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Arnold Orville Beckman

Arnold Orville Beckman
Born10 April 1900(1900-04-10)
Cullom, Illinois
Died18 May 2004 (aged 104)
La Jolla, California
FieldPhysical Chemistry
Beckman Instruments
Alma materIllinois,
Academic advisor  Roscoe G. Dickinson
Notable prizesNational Medal of Technology (1988)

National Medal of Science (1989)

Arnold Orville Beckman (April 10, 1900 – May 18, 2004) was an American chemist who founded Beckman Instruments based on his invention of the pH meter, a device for measuring acidity, in 1934. He also funded the first silicon transistor company, thus giving rise to Silicon Valley.


Early life

Beckman was born in Cullom, Illinois, the son of a blacksmith. He was curious about the world from an early age. When he was nine, Beckman found an old chemistry textbook and began trying out the experiments. His father encouraged his scientific interests by letting him convert a toolshed into a laboratory.

World War I was still raging when Beckman turned 18, and so in August of 1918, he enlisted in the United States Marines. After his basic training, he was sent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to await transit to the war in Europe. Fortunately for him, the war ended in November, 1918, and he did not have to fight in France. By another stroke of luck, he missed being sent to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks by one space in line. Instead, he spent that Thanksgiving at the local YMCA, where his table was served by 17-year-old Mabel Meinzer, who became his wife.


Beckman attended the University of Illinois, where he earned his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering in 1922 and his master's degree in physical chemistry in 1923. While attending the University of Illinois, he was initiated into the Gamma Alpha Graduate Scientific Fraternity in December 1922. He joined the Delta Upsilon Fraternity.

Having a choice between the University of Chicago, MIT and Caltech, Beckman decided that the Golden State was for him, and decided to go to Caltech for his doctorate. He stayed there for a year, but decided to return to New York and his fianceé, Mabel, who was working as a secretary for the Equitable Life Assurance Society. He found a job with Western Electric's engineering department, the precursor to the Bell Telephone Laboratories.

At Western Electric, Beckman developed quality control programs for the manufacturement of vacuum tubes and learned about circuit design. It was here that Beckman discovered his interest in electronics.

Beckman married Mabel on 10 June, 1925. The following year, the couple moved back to California and Beckman resumed his studies at Caltech. He became interested in ultraviolet photolysis and worked with his doctoral advisor, Roscoe G. Dickinson, on an instrument to find the energy of ultraviolet light. It worked by shining the ultraviolet light onto a thermocouple, converting the incident heat into electricity, which drove a galvanometer. After receiving his doctorate in 1928, Beckman was asked to stay on at Caltech as an instructor and then as a professor.

pH Meter

Beckman's interest in electronics made him very popular within the chemistry department, as he was very skilled in building measuring instruments. He also shared his expertise with glass-blowing by teaching classes in the machine shop. With the blessing of Robert Millikan, Caltech's president, Beckman began accepting outside consulting work.

One of his clients wanted an ink that would not clog. Beckman's solution was to make it with butyric acid, a very noxious substance. Because of this ingredient, no manufacturer wanted to manufacture it, so Beckman decided to make it himself. He hired two Caltech students to help him, and started the National Inking Appliance Company. At first, he tried marketing it as a way to re-ink typewriter ribbons, but this approach was not successful.

Another client, Sunkist, was having problems with its own manufacturing process. The lemons that were not salable as produce were made into pectin or citric acid, with sulfur dioxide used as a preservative. Sunkist needed to know what the acidity of the product was at any given time, and the methods then in use, such as litmus paper, were not working well.

Beckman invented the pH meter in 1935. Originally called the acidimeter, the pH meter is an important device for measuring the pH of a solution.


In 1955, Beckman established the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory to fund William Shockley's research into semiconductor technology. Because Shockley's aging mother lived in Palo Alto, Shockley established the laboratory in nearby Mountain View, California. Thus, Silicon Valley was born.

During his later years, Beckman lived in Corona del Mar near Newport Beach, California. He was an active philanthropist through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. To date, the Foundation has given more than 400 million dollars to various charities and organizations. Donations chiefly went to scientists and scientific causes as well as his alma maters. He is the namesake of The Beckman Institute and the Beckman Quadrangle at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also the namesake of the Beckman Institute, Beckman Auditorium, Beckman Laboratory of Behavorial Sciences, and Beckman Laboratory of Chemical Synthesis at the California Institute of Technology.

Beckman and his family also sponsored the creation of the Arnold O. Beckman High School in Irvine, California.

Dr. Beckman's history and the unique Heritage Center is located at the Beckman Coulter headquarters in Fullerton, California.

See also

  • Fairchild Semiconductor (a more detailed history of Beckman's role in the founding of Silicon Valley)
NAME Beckman, Arnold Orville
SHORT DESCRIPTION American chemist
DATE OF BIRTH 10 April, 1900
PLACE OF BIRTH Cullom, Illinois
DATE OF DEATH 18 May, 2004
PLACE OF DEATH La Jolla, California
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Arnold_Orville_Beckman". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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