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Pittcon Turns 60

What started as a humble gathering of analytical researchers has become a central institution for an entire field

by David C. Brock, Chemical Heritage Foundation
February 23, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 8

Same and not the same
Credit: C&EN Staff
Floor shots of Pittcon 2007 in Chicago and Pittcon 1982 in Atlantic City (bottom).
Credit: C&EN Staff
Floor shots of Pittcon 2007 in Chicago and Pittcon 1982 in Atlantic City (bottom).


Pittcon Turns 60

WHEN THE instrumentation and analytical communities gather again next month in Chicago for their central annual event, Pittcon, they will mark the 60th anniversary of this unique—and uniquely successful—conference and exposition. Pittcon is simultaneously a large technical conference and among the largest of U.S. trade shows. It's a hub for information exchange, mixing the analytical research community with a veritable army of representatives from the instrumentation and laboratory supply industries. Like all other trade shows and professional gatherings, Pittcon 2009 (more formally, the 60th Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy) will undoubtedly be challenged by the prevailing global recession. But if the past is a reliable guide to the future, one can expect that the distinctive community-bolstering character of this all-volunteer, nonprofit enterprise will remain steadfast.

Credit: C&EN Staff
Credit: C&EN Staff

Pittcon began in 1950 as a small technical meeting with an instrumentation exhibition, fitting comfortably on the 17th floor of the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. After growing steadily to eventually fill the hotel over the next 18 years, the meeting moved to Cleveland in the face of a hotel workers' strike in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Conference has not been held in Pittsburgh again. In 1980, Pittcon had become a truly national conference and moved to Atlantic City, N.J. Since then, Pittcon has consistently occupied a middle ranking on the Tradeshow Week 200, a list of the largest U.S. expositions as measured by exhibitor space. As the meeting approached its fifth decade in 1988, Pittcon left Atlantic City for New Orleans, beginning its life as a massive roadshow, moving between a selection of cities that are home to the largest of convention centers: New Orleans, Orlando, and Chicago, in particular.

As the technical program expanded to more than 2,000 papers by 2008, the number of exhibitors grew to more than 1,000, and the meeting routinely attracted more than 20,000 attendees. Throughout this growth, the organizing force behind the meeting has remained the same—the closely knit community of volunteers from the Pittsburgh area's scientific and technical workforce who are members of the conference's sponsoring professional societies, the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh. A notable characteristic of this local volunteer community is its members' commitment and loyalty to the cause. The production of such a large event takes untold hours of work and graceful coordination among these volunteers. To develop a group of volunteers willing and able to take on the task, existing volunteers carefully cultivate and mentor new recruits, working with them over years to groom them into positions of increasing leadership responsibility. The conference does also employ a handful of salaried staff who handle administration, accounting, and routine communications tasks.

The development of relationships and loyalty among the Pittcon volunteers has extended outward to those with whom they have worked in host cities and convention centers. The recent history between Pittcon and New Orleans illustrates this well. New Orleans was the site of the first meeting of Pittcon as a traveling mega-meeting in 1988, and the city has played host to Pittcon for five of the past 12 years. With a conference and expo of such a size, the host venues are booked years in advance. Pittcon had been in New Orleans in 2002 and was slated to return in 2007. The devastation of New Orleans in 2005 by the failure of its levee system during Hurricane Katrina put everything concerning the city into question.

Although the Pittcon volunteers had to scramble to move the 2007 conference to Chicago to give New Orleans time to recover and rebuild, they remained committed to returning to New Orleans as quickly as possible: A meeting of Pittcon's size injects $50 million into the economy of the host city. In 2008, Pittcon returned to New Orleans. In addition to the economic boost the conference gives to its host cities, the conference routinely makes direct philanthropic contributions to those cities. For the latest New Orleans meeting, the conference donated more than $100,000 worth of equipment to local schools and provided educational programming, as part of Pittcon's Science Week, directed toward the local K–12 student population. In these ways, a fast return to New Orleans meant, for the Pittcon organizers, a contribution to the city's reconstruction. Such loyalty is not without its rewards; in one instance, the New Orleans police department provided an impromptu motorcade to speed one of the conference's invited speakers from the airport to his waiting audience.

