Arnold O. Beckman

Arnold O. Beckman

Arnold O. Beckman was born in Cullom, Illinois, and after a stint with the U.S. Marines in World War I he studied at the University of Illinois under Carl “Speed” Marvel, working on dialkyl mercury compounds. Unfortunately, Beckman suffered a bout of mercury poisoning while conducting this research, so he shifted his attention to physical chemistry and finally graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. Afterward, Beckman went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to study physical and chemical analysis.

Beckman then joined Western Electric’s newly formed Inspection Engineering Department to work on statistical methods of quality control. The company manufactured thermionic vacuum tubes and photoelectric cells, which got him interested in electronics. Beckman then returned to Caltech to complete his doctorate and teach industrial chemistry while acting as a business consultant.

In 1934 Beckman designed an acidimeter (a forerunner to the legendary Beckman pH meter) to measure acid levels in a citrus processing plant. There was sufficient commercial interest in the acidimeter for Beckman to launch Beckman Instruments in 1935. At the end of its first year in operation, 87 pH meters had been produced; twelve months later Beckman Instruments had sold 444 pH meters.

In 1940 Beckman started work on the revolutionary DU spectrophotometer to improve analytical precision in chemical analysis. In response to war needs Beckman also built an IR spectrophotometer for measuring the butadiene content of refinery gases in synthetic rubber production.

Beckman Instruments became a public company in 1952 and has continued its production of scientific instruments to meet a wide variety of laboratory needs, from medical research to drug discovery and diagnostic tools. In 1998 readers of Chemical and Engineering News voted Beckman one of the twentieth century’s most influential chemists. In 1999 he was awarded the Public Welfare Medal, the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor.


The original acidimeter.  Courtesy of Beckman Coulter.


Arnold O. Beckman

CHF’s Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry was started with a generous grant from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in 1987.


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