Arnold O. Beckman
Arnold O. Beckman in 1991 at a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the Beckman DU spectrophotometer. Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections.
Close control of acidity is critical in the manufacture of many industrial products. Yet despite the introduction of the pH scale by Søren Sørensen in 1909, industrial chemists continued to use traditional color tests for acidity well into the 20th century. The first commercially successful electronic pH meter wasn’t invented until 1934, by Arnold O. Beckman (1900–2004), then an instructor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). A former classmate of his from the University of Illinois had the job of measuring the acidity of lemon juice for the California Fruit Growers’ Association and asked Beckman to devise a sturdier electrical instrument for the task.
To make his original pH meter sturdy, Beckman used the then recently invented vacuum tube. Although he was cautioned against starting a company to offer a $195 instrument to scientists struggling to keep laboratories going in the middle of the Depression, Beckman went ahead, and the firm was a success. Among its other early products were an ultraviolet spectrophotometer—the Beckman DU (1940)—and an infrared and visible spectrophotometer—the Beckman IR-1 (1942). Today Beckman Coulter (formerly Beckman Instruments) manufactures and markets instrument systems for conducting basic scientific research, new product research, and clinical diagnosis—and, of course, for students at all levels.
The Beckman G pH meter was produced from 1935 until 1950. At roughly 29 cm (about 11 inches) wide it is large by today’s standards, but measuring pH had required an entire benchtop of equipment before Beckman's first pH meter was introduced in 1934. CHF Collections.
In 1940 Arnold Beckman gave up his faculty position at Caltech, but he remained deeply involved with education and research, serving on Caltech’s board of trustees from 1953—as chairman from 1964 to 1974—and on the governing boards of several other colleges and universities. Through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the Beckmans contributed substantially to the advancement of education and research nationwide.
Among other contributions to our technological civilization, Beckman led the fight to diagnose and control the sources of air pollution that were, by the 1950s, making the air surrounding Los Angeles and other big cities around the world unhealthy to breathe. He also helped create Silicon Valley as the center of the semiconductor industry in the United States by his encouragement of William Shockley, an inventor of the transistor, and by the establishment in 1955 of Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories as a subsidiary of Beckman Instruments (see also N. Bruce Hannay and Gordon E. Moore).
For more on Arnold O. Beckman’s contributions, see the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation’s website, Revolutionizing Science.