PITTCON TODAY. As it has since 1950, Pittcon serves two broad communities: the research community connected to analytical instrumentation and techniques, and exhibitors, primarily the instrumentation industry (as well as the laboratory equipment and supplies industries). For the instrumentation industry in particular, Pittcon has become its central annual event, setting a pace and tempo for innovation. Each year, instrumentation and equipment firms look to Pittcon as the stage for rolling out their new products. R&D, manufacturing, and marketing programs are all tuned to a calendar leading up to Pittcon. Financial analysts and venture investors who follow the industry also look to Pittcon as the key annual event for assessing the sector and its constituent firms. Firms with multinational operations use the conference and exposition as their occasion to assemble global teams, coordinate among themselves, take the pulse of the research frontier, and gather competitive intelligence—that is, information about the activities of competitors.

Pittcon's expansive technical program maintains particular strengths in molecular spectrometry and chromatography, strengths that emerged in the 1950s. As Ian Jardine, vice president for global R&D at Thermo Fisher Scientific, recently noted in an interview for this article, for many segments of both the instrumentation industry and the research community, cutting-edge research is to be found at other professional society meetings, as is the case for mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry. Nevertheless, for the instrumentation industry, Pittcon remains a critical showcase for prospective customers and a source of vital competitive intelligence.

Today, Pittcon is number 96 of 200 on the Tradeshow Week 200. The 2008 conference and expo boasted 2,808 papers; 2,457 booths; 1,100 exhibiting organizations; and 19,536 attendees. Organizers expect that 2009's stats will be comparable to the 2008 numbers. By measure of attendance, Pittcon experienced a peak in the 1990s when the 1990 and 1996 conferences had attendance above 34,000. Since that time, attendance has fluctuated around the 20,000 mark. However, by measure of the size of the technical program, Pittcon is larger than ever, with about twice the number of papers than in the 1990s. In addition to contributed papers and invited symposia, the technical program includes posters, short courses, and plenary lectures. This steady expansion of the technical program reflects the nonprofit character of Pittcon. Its volunteer organizers have consistently taken the revenues generated by the meeting and the exposition and invested them in the technical program, using invited symposia and lectures to bring top international scientists to the meeting and to increase the treatment of important emerging topics and fields. For example, this investment accounts for the greater presence of the life sciences in the technical program than on the exhibition floor.

In addition to continued growth, the Pittcon technical program passed a significant milestone in the later 2000s. This year's conference will mark the third year of "coprogramming" with ACS's Division of Analytical Chemistry (ANYL), with the division organizing invited symposia and contributed sessions within the Pittcon technical program. This coprogramming reflects a growing convergence between the aims and interests of Pittcon and ANYL and presents significant possibilities for future activity and support. This growing accord is a recent development.

A sizable gulf between the needs and interests of academic analytical chemists and their counterparts in industrial and government settings who were grappling with the challenges of applying analytical tools and approaches became impossible to ignore even in the 1940s. The demands of wartime industrial production and government-sponsored military projects coupled with the arrival of new analytical instrumentation created an urgent need for applied researchers to exchange information. This need led directly to the creation of new professional organizations for applied analytical researchers. The two such societies created in the Pittsburgh region gave rise to Pittcon.

The size and role of Pittcon today for its instrumentation industry and research communities is an expression of the long-standing importance of information exchanges for the conduct of high-tech business, basic research, and applied work. Many of these exchanges involve individuals and organizations taking the measure of a particular discipline, instrumentation type, subfield, or application. The instrumentation-centered information exchanges at Pittcon also serve to bridge disciplines and technologies. Central analytical tools of the chemist, like mass and NMR spectrometry, emerged from fundamental phenomena first uncovered in physicists' laboratories. In both cases, the instrumentation industry played a key role in translating these physics discoveries into chemists' tools. Instrumentalists—that is, builders and developers of analytical tools—and the instrumentation industry have been key translators of other technologies for chemical research, employing advanced optical, electronic, biological, and microfabrication techniques to create new analytical instruments. They have also translated findings from diverse areas of chemical research into new analytical tools, as was the case with gas chromatography.

