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Finding the Sweet Spot of Opportunity By Arnold Thackray, President, Chemical Heritage Foundation Dr. Thackray (Ph.D., Cambridge University, 1966) has held faculty appointments at Oxford, Harvard, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was founding chair of the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Thackray's scholar- ly interests lie in the historiography of science and in understanding technology, medicine, and science as elements of modern culture. He served as editor of Isis, the official journal of the History of Science Society, and as editor of Osiris. Dr. Thackray is coauthor of the definitive biography Arnold O. Beckman: 100 Years of Excellence. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and of the Royal Historical Society. Dr. Thackray was the founding director of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. I t is very special privilege and pleasure to be here on this beautiful day and in this beau- tiful place. It brings back memories of my first encounter with Dr. Beckman in his office on Jamboree Road, when this center was just a gleam in his eye. It's also a pleas- ure to be here because of the wonderful subject that is before us--the future and the prom- ise of instrumentation. We've already heard that there is much to look forward to. What I want to do is set the context for you, paint in the background. There are three important reasons for talking about Arnold Beckman and instrumentation at this symposium. The first is that instrumentation is a concealed subject; it's not some- thing that you encounter in your day-to-day life. The second reason is that science looks toward the future, not the past. The third is that change is shaped by individuals. Chemistry and instrumentation are both concealed. "Intel inside" is a great phrase. The Intel inside was put there by chemist Gordon Moore, who achieved what he did because of the knowledge and experience gained while in Beckman's employ. But when you think of Intel inside, you don't think of chemistry. Modern biotechnology is similar. Companies like Biogen and Amgen were conceptualized and created by Ph.D. chemists. The products of chemistry are everywhere, but chemistry itself is concealed. Instrumentation is even more concealed. Instrumentation is the tool or enabler with which you shape a product. But people tend to think about the lemon juice, not the juicer. Second, science is forward looking. It's about what are you going to publish next week. If something is in the past, let's forget about it. But that is a terrible cultural loss. If there were no past associations among the people in this room, this would be a very poor meeting. Business is also forward looking. People look to tomorrow's bottom line. In addition, for the last 200 years we've been remorselessly specializing and differentiating, knowing more INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW 7
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and more about less and less. That makes it even harder to get a sense of the larger picture, which is one of the things that history brings us. Finally, significant change is shaped by individuals. Change is not the result of vast, impersonal forces. Individuals intuit, act on, and FIGURE 1 (Above) The Beckman brothers, exemplify the larger currents and opportunities in our world and Arnold (center), Frederick, and Roland. catalyze what happens. Think of Russian history without Stalin, (Right) George Beckman's blacksmith shop in Cullom, Illinois. Courtesy of German history without Hitler, or U.S. or British history without the Beckman family. Roosevelt or Churchill. And the significance of the individual is equally true in science. Think of Newton, Darwin, and Watson and Crick. Think of He was William Henry Perkin, whose discovery of mauve in the mid-nineteenth century created modern high-tech, industry-based science. Think of Fritz Haber at the start of the twen- another tieth century, who personified German high-tech, professional expertise. Haber is the man who keeps half the world alive through his discovery of ammonia synthesis, which individual is fundamental to our ability to feed the world using modern fertilizers. who changed Arnold Beckman also intuited and acted upon the larger current in science and society. He was another individual who changed the world forever and, unlike some of the people I mentioned, changed it for the good. the world Arnold Orville Beckman was a blacksmith's son, born in 1900 in Cullom, Illinois. He was forever. simultaneously the baby and the firstborn, an unusual combination. His father's first wife had died after his two half-brothers were born (see Figure 1). His father remarried, and Arnold was both the baby of the family and the firstborn--a younger sister followed. Then, when he was 12, his mother died, which was a tremendous blow in his life. We can only speculate about the psychological impact of being simultaneously the baby and the first born and then having his mother die, as we ponder the deep roots of his lifelong drive. The world of 1900 was fundamentally rural. In 1900, 50 percent of people worked on farms, compared with 2 percent today. The great change has been not only in manufac- turing but in the knowledge sector. Today the knowledge sector is the largest growth sec- tor of our economy. Dr. Beckman recognized this trend very early on. Here in Irvine, for example, I don't see farms, factories, or smokestacks. I see the knowledge industry exem- plified. This center itself is a sort of temple to the knowledge industry, and Arnold Beckman recognized that development. 8 INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
