Arnold O. Beckman: 20th century Renaissance man

The foundation that Beckman and his wife started in 1977 has given more than $400 million for scientific research and education.

Jul 1st, 2004

I've interviewed a good many prominent scientists and leading technologists over the course of the years, but I never did meet the famed Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, scientist, engineer, teacher, entrepreneur, executive, philanthropist, patriarch, and sailboat captain. That was not for any lack of interest or effort on my part. Indeed, I made strenuous efforts to interview Beckman in the mid-1980s when I was on the staff of the late-lamented High Technology magazine. We simply never managed to organize our busy schedules to be in the same place at the same time. To say that I regret that we could not set up such a meeting is the mother of all understatements. But, such is life.

Now I will not get the chance to interview this remarkable 20th century Renaissance man, who died in late May at the astonishing age of 104. Over the course of an extraordinary career that essentially began when he got his first whiff of physical chemistry in high school in tiny Cullom, IL, Beckman developed a major scientific-instrument business with an international reputation for high quality and industry-leading innovation. Despite an outstanding academic career, Beckman was never one to be content to relax in the comfortable groves of academe.

After several years as a professor at Caltech, Beckman invented the first pH meter, a bulky but portable instrument housed in a polished walnut box. The early meters were used to measure the acidity of lemons, a process that previously had called for a bench full of fragile equipment. Beckman started a company called National Technical Laboratories to make the pH meters. That company later became Beckman Instruments and eventually morphed into Beckman Coulter, based in Fullerton, CA, a leading maker of instruments and supplies for biological and clinical diagnostic laboratories, which today has revenues of more than $2 billion a year.

And the foundation that Beckman and his devoted wife of 64 years, the former Mabel Meinzer, started in 1977 has given more than $400 million for scientific research and education. In the mid-1980s Beckman was the largest private benefactor of American scientific research. In 2001, the foundation donated more than $23 million. Caltech was a major beneficiary, of course, in the shape of the multidisciplinary Beckman Institute.

Other objects of the Beckmans' philanthropy include the Beckman Laser Institute at the University of California at Irvine, the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Engineering at Stanford University, the Center for the History of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. And there is no reason to suspect that this philanthropy will decline now that the two founders are gone.

In the 1950s, Beckman was unintentionally instrumental in nurturing California's semiconductor industry. Beckman hired researcher Bill Shockley of Bell Labs to develop the manufacture of silicon transistors. Shockley ignored Beckman's mandate and the Shockley Transistor Company subsequently lost eight key scientists who went on to form Fairchild Semiconductor, the developer of the integrated circuit and the progenitor of many legendary Californian semiconductor companies.

Of course, in my book, sailboat captains will always get attention. Beckman enjoyed sailing trips aboard the Lady Pat, a 37-foot sloop that the Beckmans co-owned with their friend Gray Phelps. Later, the Beckmans owned their own boat, the Aries.

Arnold Beckman was reluctant to seek fame and consequently never had the elevated reputation of a Bill Hewlett or the highly publicized notoriety of a Bill Gates, but his major contributions to chemistry and instrumentation, his generous philanthropy, and his sharp business acumen certainly mark him as one of the great Americans of the 20th century. Now, if only I could have gotten that interview on board his boat . . .

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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