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 his months working at Baird as a self-described “glorified service man and assembler,” Waters read reports by teams sent into Germany by the U.S. government to uncover the technologies that had been developed by the Axis powers during the war. One account, of Karl Luft’s development of an infrared gas analyzer, captured his imagination. At the time Baird was also making an infrared gas analyzer, but Waters thought Luft’s invention was a more selective detector. Waters decided: “This is my opportunity—all I have to do is reduce the Luft technology to American practice and I’m in business.” He soon found that goal was easier said than met.

He decided to leave Baird and start his own company, J. L. Waters, with the $5,000 he had saved and an additional $14,000 lent to him by family members. He set up shop in the basement of his parent’s house in Framingham, but when he hired his first employee his mother forced him to find new quarters for the business, and he leased an empty room in a local hardware store.

Finally Waters succeeded in his design, and he sold his first infrared analyzer to DuPont. The second unit was purchased by the Naval Research Laboratory for the detection of toxic gases such as carbon monoxide on submarines. He attracted a major ally, Mine Safety Appliances (MSA), by word of mouth in 1949. Wanting to enter the gas analyzer business but having problems in R&D, MSA formed an alliance with Waters’s fledgling company: J. L. Waters, Inc., continued to do the research and manufacturing while MSA sold the products. In 1955 Waters made a shrewd deal to sell his still unprofitable company to MSA for $200,000, 15 years of royalties at 3%, and a three-year contract as a consultant. He used this time to plan his next enterprise, one that would quickly become profitable and live on under his name for many years to come.

The Humble Start of Waters Associates

Waters took his earnings from the sale of J. L. Waters and, in September 1958, established Waters Associates without a product to sell. He rehired five of his former employees—mostly technicians without college degrees—and operated out of a rented space in a former police station. Some early projects included a balloon hydrometer for the U.S. Air Force; a flame photometer for Consolidated Edison; and a conoblender for the Coca-Cola Company. (Specifically, the latter instrument’s purpose was to blend the high-sugar-content, highly viscous Coca-Cola syrup with water while measuring the mixture’s refractive index [RI] to assure uniformity.) Although the process-control instrumentation market wasn’t particularly lucrative, Waters gained valuable experience that made his breakthrough into chromatography possible. At first Waters had licensed his sensitive RI process monitor to MSA, but he wisely acquired it back later. He also lured Larry Maley from MSA to become the first Waters sales manager. Together they embarked in earnest on the refractometer business.

In 1962 John Moore, a polymer chemist at Dow Chemical in Freeport, Texas, was told about the novel design of the Waters refractometer by his engineering colleagues and called the company to request a custom unit with unusual specifications. He wanted a flow cell with one-tenth the standard volume that could operate at 130°C—purportedly for use with orthodichlorobenzene. Waters knew that orthodichlorobenzene was a liquid at room temperature and argued that a smaller volume was not necessary for process control, but Dow’s money talked, and Waters made the modification.

Several months later curiosity consumed Waters, and he sent Maley to Freeport to learn what Moore was doing with his modified refractometer. With patent applications filed just days earlier, Moore was free to describe his homemade instrument and new technique: he had synthesized controlled-porosity cross-linked polystyrene-divinylbenzene beads and packed them into columns. When a dissolved polymer sample was injected into the column, the larger molecules could not penetrate the pores and thus moved more quickly; the smaller molecules entered the pores and therefore took longer to emerge. The resulting chromatogram represented a molecular size distribution of the sample components that could be correlated with their molecular weights. Moore called his process gel permeation chromatography (GPC). His work with synthetic polymers in organic solvents had been inspired by the classic work in Sweden by Jerker Porath and Per Flodin on aqueous gel filtration separations of biopolymers.