A Measure of Success

A Finnigan Instrument Corporation Model 1015 GC/MS/DS.

A Finnigan Instrument Corporation Model 1015 GC/MS/DS. From left to right: a minicomputer from Digital Equipment; part of the quadrupole mass spectrometer; the remainder of the mass spectrometer electronics console and gas chromatograph. Image courtesy of Robert Finnigan.

It was here that Finnigan saw a special advantage for the quadrupole mass spectrometer: its mode of operation made it particularly suited to control by a minicomputer. Finnigan believed a computerized GC/MS using quadrupole technology would provide both speed and power. When he failed to convince EAI to back an effort to develop such a product, he created a new organization to build the new instrument: the Finnigan Instrument Corporation, established in January 1967.

By early 1968 Finnigan’s company delivered prototype quadrupole GC/MS instruments to Lederberg’s Stanford lab and to the chemistry department at Purdue University. Within months the firm had introduced a fully computerized GC/MS. The instrument, with its advanced quadrupole mass spectrometer and customized minicomputer and software, cost $100,000. Despite its sophistication, power, and speed, only one order was delivered in 1969. Finnigan’s start-up would quickly fail unless he convinced potential customers that it made sense to buy a new form of instrument with a dedicated computer. Enter the EPA.

Scientists at the EPA had just begun an arduous process to determine which instruments and measurement methods would be used to construct and enforce pollution-control regulations. These instruments and methods would become the standard adopted by government, industry, and courts. Finnigan saw his future in a marriage between environmental regulation and his computerized GC/MS: it could rapidly and assuredly identify and quantify the organic compounds of greatest concern to the EPA. Following an intense courtship by Finnigan and his coworkers, in 1971 EPA scientists placed an order for 20 computerized GC/MS instruments for evaluation. This promising beginning blossomed after a 1975 article by an EPA scientist praised the computerized GC/MS for reducing thousands of man-hours to a single day’s work. Soon the EPA selected the computerized GC/MS as an approved way of measuring pollutants, and courts responded by accepting evidence from these instruments. Both government and industrial organizations bought and used the computerized GC/MS in rapidly increasing numbers in the 1980s.

By the 2000s computerized GC/MS instruments using quadrupole technology had become both essential to chemical research and one of the foremost instruments used for organic analysis. Today computerized GC/MS instruments are widely used in environmental monitoring of water, air, and soil; in the regulation of agriculture and food safety; and in the discovery and production of medicines. Looking back on the story of computerized GC/MS and quadrupole technology, Finnigan is still astonished by his unlikely journey from cold war military research to environmental protection.

David C. Brock is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Contemporary History and Policy, and co-author of Makers of the Microchip: A Documentary History of Fairchild Semiconductor (MIT Press, 2010). An expanded version of this essay is on dcbrock.net.