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Looking Back at Arnold Beckman

From humble beginnings, legendary inventor and philanthropist made the most of his 104 years

June 7, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 23


This article is adapted from a profile of Arnold O. Beckman that was published in C&EN on April 10, 2000, in commemoration of his 100th birthday.

It was the 1920s, and like many of his peers, Arnold O. Beckman owned a Model T Ford. In those days, the venerable automobile's gas tank was situated below the level of the carburetor. That made driving up hills difficult because gravity would prevent fuel from feeding to the engine. When drivers encountered steep grades, they often turned the car around and drove backward.

But to Arnold Beckman, a young and inventive chemist, this seemed rather silly, to say nothing of dangerous. So he installed a bicycle valve in the auto's gas cap, pressurized the gas tank with a bicycle pump, and sailed up hills facing in the right direction.

"That's the kind of thinker he was," says Gerald E. Gallwas, Beckman Foundation board member, former chemist at Beckman Laboratories, and close friend of Beckman's for more than 30 years.

Beckman died on May 18 in his sleep at the remarkable age of 104. He leaves behind a daughter, G. Patricia; a son, Arnold S.; and two grandchildren, Arnold and Kurt.

It's exceptional for someone to reach even a 100th birthday, sense of humor intact, as Beckman did in 2000--but then, he was an exceptional man, period. His legacy of science and business leadership spans the entire 20th century, from his early days as a scientist at California Institute of Technology during the 1930s, to his invention of the device that revolutionized scientific instrumentation--the pH meter--and to his role as leader of megacorporation Beckman Instruments.

Next to the pH meter, Beckman is perhaps best known for his extraordinary philanthropy. The foundation that bears his and his late wife Mabel's name disburses millions of dollars of his considerable fortune to scientific endeavors each year.

He was also famous for his dry wit and pithy nuggets of wisdom: "There's no satisfactory substitute for excellence." "Do the right thing and apologize later." "If you're not taking risks, you're not doing very much."

If prompted, Beckman's many friends and colleagues would unabashedly hold forth about their admiration for his generosity, kindness, loyalty, and passions for science and education.

"He was a prince of a man," concurs Arnold Thackray, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, and coauthor of a biography of Beckman.

But one doesn't change the face of scientific research and amass millions of dollars just by being a mensch. A large part of Beckman's ultimate success was his keen knack for solving practical problems, perhaps fed by his roots in a small Midwest town. Beckman, the son of a blacksmith, was born in 1900 in Cullom, Ill., a tiny burg with a population of 500 and no electricity or telephones. He said that "in Cullom, we were forced to improvise. I think it was a good thing."

Beckman's grandson, Arnold, has also noted, "When Grandpa wanted a toy, he made it himself."

The Beckmans celebrate his winning the ACS Charles Lathrop Parsons Award in 1988.
The Beckmans celebrate his winning the ACS Charles Lathrop Parsons Award in 1988.

AT AGE NINE, Beckman experienced what he said was a seminal event in his life: stumbling upon a book in his attic titled "J. Dorman Steele's Fourteen Weeks in Chemistry." It included instructions for doing chemistry experiments. Beckman devoured the book and, from then on, was hooked by the science.

When Beckman finished high school, World War I was still in progress, so he enlisted in the Marines. He volunteered for combat duty, but before he could leave the country, the armistice of Nov. 11 was signed.

On Thanksgiving Day 1918, Beckman met his future wife, Mabel Meinzer. It was apparently love at first sight, and they began a demure romance, facilitated by regular letter exchanges.

Beckman returned to his home state to pursue chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. An accomplished pianist, he played for silent movies and local bands to support himself. Beckman got his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1922, after only three years. And in just one more year, he'd obtained a master's degree in physical chemistry, studying the thermodynamics of aqueous ammonia solutions.

He then went off to get a Ph.D. degree at Caltech, which, in the early 1920s, was experiencing a scientific heyday, where luminaries such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr repaired to cogitate on quantum theory.

