Waters Corporation: Fifty Years of Innovation in Analysis and Purification

A publicity photo for Waters Associates organic synthesis marketing program taken in Robert Burns Woodward's chromatography lab, 1973. Pictured are (from left to right) Helmut Hamburger, Josef F. K. Huber, James Waters, and Woodward, in front of the ALC-100 Analytical Liquid Chromatograph at right.

A publicity photo for Waters Associates organic synthesis marketing program taken in Robert Burns Woodward's chromatography lab, 1973. Pictured are (from left to right) Helmut Hamburger, Josef F. K. Huber, James Waters, and Woodward, in front of the ALC-100 Analytical Liquid Chromatograph at right.

In 1958 James Logan Waters began the right business at the right time. Fifty years later Waters Corporation celebrates its golden jubilee of innovation in the field of analytical chemistry. Landmark liquid chromatography products from the company James Waters founded have transformed the practice of chemistry in the 20th century and continue to lead the way toward solving the significant separation problems of tomorrow. Pat McDonald, a senior fellow in Chemistry Operations at Waters Corporation, offers this look back at the man and the enterprises behind fundamental developments that continue to shape the practice of liquid chromatography today.

James Logan Waters grew up a headstrong and independent child in Lincoln, Nebraska, during the Great Depression. “Once the drought came, everyone suffered,” recalled Waters in an oral history conducted in 2002 by the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Watching how well his parents dealt with those hard times must have forged in their future entrepreneur the strong moral fiber, work ethic, determination, and pleasant nature that have marked his life’s work.

Young Waters’s grades and attitude toward schoolwork steadily improved as he began to realize he had to achieve something meaningful to “feel good about himself.” Excited by a junior high school project that observed local city businesses, Waters remembers, “I’d already decided that I wanted to be in business for myself, but I didn’t know what business to choose. I think there was within me some great desire to do almost a little bit of everything.”

While a high school junior, Waters moved with his family to Framingham, Massachusetts, where his father became treasurer of the B&W Bus Line. By the time he graduated in 1943, Waters had saved $1,000 in earnings from two paper routes, one before dawn and one after school. He pursued his interest in science and math at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Soon after admission he entered the initial V-12 Navy College Training Program. Following his second MIT term, he transferred to Columbia University, where three years later, through an accelerated course of study, he earned a degree in both physics and engineering and a commission as a U.S. Navy ensign.

Two terms of humanities study at the University of Nebraska and an unsatisfying stint as an algebra teacher in Lincoln bookended Waters’s final navy tour of duty in the Pacific and his honorable discharge in California in early 1947. An all-day aptitude test for veterans correlated him best with two career groups: professors and ministers. Although Waters confessed, “I am a bit of a preacher,” he was unsure of what to do next and returned to Framingham to look for a job.

James Waters and His Earliest Enterprises

In 1948 one of Waters’s professors at MIT referred him to a contact at Baird Associates, an instrument manufacturer. Despite having no background in instrumentation, Waters was hired as an assistant to the project manager for Baird’s double-beam infrared spectrophotometer, the first of its kind, based on an exclusive license to the design by Norman Wright at the Dow Chemical Company. For organic chemists this instrumental technique proved more powerful than ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy for functional group identification and chemical structure elucidation; it drove the dramatic shift from traditional wet methods to modern instrumental analysis in the systematic identification of organic compounds.

Much to Waters’s disappointment, the management at Baird was not interested in refining the spectrophotometer’s design; it was viewed as a finished product, and the time had come to sell it. Although Baird had the only double-beam spectrophotometer for over two years, the company was nearly put out of business by Perkin Elmer, whose R&D in the meantime resulted in a more compact unit that sold far better. The lesson was not lost on Waters.