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Throughout his life he had an eye for the sweet spot of opportunity. Even as a very young man, he was able to excel. At the age of 14, after winning a scholarship to University High School in nearby Bloomington, he persuaded his father and family to move to Bloomington. Most peo- ple would have said "I'm where I am, and my education is what it is." But he moved the family, and in Bloomington he was the best student in his graduating class, achieving the highest average ever attained in his high school. And because there was a college in the town, he already had two and a half years of college chemistry under his belt at the age of 18. Furthermore, his family was financially constrained, so he had to earn money. If you want- ed someone to play at a dance on a Saturday night, the Beckman Orchestra would do that. Pat mentioned that he set up a chemistry consulting business. He played the piano at the local movie theater. He was a young man with very high energy levels and imagination, and he was going to seize his opportunities. In 1918 he joined the Marines. Patriotic fervor was a reality, and Arnold Beckman was set to head off to Germany. But you needed a boat, and there weren't many boats in Illinois, so he departed for Brooklyn. There he met Mabel Meinzer of Brooklyn at a Red Cross dinner for the Marines on Thanksgiving Day in 1918. Mabel brought an enormous set of comple- mentary talents to their marriage, which lasted for 64 years, until Mabel's death in 1989. Before Beckman could set sail, the war was over. He moved back to Illinois and began studying chemistry, though he actually graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 1922, from the University of Illinois. The University of Illinois at that time was the central chemical powerhouse of the land, which again reveals his instinct for finding the sweet spot of opportunity. He was editor of the Illinois Chemist, a very substantial publication. And he was making a mark on campus. For example, after World War I cut off the supply of organic chemicals from Germany, students worked in the summer making organic chemicals for sale, and Beckman participated in this activity. It helped to finance the chem- istry department and gave the students practical experience--a powerful combination. INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW 9
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When he graduated from college, he wrote,"The world had a too cold and forbidding front when I was thinking of starting into business, so I decided to linger here at the schoolhouse. This graduate business is the real essence of education." In 1922, opting for graduate school was an unusual and risky choice, whereas today we are used to it. He was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he decided to go to the California Institute of Technology. In retrospect Caltech was a great place to go, but Caltech was all of 4 years old at that time, so this also was a risky decision. The only problem was that Mabel was in Brooklyn. So after a year he dropped out, went to New York, and found a job at Bell Labs. There he was part of the founding research group and worked for Walter Shewhart, the great guru of quality control, whose disciple Edward Deming is more familiar today. So he was learning not only about electronics but also about quality control. He moved back to Caltech in 1926, a year after his marriage to Mabel, and received his Ph.D. in 1928. Then he was asked to join the faculty--a great honor given the faculty's small size. He specialized in glass blowing and apparatus building. He was active in the hands-on aspect of chemistry, and of course chemistry is a very hands-on science. But if you look at Arnold Beckman in this period, he was very restless. He was engaged in various ventures, but he did not entirely know where he was going. Where he ended up, of course, was with the pH meter. That story, which I'll discuss in a moment, is very well known. But there were always many other facets to his life. He had a growing family. As his busi- ness grew, so did the responsi- bility of being a local, national, and global citizen. He partici- pated in charity campaigns and was a key player in the smog understanding and elim- ination program. He was Orange County man of the year and on the Caltech board. He met with three different U.S. presidents and in the later 10 INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
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stages of his life became very active in philanthropy. He had an extraordinari- ly full and diverse life at every moment. There are four aspects of Dr. Beckman's life and work that I would like to discuss this morning. First is his inventive rest- lessness. Second, his contributions to chemists' tools. Third, the new biology. And, fourth, the electronic future. Prototype 1938 television from GE. Courtesy of Darryl Hock. While he was in graduate school at Caltech he kept a journal of patentable ideas. Some of you know that he was something of an infamous speeder in cars during his life. His first patent, in 1927, was for a device that would sound a buzzer and alert the driver when the car reached a preset speed. It's an early version of cruise control. Chrysler was interested enough in it to talk with him about a license, though the talks didn't go anywhere. Other potentially patentable ideas from his graduate school journal were an alarm for a typewriter to signal when it is nearing the bottom of a piece of paper, the use of electron beams to record sound on motion picture film, an electronic organ, a system for maintain- ing butter at optimal spreading temperature, whitening toothpaste that uses dyes instead of bleaches, and a self-sharpening pencil. He was not your average Caltech graduate student; he was someone with a remarkable inventive restlessness. At the same time he was working on his Ph.D., on the photochemistry of hydrogen azide, with Roscoe Dickinson. To conduct his experiments, Arnold Beckman needed some very precise measurements and found that commonly available thermometers weren't sufficient. This led to his first publication, which described a new piece of apparatus, a quartz-fiber manometer. Meanwhile, he was working with A.A. Noyes, one of the great luminaries of Caltech, on a new periodic table. It was based on ions and energy groups and represented nothing less than an attempt to rewrite the periodic table. This work was presented at the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and appeared in 1927 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the 1930s Dr. Beckman met Lee De Forest, the inventor of the vacuum tube, who was inaugurating the electronic age. De Forest was living in Hollywood and trying to develop tel- INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW 11
