Robert E. Finnigan

Robert E. Finnigan

Robert E. Finnigan was born in Buffalo, New York, and studied at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating with a B.S. in electrical engineering. He then served with the U.S. Air Force. Subsequently he earned an M.S. and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois and spent three years as a senior scientist at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory, where he designed and built nuclear reactor instruments and control systems. In 1962 he joined Stanford Research Institute, where he first encountered quadrupole mass spectrometers, at that time in the “breadboard” state of development. Finnigan immediately saw their potential and tried, without success, to interest commercial companies. In 1963 he left Stanford to cofound Electronic Associates’ Scientific Instruments Division. Finnigan led the team that produced the first commercial quadrupole mass spectrometer in 1964.

In 1966 Syntex Corporation attempted to buy Electronic Associates’ California subsidiary, of which Robert Finnigan was director. The acquisition failed, but it prompted Finnigan to suggest to Mike Story that they form their own company to exploit the new quadrupole gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) technology. Finnigan Instrument Corporation was formed, with Robert Finnigan as president, Bill Fies in charge of electronic design, Richard Hein as residual gas analyzer project leader, and Mike Story heading mass spectrometer design. Soon afterward, T. Z. Chu, general manager of Varian Associates’ Gas Chromatography Division, joined the group.

Finnigan rightly believed that the chromatographic applications of the combined GC-MS system would provided a sizable market for the new enterprise’s instruments. The company was able to sell a number of instruments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for analysis of water pollutants. Finnigan Instrument Corporation also developed systems for detecting the illegal use of drugs by athletes and for pharmacokinetic studies of pharmaceutical products. The corporation went public in the early 1970s but was unable to weather the harsh commercial climate of the following decade, when the market for environmental testing products slowed. In 1990 stockholders accepted an offer by Thermo Instrument Systems, where Finnigan still serves as a consultant.

Finingan helped initiate the environmental and occupational health activity of the American Electronics Association, and he served as trustee for the Forensic Sciences Foundation. He is also a member of the National Research Council for the Assessment of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He was the chairman of the U.S. National Working Group on Pollution for L’Organisation Internationale de Métrologe Légale.


Finnigan's first commercial GC-MS system, the model 1015.

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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