In 1909, nine-year-old Arnold Beckman was scrounging around his parent’s attic and discovered an old chemistry textbook, complete with details on performing experiments. In no time, he was performing the experiments it described. Seeing his son’s enthusiasm, his blacksmith father encouraged this experimentation and suggested their tool shed in Cullom, Ill., be converted into a laboratory.
So began a lifelong interest in chemistry that initially led to the pH meter and ultimately gave us numerous devices to revolutionize the study and understanding of human biology, made measuring easier and more accurate, and spurred the creation of Silicon Valley. On top of that, Beckman’s successes enabled him to donate more than $525 million to advance scientific research in the United States.
Beckman was a true Horatio Alger story, said Ambassador George L. Argyros, chairman of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. “He came from very humble beginnings and became an unpretentious maker of real-life miracles,” said Argyros.
“Because of Beckman’s electronic revolution, a student today can do in a day what a master chemist took years to accomplish in the 1930s,” said Jerry Gallwas, retired director at Beckman Coulter and a member of the board of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
“He replaced an entire lab bench of electrochemical apparatus requiring an experienced scientist to operate with a small integrated package of electronics and sensors in a handheld walnut box with a handle that could be operated by a nontechnical person anywhere,” Gallwas said.
“The world of science in the mid 1930s was without electronic amplification. Bioassays were a common practice. To determine the vitamin A content of cod liver oil, two dozen rats were fed the oil for four weeks and the bone growth in their tails measured. pH measurements were just becoming of interest in biology, and chemistry required an entire lab bench of apparatus and an experienced chemist,” Gallwas said.
“He reduced the month-long analysis of rat-tail bone growth to a one-minute measurement using only one milliliter of cod liver oil. He launched what is today approximately a $150 billion per year analytical and clinical instrument industry of which the company that carries his name accounts for more than $3 billion,” Gallwas said.
Beckman accomplished this by quietly reaching for the stars and believing in others.
“He believed in the abilities of men and women,” said Argyros. “He was a plainspoken businessman who earned the reputation of a philosopher. He was an indispensable, larger-than-life person who by his example of energy and gifts made us feel better about our world and ourselves.” Argyros described Beckman as his mentor, teacher, friend, and hero who touched people “by his gentle manner.”
Beckman, noted Gallwas, “was a keen judge of potential in people, technology, and opportunity. A person of great integrity, good humor (he loved a good joke even on himself) but never considered himself a good businessman (probably his only shortcoming because he made hundreds of millions of dollars). He engendered a sense of loyalty to all who knew him.”
THE PATH TO GREATNESS
Beckman received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1922 from the University of Illinois and then his master’s in physical chemistry. He worked for a while in the engineering department at Western Electric, a forerunner of Bell Telephone Laboratories, where his fiancée Mabel also worked. There, Beckman became interested in electronics. He created quality-control programs for vacuum tubes and learned about circuit design.
Beckman received his doctorate in photochemistry from Caltech in 1928. To help support his family and pay for his studies, Beckman played the piano in silent movie theaters. He also became a skilled glass blower and frequently taught it in the school’s machine shop. Beckman was well known in the chemistry department for his skill in building measuring instruments as well.
HELPING A CLASSMATE
When his former college classmate Glen Joseph asked for help with a project for the California Fruit Growers Exchange, Beckman stepped up to the plate. Sunkist was turning non-saleable lemons into pectin (citric acid) using sulphur dioxide as a preservative, and it needed a way to test the acidity of its citrus products. But the typical test material, a litmus paper, was useless because the sulphur dioxide bleached the paper white, making the normal colorchanging paper useless.
Beckman suggested a vacuum tube voltmeter instead of the galvanometer his friend used because it required less current. Joseph tried, but couldn’t make it work, so Beckman made the instrument himself. It succeeded so well, Joseph asked for another. It was 1935, and the pH meter, initially called an acidimeter, was born.
RISK VERSUS KNOWLEDGE
Beckman was a risk taker, said Gallwas, but generally a good judge of the risk/reward ratio. Although he didn’t know if he could sell the pH meter, he got a loan for $35,000, hired people, obtained inventory, and created his first company, Beckman Instruments. His initial attempts to garner support met with only lukewarm response, but he plunged forward anyway. By the company’s second year, he sold 440 units.
Beckman went on to invent the DU Spectrophotometer and numerous other instruments. Patented in 1940, the DU Spectrophotometer made it tremendously easy to conduct tedious laboratory procedures, made them much more accurate, and modernized the way chemical analysis was conducted. It was the first time a complete spectrophotometer was integrated into a single case.
The spectrophotometer determined the presence of vitamins in food quickly and reliably. Its use brought tremendous strides in biochemistry, including analyzing the structure of penicillin. This was critical to mass production of synthetic penicillin.
The Model DU also helped researchers during World War II separate critical components in crude oil: benzene, important in the production of synthetic rubber, and toluene, needed in the production of TNT. Orders for it poured in from petrochemical companies.
Beckman thoroughly enjoyed his work, said Gallwas.
“He loved life and he loved following his interests. If he didn’t like something, he didn’t engage himself. He never understood why a person would do a job they didn’t like,” said Gallwas. “He had an intense curiosity, even for simple things, like how do they make a matchstick?”
The war led to great demands for the companies’ products worldwide and their subsequent tremendous growth. Today, Beckman Coulter Corp. is a leading manufacturer of biomedical testing instrument systems, tests, and supplies that simplify and automate laboratory processes. It has one of the most comprehensive product portfolios to span the biomedical continuum, from life sciences to clinical diagnostics and cellular analysis.
Some trace the start of Silicon Valley to Beckman’s funding of William Shockley’s semiconductor research company in 1955. It was the first such company to locate in Silicon Valley and brought many bright engineers and scientists there.
As a result of the growth of his companies, Beckman was able to make sizeable philanthropic donations for scientific research through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
“His fortune of $525 million is not enough to get him on the Fortune 400 List, and his philanthropy of approximately $525 million to date is not enough to get him even honorable mention in Business Week,” said Gallwas. “But thousands of young scientists and tens of thousands of K-6 students have benefited from his philanthropy. The five academic institutes that carry his name receive millions of dollars each year from his foundation.”
The foundation has given 308 Beckman Young Investigator awards coming to $71 million, supported 863 Beckman Scholars at 82 academic institutions, and created the Beckman @ Science Program, which is a K-6 science education initiative serving more than 833,000 elementary school children in Orange County, Calif. It also has given multimillion awards to the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, Austin, under the Beckman Research Technologies initiative.
Beckman died in 2004 at 104, but his innovations and philanthropy carry on.