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Arnold Beckman

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Arnold Beckman

Arnold Orville Beckman
Knott's Berry Farm in July 1970
Born (1900-04-10)April 10, 1900
Cullom, Illinois
Died May 18, 2004(2004-05-18) (aged 104)
La Jolla, California
Nationality American
Fields Physical Chemistry
Institutions Caltech,
Beckman Instruments
Alma mater University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
California Institute of Technology
Doctoral advisor Roscoe G. Dickinson
Notable awards Vermilye Medal (1987)

National Medal of Technology (1988)

National Medal of Science (1989)

Presidential Citizens Medal (1989)

Bower Award (1992)
Public Welfare Medal (1999)

Arnold Orville Beckman (April 10, 1900 – May 18, 2004) was an American industrialist, investor, inventor, chemist, and philanthropist. He founded Beckman Instruments based on his 1934 invention of the pH meter, a device for measuring acidity. He also funded the first transistor company, thus giving rise to Silicon Valley.

Early life

Beckman was born in Cullom, Illinois, the son of a blacksmith. He was curious about the world from an early age. When he was nine, Beckman found an old chemistry textbook and began trying out the experiments. His father encouraged his scientific interests by letting him convert a toolshed into a laboratory.

World War I was still raging when Beckman turned 18, and so in August 1918, he enlisted in the United States Marines. After his basic training, he was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to await transit to the war in Europe. Fortunately for him, the war ended in November, 1918, and he did not have to fight in France. By another stroke of luck, he missed being sent to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks by one space in line. Instead, he spent that Thanksgiving at the local YMCA, where his table was served by 17-year-old Mabel Meinzer, who became his wife.


Beckman attended the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1922 and his master's degree in physical chemistry in 1923. While attending the University of Illinois, he was initiated into Zeta Chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma in 1921[1] and the Gamma Alpha Graduate Scientific Fraternity in December 1922. He joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity.

Beckman decided to go to Caltech for his doctorate. He stayed there for a year, but decided to return to New York and his fiancée, Mabel, who was working as a secretary for the Equitable Life Assurance Society. He found a job with Western Electric's engineering department, the precursor to the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

At Western Electric, Beckman developed quality control programs for the manufacture of vacuum tubes and learned about circuit design. It was here that Beckman discovered his interest in electronics.

Beckman married Mabel on June 10, 1925. The following year, the couple moved back to California and Beckman resumed his studies at Caltech. He became interested in ultraviolet photolysis and worked with his doctoral advisor, Roscoe G. Dickinson, on an instrument to find the energy of ultraviolet light. It worked by shining the ultraviolet light onto a thermocouple, converting the incident heat into electricity, which drove a galvanometer. After receiving his doctorate in 1928, Beckman was asked to stay on at Caltech as an instructor and then as a professor.

Beckman, and his family then built a home in Altadena, in the foothills and adjacent to Pasadena. They lived in Altadena for over twenty seven years raising their family.

During his time at Caltech, he worked at times with Linus Pauling, who had the same doctoral advisor, Roscoe G. Dickinson.

pH Meter

Beckman's interest in electronics made him very popular within the chemistry department, as he was very skilled in building measuring instruments. He also shared his expertise with glass-blowing by teaching classes in the machine shop. With the blessing of Robert Millikan, Caltech's president, Beckman began accepting outside consulting work.

One of his clients wanted an ink that would not clog. Beckman's solution was to make it with butyric acid, a very noxious substance. Because of this ingredient, no manufacturer wanted to manufacture it, so Beckman decided to make it himself. He hired two Caltech students to help him, and started the National Inking Appliance Company. At first, he tried marketing it as a way to re-ink typewriter ribbons, but this approach was not successful.

Another client, Sunkist, was having problems with its own manufacturing process. The lemons that were not saleable as produce were made into pectin or citric acid, with sulfur dioxide used as a preservative. Sunkist needed to know what the acidity of the product was at any given time, and the methods then in use, such as litmus paper, were not working well.

Beckman invented the pH meter in 1935. Originally called the acidimeter, the pH meter is an important device for measuring the pH of a solution. The pH meter weighed in at nearly 7 kg. The earliest meter had a design glitch, In that the pH readings changed with the depth of immersion of the electrodes. Beckman fixed this problem by sealing the glass bulb of the electrode.


During World War II, there was a critical shortage of rubber. The Office of Rubber Reserve met secretly in Detroit with Robert Brattain of the Shell Development Company, Arnold O. Beckman, and R. Bowling Barnes of American Cyanamid. Beckman Instruments produced the Beckman IR-1 spectrophotometer in 1942 specifically for the Rubber Reserve. Approximately 75 IR-1s were made between 1942 and 1945 for use by the U.S. synthetic-rubber effort. The researchers were not allowed to publish or discuss anything related to the new machines until after the war.[2]


In 1955, Beckman established the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to fund William Shockley's research into semiconductor technology. Because Shockley's aging mother lived in Palo Alto, Shockley established the laboratory in nearby Mountain View, California. Thus, Silicon Valley was born.

Later years

During his later years, Beckman lived in Corona del Mar near Newport Beach, California. He was an active philanthropist through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. To date, the Foundation has given more than 400 million dollars to various charities and organizations. Donations chiefly went to scientists and scientific causes as well as his alma maters. He is the namesake of The Beckman Institute and the Beckman Quadrangle at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the namesake of the Beckman Institute, Beckman Auditorium, Beckman Laboratory of Behavioral Sciences, and Beckman Laboratory of Chemical Synthesis at the California Institute of Technology.

Beckman and his family also sponsored the creation of the Arnold O. Beckman High School in Irvine, California.

Beckman's history and the unique Heritage Center is located at the Beckman Coulter headquarters in Brea, California.

He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976.[3] Beckman was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1985.[4] In 1987, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[5] Beckman was awarded the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1999.[6] He was also inducted into the Alpha Chi Sigma Hall of Fame in 1996.[1]

See also


External links

  • His company's website
  • His philanthropic foundation's website
  • Obituary from Caltech's Engineering and Science Quarterly/articles/Arnold_Orville_Beckman&action=edit§ion=7
  • Arnold O. Beckman High School Website

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