Just as Pittcon has become a significant arena for information exchange about the present and future trends in analytical instrumentation, research, and applications, it is also one of the most active sites of exchange about the past: the heritage of analytical instrumentation and the instrumentation industry. A large collection of historic instrumentation was gathered for the 50th Pittcon in 1999 and became a core element of the instrumentation collection of the Philadelphia-based Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF), which has recently opened one of the only museum exhibitions in the past 20 years to directly explore the history of the chemical sciences, using the display of analytical instrumentation as a facet (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2008, page 34).

Similarly, Pittcon developed a "Hall of Fame" for the 1999 meeting, a display of poster-sized panels containing biographical information on 22 pioneering figures from the analytical instrumentation and laboratory supply industries. From 2002 to the present, the annual Pittcon Heritage Award, presented at the opening plenary session of the conference by CHF and Pittcon, inducts another member into this Hall of Fame. Beginning even earlier, in 1990, the annual James L. Waters Symposium has brought together leading figures in particular analytical approaches to review and discuss the development of their fields of expertise.

PITTCON YESTERDAY. Although the most important role of Pittcon is as a central site of information exchange, the most important context for the development of Pittcon across the past six decades has been the unfolding of what historians have called the "Second Chemical Revolution." Starting in the middle decades of the 20th century, the speed, scope, and nature of the chemical practice were transformed through researchers' use of new analytical instrumentation. Many of these instruments combined electronics with chemical measurement. Many were based on novel developments around the disciplinary border between physics and chemistry, allowing more direct interaction with the physical properties of molecules. Measurements that had taken months became the task of days. New questions could be asked of chemical systems, and old questions could be answered in new ways.

These developments from the 1940s to the 1970s formed as profound a change in the practice of chemical research as the Chemical Revolution of the 18th century associated with figures like Antoine L. Lavoisier. These dynamics of reciprocal changes in research and instrumentation—in which advances in knowledge and in instrumentation variously spur changes in each other—have continued to the present. As chemist and writer Pierre Laszlo, professor of chemistry emeritus at the école Polytechnique, in France, and the University of LiÈge, in Belgium, has put it, "The chemistry laboratory changed more between 1950 and 2000 than from 1600 to 1950."

The opening decades of this Second Chemical Revolution—the 1940s and 1950s—were witness to a flurry of activities surrounding analytical instrumentation and chemical research associated with the needs and projects of World War II and the Cold War, as well as a prolonged postwar economic expansion. Not only did military and industrial expansion prompt the development of the new instrumentation, they also provided the funding for the widespread adoption of these tools by chemists. Both avenues—innovation and adoption—provided significant momentum to the expansion of the U.S. instrumentation industry in both domestic and foreign markets.

Credit: Courtesy of Roy Engelbrecht (top 4)
Credit: Courtesy of Roy Engelbrecht (top 4)

These changes in analytical instrumentation and their use in chemical research were accompanied by social innovations as well. In the 1940s and 1950s, the majority of chemists were employed by industrial and government organizations. As novel analytical techniques and instruments became increasingly available, these chemists felt a growing need for information exchange about how to tailor the application of these approaches and tools for their specific tasks. This large community of analytical researchers in applied settings required their own forum for information exchange and networking more specifically oriented to their needs. At the time, ANYL had a predominantly academic orientation, supported by and serving the needs of university- and college-based chemists. Accordingly, across the U.S., these applied researchers began to create small-scale regional meetings and professional societies to serve their particular ends. These social innovations emerged geographically where there were large clusters of applied analytical researchers: in New York City, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, for example.