Beckman took a break from studies and went to New York, working at Western Electric Engineering, which would eventually become Bell Laboratories. In 1926, he and Mabel finally married, then headed back to California so that he could complete his Ph.D.

Once he'd finished, Caltech hired Beckman on the spot, and he became a professor who was known for creative teaching methods.

In 1927, Beckman applied for his first patent: a buzzer for a car speedometer that would alert drivers when they'd reached a preset speed. (It's been suggested that Beckman came up with this device because he was a notorious speeder. In later years, he would take his family on outings in their car and position his two children as "lookouts" as he careered down the highway.)

In 1935, though, Beckman invented his real claim to fame, the pH meter. His friend Glen Joseph, a chemist in a citrus industry lab, needed a way to accurately measure the acidity of lemon juice. The acidimeter, as Beckman first called it, was a sturdy yet sensitive device that used vacuum tubes to amplify weak electrical signals. The scientists in Joseph's lab loved it.

"He had an enormous talent for seeing the sweet spot of opportunity," Thackray says.

Indeed, the invention of the pH meter signaled a new era of scientific instrumentation. Never before had scientists had compact, complete devices to work with; they usually labored to cobble together instruments out of off-the-shelf parts. Now, though, research could be focused on answering the scientific question at hand, rather than designing the right tools.

Beckman formed National Technical Laboratories and began manufacturing the acidimeter, which he eventually renamed the Beckman pH meter. In March, the pH meter was recognized as an ACS Historic Chemical Landmark (C&EN, April 12, page 38).

In 1939, Beckman left Caltech to focus on inventing instrumentation. During World War II, he developed the helical potentiometer, known as the helipot, a precision instrument that outshone other potentiometers, as well as the quartz spectrophotometer.

In 1953, he renamed his growing company Beckman Instruments and moved it from its South Pasadena home to a new plant in Fullerton, Calif. He continued to imbue the company with a personal touch--on payday, he distributed the paychecks to his employees in person.

By the 1960s, Beckman was serving as chairman of the board of Caltech. Harry B. Gray was a fledgling professor there when he first met Beckman in 1964. "I think he was drawn to me because I was enthusiastic," Gray recalls. "At that time I was a really young person, very enthusiastic about science, and always jumping up and down. So we became really good friends."

Gray went on to become the first Beckman Professor of Chemistry and now heads the Beckman Institute at Caltech, which the Beckman Foundation founded and helps fund.

When he was 65, Beckman stepped down as president of Beckman Instruments. The company, still based in Fullerton, continues to grow. In 1997, it merged with Coulter Corp. to become Beckman Coulter. It generated more than $2 billion in sales during 2003.

The Beckmans turned their attention to their new goal: to donate all the money they'd made to the scientific community that had given them so much. They started with a few major gifts to schools--for example, in 1984, they donated $40 million to construct the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Beckman as a toddler and in his 20s.
Beckman as a toddler and in his 20s.

AND THUS BECKMAN began his last major career, that of philanthropist. As in his other ventures, in philanthropy he was "exceedingly creative; he was underwriting major investments in science at a time when that was not fashionable," Thackray notes.

The U.S. was also recognizing the value of Beckman's contribution to science, witnessed by his being inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 1987 and his winning of the National Medal of Technology in 1988 and the National Medal of Science in 1989.

But sadly, after 64 years of marriage, Mabel died in 1989--the same year the Illinois Beckman Institute was dedicated--before accomplishing their goal of distributing all of their money. Beckman decided to take the remaining assets and create the Beckman Foundation, which would continuously replenish its funds through investments.

With assets of about $500 million, the Beckman Foundation now gives approximately $20 million each year to various institutes and programs in chemistry and the life sciences, including the five Beckman Institutes.

Beckman maintained his well-known vigor well into his 90s. The Illinois Beckman Institute's first director, Theodore L. Brown, says that, even at age 95, when Beckman finally stepped down as chairman of the foundation board, he had a strong grip. "I'd go to shake his hand--he could squeeze hard and make it hurt. I see how he could be a blacksmith's son."

And Beckman's advice for living a long life? "Pick good grandparents."


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