Arthur H. Thomas

Arthur Thomas

Arthur H. Thomas was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, and he was nineteen years old when he joined James W. Queen Company in Philadelphia, then the leading optical and instrument maker in the United States. Queen Company was an importer, dealer, and manufacturer of everything from lab equipment to microscopes, drafting instruments, and theodolites. Thomas received a thorough apprenticeship in instrument manufacturing and in 1900 set up his own company with J. Edward Patterson to import and sell instruments.

In 1904 the Arthur H. Thomas Company produced its first catalogue; in time these became miniature reference books in various branches of science and the use of instruments. Thomas wrote many of these catalogues himself, and as a result during World War I, Thomas served on the Committee on Standardization at the Council of National Defense. Collaborating with the Surgeon General’s Office, he prepared the “List of Staple Medical and Surgical Supplies” used by the U.S. Army and the Red Cross in France. At the same time Patterson prepared a large number of Arthur H. Thomas “specification blueprints” to facilitate U.S. production of such items as lamp-blown and volumetric glassware, all of which were in short supply. Thomas’s blueprints required high levels of accuracy in the manufacturing processes, which encouraged U.S. enterprises to improve production standards. In 1915 the Arthur H. Thomas Company placed an order with the Corning Glass Works, which included the first batch of American-made Pyrex labware. It was the beginning of an association between the two companies that lasted over eighty years.

Thomas fostered a wide range of new instrument makers through his blueprints. Thomas helped Troemner, a Philadelphia manufacturer, fill an order for one thousand analytical balances, and Max Levy Company, a maker of fine photoengraving, to experiment with a blood-counting chamber to replace lost German imports. The Levy counting chamber subsequently appeared in the 1916 Thomas catalogue, along with the Troemner balance, Stormer viscometer, Wiley mill, and Weber oven.

The company’s reputation for spotting innovative new products continued well into the mid-twentieth century, and in 1936 the Arthur H. Thomas Company saw the commercial potential of the revolutionary Beckman pH meter and included it in subsequent catalogues.

Thomas was also passionately interested in education and served as a trustee of Bryn Mawr College and on the board of managers of Haverford College.


 An Arthur H. Thomas delivery truck, ca. 1905. Courtesy of A. H. Thomas.

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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