and supplement the text. Lists of selections of Beckman’s honors and awards, patents, and scientific publications, a note on sources and suggestions for further reading, and a 6-page (3 columns per page) index conclude this inspiring and informative volume. Considering its length, contents, and range, its relatively modest price makes it a real bargain.
The book is accompanied by a 14-minute movie narrated by his grandson Arne W. Beckman, which adds an audio dimension to the text and pictures, a vivid video portrait of Beckman in CD-ROM format for both Mac and PC. Produced by Jeffrey I. Seeman, editor of the critically acclaimed 22-volume American Chemical Society “Profiles, Pathways, and Dreams” series of biographies of organic chemists, it features the voice of Beckman himself speaking about his early life, his long partnership with Mabel, and his philosophies of research, inventorship, education, and philanthropy. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that a CD-ROM video has been included with a book-length biography. Because Beckman was the conceptual source of and financial support for the development of numerous new technologies, useful in so many disciplines of human endeavor, it is fitting that such state-of-the-art technology be part of his saga.
In many ways this book is similar to another recent Chemical Heritage Foundation volume, also coauthored by Arnold Thackray, Donald Frederick and Mildred Topp Othmer: A Commemorative of Their Lives and Legacies, but on a grander and more detailed scale. Thus, with a few alterations, our general evaluation of the earlier book (Kauffman, G. B.; Kauffman, L. M. The Chemical Educator 2000, 5 (4), 82–83) applies to the present volume: As the book vividly documents, Arnold O. Beckman was a prolific educator, inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. His numerous scientific and technological achievements ushered in the instrumentation revolution, and his legacy lives on through his instruments, the companies that he founded, the achievements of his students, and the institutes that he and his wife so generously endowed. Together, the Beckmans were an extremely devoted couple—devoted to each other, to their work, to their community, and to the advancement of humanity. Although Mabel did not live to see the book’s publication, it is indeed fortunate that Arnold has lived to witness the appearance of this unique 100th birthday present. It truly illustrates Beckman’s dictum that “There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence.” We highly recommend it to chemists and chemical engineers, historians of chemistry, chemical educators, entrepreneurs, and anyone concerned with the American and international chemical, scientific, and technological communities.