Credit: Pittsburgh Conference On Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy
Credit: Pittsburgh Conference On Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy

In the 1940s and 1950s, Pittsburgh was one of the largest industrial centers in the U. S. Industrial complexes in and around the city produced chemicals and industrial machinery, glass and aluminum, and, most prominently, steel. These industrial concerns employed a large community of chemists, including analytical researchers. The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Institute of Technology both developed with support from the region's financial and industrial sectors, and both ended up with a robust chemical faculty. Mellon Institute of Industrial Research also had a strong chemical emphasis, and was regarded as a leading contract research organization. In sum, the Pittsburgh region was home to a large analytical community possessing a distinct orientation to industrial applications.


In the 1940s, professor Mary Warga of the University of Pittsburgh's physics faculty, an emissions spectroscopist, began to organize small, informal meetings on applied spectroscopy, featuring discussions of and lectures on the use of new instrumentation in contexts like steel production. Warga's annual meetings drew a growing attendance, and in 1946 a new professional society was formed—the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh—with Warga as its chairwoman. The signature role of the Spectroscopy Society was to organize and hold its annual Pittsburgh Conference on Applied Spectroscopy. The Spectroscopy Society found the Mellon Institute a welcoming site for its meetings and conference.

That same year, another professional society start-up, the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, began to organize its own small annual meeting. The society had been formed three years earlier, in 1943, by industrial researchers for information exchange specifically on the application of analytical techniques—including wet chemical approaches—in the production of vital wartime goods and commodities. Starting in 1946, the Mellon Institute played host to several more-formal annual meetings of the group, which were met with growing popularity. In 1949, the society decamped its meeting to the large downtown William Penn Hotel and added an "Exposition of Modern Laboratory Equipment," a small display of new instrumentation and laboratory supplies.

Since the membership of the two societies and the attendees of the two annual meetings had substantial overlap, the two organizations soon entertained the idea of a joint annual meeting. By 1949, a decision had been made to combine the meetings into one with an expanded technical program and exhibition. In 1950, the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry & Applied Spectroscopy—the first Pittcon—took place. By several measures, the first Pittcon was a success. Eight hundred attendees paid $2.00 in registration to take in 56 papers and to visit the booths of 14 exhibitors over three days in February on the 17th floor of the William Penn Hotel. The technical program for 1950 included some of the leading figures from analytical chemistry and the instrumentation industry: Philip J. Elving, a leading figure in analytical electrochemistry from the University of Michigan; George R. Harrison, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Spectroscopy Laboratory; Van Zandt Williams, the leader of the infrared spectroscopy effort at PerkinElmer; Arnold O. Beckman, who had that year changed the name of his firm to Beckman Instruments, a leading producer of pH meters and spectrophotometers; and Maurice Hasler, the founder of Applied Research Laboratories, a producer of emission spectrographs.

From 1950 to 1967, while Pittcon remained at the same location, it developed national importance. For applied analytical chemists, and in particular spectroscopists, the Pittcon technical program became a prominent venue for presenting and hearing about important new work. Furthermore, with abundant funding for instrumentation purchases provided by government and industry funds, researchers looked to the conference as an opportunity to place orders for the newest, most effective instruments. For U.S. instrumentation firms, it became, in the words of David Nelson, who attended Pittcon in this era as a leading executive at Cary Instruments, the "single focal point for new production introduction." Pittcon allowed the growing number of instrumentation firms to debut their new devices to some of their most likely customers and also to take stock of themselves by scrutinizing the offerings of their competitors.

With the growing importance of Pittcon to both the national analytical community and the instrumentation industry, the conference and exposition were quickly busting at the seams. Large instruments had to be carried to the 17th floor of the William Penn Hotel on top of the elevator. The activity spilled from the rooms to, in Nelson's words, "the hallways and any nook or cranny where you could stuff a table, a backdrop, and an instrument."

