Model Machines

Beckman instrumentation covers, 1948 through c.1970s.

Beckman instrumentation covers, 1948 through c.1970s. (CHF Instrumentation Manuals Collection)

Images in advertising have a seductive power: they can be used to sell an idea or to disguise the lack of one. Ad images must evolve, or go stale with time. For evidence, examine this series of advertising covers produced by Beckman Instruments for the various iterations of its pH meter, one of the company’s early triumphs and a signature product originally designed by Arnold Beckman at the request of lemon growers who wished to accurately test the acidity of their lemons.

First up is the oldest Beckman ad in our archives. The 1948 cover for the Model G is very much of its time, as shown by its heightened realism and depiction of a chemist at work surrounded by the tools of his trade. The chemist is serious, concerned; he’s the sort of person who relies on the Model G to see his job through to a successful conclusion. Want to be like him? Then consider using a Model G—or so the ad implies.

The next cover is from the early to mid-1950s and was created for a Model G parts catalog. It eliminates the human element entirely to concentrate on the instrument itself. But rather than depicting the machine in mouth-watering detail, it offers us a sort of ghostly schematic—an outline of an idea. This brochure is all about the purchase of spare or replacement parts for the fabulous instrument showcased in the previous ad. 

Jump ahead to the 1960s—Beckman now offers an entire line of pH meters. This is the instrumentation equivalent of Howard Johnson’s ice-cream trademark “28 Flavors”; so rather than highlight any one instrument, the company offers an image that is purely symbolic and wholly in tune with the emerging trends of pop and op art. Although the color scheme is subdued, the basic image—an electrode coming into contact with the substance to be analyzed—is punchy enough to attract and hold attention.

Our final pH-meter cover is for yet another product-line catalog, this one from 1974. Here Beckman switched from artwork to photograph. In Harry Brown’s novel A Walk in the Sun (1944) two G.I.s debate whether a photograph is superior to a Norman Rockwell painting. The Beckman marketing team seems to have picked a side; instead of artwork depicting earnest-looking scientists, we see a “Mount Beckman” in which the lowly hand-held pHISTOL pH meter occupies the foothills while the majestic Century SS-I pH meter basks upon the heights. Artistic lighting provides a halo effect, and the end result is one of somber authority.

We conclude our tour with a pair of unrelated Beckman ad covers, probably from the 1970s, one depicting the company’s infrared exhaust analyzer and the other the Model 24 and 25 UV spectrophotometers. Beckman’s advertising materials tended to be a little more conservative than those of its competitors, who featured luscious color photography and comely young lab assistants. Although Beckman added color and even a slight “solarization effect”—the reverse negative made popular by Man Ray—the final products retain a businesslike sensibility. It’s all about the instrument.


Andrew Mangravite is archivist for CHF’s Othmer Library of Chemical History.