American Society for Mass Spectrometry, Board of Directors 1972-1974. Seated left to right: A. H. Struck; F. H. Field; H. J. Svec; F. E. Saalfeld; Standing left to right: R. E. Honig; J. Berkowitz; M. T. Laug; H. E. Lumpkin, E. B. Owens. CHF Collections.
Why did I go to every meeting? Because, for very selfish reasons. Well, I enjoyed the people, and I enjoyed stealing their ideas.
—Fred McLafferty (105)
In the late 1930s and 1940s mass spectrometry was a mysterious field: only a small group of individuals even knew what a mass spectrometer looked like, let alone what it did. From a select few physicists to a handful of chemists and engineers in industry, the early adopters of mass spectrometry were only marginally connected. Early on, mass spectrometrists—if they even considered themselves as such—were mostly building and troubleshooting their instruments independently; yet today the American Society for Mass Spectrometry boasts over 7,500 members who are part of a vibrant, collaborative group. Many of the CHF interviewees were part of this band of early adopters. Their efforts to bring the growing number of specialists together, one lab at a time, led to the creation of a broader community. Those pioneers passed on to that community their innovative, collaborative spirit and pushed the development of the instrumentation forward.
Harold Wiley of CEC created a survey of the various locations of CEC mass spectrometers, reaching from coast to coast of the United States. CHF Collections. Click here for full size.
The Roots of the Community
The American Society for Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) was organized in 1969, with Joe L. Franklin, the Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry at Rice University, as president. The new ASMS was a specialty organization. By 1970 the group held its own conference. Seymour Meyerson explained:
Well, we started out as an organization of analytical chemists. Some of us were heavily into instrumentation and others were heavily into trying to get and interpret the data, and some of us had a hand in both fields. But as academic people came in, a larger part of these conferences had started to be devoted to considerations that seemed more and more arcane to analytical chemists, who were concerned with the day-to-day problems, very mundane problems. (Meyerson, 63)
The majority of early members were not just analytical chemists, but analytical chemists from the petroleum industry—the first large-scale group really interested in the potential for mass-spectrometry instrumentation.
Although the ASMS launched as a formal society long after the introduction of commercial mass spectrometers in the 1940s, there had been many meetings of mass spectrometrists in previous years. A community had grown from the small informal meetings into larger committee meetings until it became necessary to start a new society dedicated to the field.
In the 1940s and 1950s mass spectrometrists, mostly from the petroleum and chemical industries, began to gather, discuss instrumentation, and develop a sense of their community through gatherings often sponsored by such instrumentation companies as Consolidated Engineering Corporation (CEC). The CEC Users’ Meetings, which Consolidated sponsored in Pasadena beginning in 1944, started with a group of only 10 attendees and focused on the company’s new 21-101 mass spectrometer. The meeting provided a means for the company to hear how the instrument was being used, what worked, what didn’t, and how it might be improved. The meetings’ presentations became reports, distributed not only to CEC customers but also in some cases to scientific and technical journals. Beyond the benefits for CEC and users of the 21-101, the meeting provided an early forum for networking in the community. Just five years later nearly 150 people attended the New York City meeting.
Group Picture taken at the 1951 Mass Spectrometry Conference at National Bureau of Standards. Photograph courtesy of the University of Minnesota Archives, University of Minnesota - Twin Cities.
Similar to the CEC Users’ Meeting, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) 1951 symposium was intended to discuss instrumentation. Alfred Nier recalled that “John Hipple arranged that. He was the guy who had been at Westinghouse with Ed Condon and then went on to the Bureau of Standards. He was head of the section there.” Nier noted, “That’s the first meeting on mass spectrometry I ever attended” (1–2). Michael Grayson, former mass spectrometrist and historian of the field, has argued that the NBS meeting brought together the most prominent mass spectrometrists of the day, including the largest gathering of physicists interested in mass spectrometry. Attendees included Alfred Nier, Richard Honig, Walker Bleakney, Edward Condon, and such international figures as K. Ogata from Osaka University and Wolfgang Paul from Germany. Other individual companies, taking advantage of the bright minds employed at various locations, arranged their own symposia or meetings. The proliferation of these smaller conferences and research meetings in the 1950s attest to the collaborative nature of the community and the productive, people-oriented nature of industrial chemistry in that period. Fred McLafferty, while at Dow, started an annual research symposium:
Hear Fred McLafferty: I and a few of my cronies chose the 40 people we thought were doing the most basic cutting-edge research and got them all out to our lab. We had this house with nine bedrooms. Tibby [McLafferty’s wife] put on a big party for all of these guys, and we had two or three days of papers by all of them. Oh, they thought this was the greatest thing, that Dow is really scientific, and it was great for all of us to learn what the rest of them were doing, and we could collaborate. And, you know, it was a real great thing that these people stayed at Dow. They had made contacts inside the company. The people you know in the company make all the difference. You can call up Joe Schmoe and say “I need this” or “I just heard this.” It really makes things work. (McLafferty, 50)