Throughout this period, the volunteer leadership of Pittcon, drawn from the two sponsoring societies, cemented its tradition of continually investing the resources generated by the exposition back into the conference itself. The goal of this reinvestment was to encourage information exchange, the same motivating need behind the establishment of the sponsoring societies in the 1940s. One major area of this reinvestment was in invited papers and symposia. Pittcon's volunteers organized sessions, selected topics, and recruited leading figures to speak on topics believed to be of growing interest. These invited speakers and symposia allowed the Pittcon volunteers to react quickly to new developments. For example, the first commercial gas chromatographs appeared around 1955 in the U.S. The 1956 Pittcon featured a half-day symposium on gas chromatography, as well as displays of gas chromatographs by both Burrell and PerkinElmer.

Pittcon 1967 was the last that would be held in Pittsburgh. A hotel workers' strike in Pittsburgh in late 1967 prompted the organizers to relocate the 1968 meeting to Cleveland's Convention Center. That the volunteers from the sponsoring societies could contemplate decoupling Pittcon from Pittsburgh speaks to the national roles in information exchange that the event had already come to play. Were its reach strictly local, moving Pittcon would have been folly. Furthermore, the decision to move Pittcon rather than to cancel or postpone the event also reflects this national role and the crucial value the conference held for its constituencies. The Pittcon organizers also feared cancelation or delay would give greater momentum to other analytical conferences with exhibitions around the country, such as the Eastern Analytical Symposium.

Pittcon remained in Cleveland from 1968 to 1979, as U.S. scientists grappled with a dramatic decline in government grant support for research, oil shocks, a stock market decline, and economic recession. Although this dreary context occasionally took a momentary toll on the number of papers given or the number of booths rented, Pittcon attendance grew steadily across the 1970s. Indeed, continued innovation in analytical instrumentation and the wide application of these tools seemed to buck the general national trend. Gas chromatography, liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry, and NMR spectrometry all continued along their ascendance as chemists' tools of choice. Spectrophotometry continued as an active field, but it no longer commanded such a dominant position on the analytical scene.

Similarly, the technical program became much more focused on applications over and above presentations on new developments in measurement itself. New areas of application for novel systems such as gas chromatography/mass spectrometry in environmental and pharmaceutical measurements grew tremendously in the 1970s. Short courses, offered at Pittcon by a range of professional societies and firms, grew in number as part of the technical program, again reflecting the prominence of application.

At the close of the 1970s, Pittcon's national role for both the analytical community and the instrumentation industry was unquestionable. By then it had outgrown the facilities available in Cleveland and was moved to Atlantic City, where it remained for most of the 1980s. In this period, applications of analytical techniques and instrumentation for biotechnology and the life sciences began to appear in greater number on the technical program. Poster sessions were established in 1984 to contend with the continually growing roster of papers. Instrumentation companies explored the capabilities of integrating microprocessors and microcomputers. New instruments incorporating microcomputers led, for example, to the expanded use of Fourier transform approaches that accelerated the speed of data collection. Pittcon arrived in Atlantic City in 1980 with 16,000 attendees, 451 exhibiting organizations, and 820 papers. Its last meeting in the location, in 1987, saw 31,000 attendees, 790 exhibiting organizations, and 1,100 papers: It had roughly doubled in size.


In 1985, Pittcon had flirted with another change of locale, moving to New Orleans for just that year. It was 1988 when Pittcon left Atlantic City for good. With Pittcon now a truly international event, having attendees and exhibitors from 80-odd countries, its organizers decided to move the meeting between the largest of conference centers and expo halls: those in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, Orlando, and Chicago. Since 1998, Pittcon has shifted among New Orleans, Orlando, and Chicago only. This pattern has emerged in part from the Pittcon organizers' preference for having the exposition and conference under a single roof, maximizing the possibilities for information exchange.

From 1988 to the present, Pittcon has held its own during a period of dramatic changes. The technical program has roughly doubled in size yet again. The number of exhibiting companies has risen to only 1,100 from 830, but this measure is remarkably deceptive. By the end of the 1970s, Wall Street analysts and venture investors had discovered the world of analytical instrumentation and laboratory supplies. Starting in the middle 1980s and extending to the middle 1990s, there was a wave of consolidation in the instrumentation industry. Mergers and acquisitions created a more limited number of much larger firms. Thermo Instrument Systems, part of Thermo Electron, acquired some 30 instrumentation firms in this period, setting the stage for Thermo Fisher Scientific's place at the lead of the sector today.

While instrumentation firms at Pittcon have introduced new analytical tools embodying robotics, automation, high-throughput processes, microfabrication, and computer networking, among other technological trends, whole new areas of instrumentation have been on the rise. Firms providing instrumentation and equipment for clinical chemistry, the life sciences, and materials science have grown to serve these multi-billion-dollar global markets, exhibiting at their own trade shows and professional meetings. In this, chemical and molecular analysis has fragmented, or specialized, to cater to these growing domains.

Pittcon has felt the pressure of this specialization in its attendance: Declining from a peak above 30,000, the event seems to have stabilized in recent years at around the 20,000 level. The number of exhibiting companies has also remained fairly flat for most of the 2000s. The stability of Pittcon is no doubt due in part to the continuity and consistency of the volunteer organizers from the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh. The organizing cadre retains members with decades of experience in putting on the event and maintains its practices of extended mentorship.

PITTCON TOMORROW. Pittcon rose to its place of prominence in the analytical and instrumentation world as a response to a basic social necessity for the conduct of technical work: information exchange. The conference and exposition of Pittcon addressed this need well, and as a result, it grew and prospered. Some of the major challenges facing Pittcon are shifts in how information exchange happens and where it happens. The tidal forces of the Internet and globalization are the most prominent among these.

As Thermo Fisher Scientific's Jardine notes, the Internet continues to transform the manner in which information is accessed and exchanged across the globe. If the Internet puts more information about instruments and their application readily in front of potential customers—and can also put these customers in near-instantaneous personal contact with company experts—what will this mean for exhibitions? Will they diminish in importance, or will they have to evolve to provide new services and activities? The Internet may simply provide new opportunities for firms and exhibitions to share their messages and pitches and to connect with partners and customers before and after conferences and expositions. After all, personal, hands-on interaction perhaps cannot be replaced by Internet-mediated exchanges.

Globalization is another significant shift with uncertain consequences for Pittcon. In geographical centers of chemical activity, regional meetings emerged in the 1940s and 1950s for analytical chemists to contend with the changes in their discipline. Although Pittcon has served as a national and international meeting for decades, the rise of globalization—with new centers of chemical research and manufacturing developing in China and India, along with the well-established centers of Japan and Europe—has changed the geographic distribution of chemical activity dramatically.

Large conferences and exhibitions focused on analytical instrumentation and their applications have developed—many explicitly on the model of Pittcon—in China, Japan, and Europe. These rival regional events are potentially serious competitors for Pittcon. Yet they just as well may represent potential partners through which the successful traditions and practices of the Pittcon organizers could be transmitted to other centers of analytical and chemical activity.

Indeed, Pittcon's volunteers are already moving in just this direction. Starting in 2009, Pittcon and JAIMA—the Japan Analytical Instruments Manufacturers Association—will begin exchanging symposia at their heretofore rival meetings. JAIMA has organized a symposium for Pittcon 2009, in Chicago, and Pittcon will organize one for the JAIMA meeting in Tokyo in 2010.

Contending with these changes in the forms and locations of information exchange, as well as new technological developments, will require both an openness to change on the part of the Pittcon volunteers and an increased commitment to hard thought and effort. Both will place an even greater burden on the volunteers. Yet again, if the past is any guide to the future, Pittcon has repeatedly shown itself to be capable of sustaining its volunteer tradition and to creating change. This augurs well for its continued service to the analytical community and the instrumentation industry alike.

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History & Policy of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where he concentrates on oral history, the history of instrumentation, and the history of semiconductor electronics. He edited "Understanding Moore's Law: Four Decades of Innovation" (Chemical Heritage Press, 2006) and wrote "Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists," Studies in Materials Innovation. Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 2009.


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