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evision. His concept was to use metal-coated film to reproduce sound and pictures, and to produce the required film in the needed volume he turned to Dr. Beckman, who developed a film-coating machine that he patented. De Forest's system didn't go anywhere, but it gave Dr. Beckman an opportunity to interact with probably the leading inventor of the period. During this period, Dr. Beckman also was an expert witness. His consulting activities added about $150 a month to his assistant professor's salary. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it was 50 percent of his salary. As he oversaw the design and construction of the fam- ily house in Altadena, this was very welcome. And speaking of the sweet spot of opportu- nity, one of the most important cases he worked on was brought by a young district attorney named Earl Warren, later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, involving an outrageous scam in the oil industry. The next thing Dr. Beckman pursued was postal meters. A local company, grandly called the National Postal Meter Company, had a problem with its inks, and Dr. Beckman developed a nonclogging formulation for the com- pany. Then he decided to go into busi- ness to produce the ink himself, because people were having difficulties with the composition of the ink. He set up a sub- sidiary, the National Inking Appliance Company, in which he was vice presi- dent and general manager. Of course, FIGURE 2 Arnold Beckman's first integrated pH meter, the acidimeter, circa 1934. he began thinking of other options. He Courtesy of Beckman Coulter, Inc. developed a typewriter ribbon that is continuously reinked, an ink-loaded ribbon bobbin, and an ink-soaked sponge. But this was in 1936, and his work in inking was interrupted by the pH meter. Dr. Beckman invented the pH meter, which was first called the acidimeter, in 1934 (see Figure 2). A friend on the Illinois Chemist, Glen Joseph, came to his old colleague with a problem. Joseph, a chemist working with the citrus industry, needed to find a way to meas- ure the acidity of lemon juice. He tried using a hydrogen electrode, but it quickly fouled because of the sulfur dioxide preservative in the juice. A glass electrode would work better, but it produced a very weak signal. 12 INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
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Dr. Beckman's knowledge of electronics allowed him to make an electronic amplifier so that the rugged glass elec- trode method could be used to measure pH. Then he again began looking for the sweet spot of opportunity. The difference He traveled the country seeking buyers for the pH between meter, though he did not meet with much enthusiasm. innovation and But in Philadelphia Arthur Courtesy of Beckman Coulter, Inc. H. Thomas, a big instrument supplier, told him that maybe 600 meters could be sold over several years. There's my invention is that business, Dr. Beckman said. But the business grew much faster than expected. By the late 1930s he was stepping out from Caltech and going full-time into business. an invention is This was just as the storm clouds of World War II were gathering. During the war his firm an idea, whereas developed the first spectrophotometer produced in large quantities, the DU spectrometer. By now the company making these instruments was called National Technical an innovation is Laboratories, but Dr. Beckman did not own the company, which raises interesting issues about inventors, entrepreneurs, and financiers. Dr. Beckman was simultaneously a very an idea out in small shareholder and the major producer of ideas for this company. By 1941 and 1942, National Technical Laboratories was becoming a large firm, and the the world. directors were saying, Don't rock the boat. But Dr. Beckman saw opportunities, and he found a way to pursue them. By the end of World War II he had founded and was the boss of two other companies. One was Arnold O. Beckman, Inc., which made oxygen analyzers, and the other was Helipot Corporation, which made the Helipot variable potentiometer. These devices were coming into their own. The development of chemists' tools was a theme throughout Dr. Beckman's life. An impor- tant aspect of innovation is whether you can get society to adopt an idea. The difference between innovation and invention is that an invention is an idea, whereas an innovation is an idea out in the world. There's a crucial difference between those two things. INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW 13
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The development of chemists' tools would be enough for one life. That, however, was only the beginning, because the DU spec- trometer marked the beginnings of Dr. Beckman's move toward the new biology (see Figure 3). The Nobel laureate Bruce Merrifield said many years later that the most important instrument ever developed in the advancement of the biosciences was the DU. A different form of testimony comes from Carl Djerassi, an inventor of the birth control pill. He once said that the reason he went to work for the Mexico- based firm Syntex was because when he vis- ited the company, to his amazement it had a DU. Syntex, by the way, in many ways was the first biotech company. As early as 1960 it had started an Institute for Molecular FIGURE 3 Dr. Beckman shown with an early Beckman DU spectrophotome- Biology in Palo Alto. ter, circa 1953. Courtesy of Beckman Coulter, Inc. Another very early purchaser of the DU was Erwin Chargaff, the legendary biochemist and perhaps the world's leading expert on DNA at that time. With the DU, Chargaff was able to measure the relative abundance of the different bases in DNA. This resulted in Chargaff's rules, which established that the pairs of bases in DNA almost always occurred in equal amounts. This key insight led directly to Watson and Crick's determination of the structure of DNA. James Watson himself wrote: I can see . . . that our pursuit of the chemical underpinnings of biology has depended as much on the invention of new instrumentation and experimental procedures as on the generation of new experimental results and new ideas. Arnold Beckman's contribution to science and to society came, in part, from his rare talent for creating these new instruments and his decision to make them available to industry and science alike. The new biology also extended into the clinic. In the 1960s, Arnold Beckman led the charge for his firm's entry into clinical instrumental markets, where laboratory scientists used instruments to put modern medical information into the hands of clinical practi- 14 INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
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tioners. And Beckman Coulter continues along this path today with such products as the automated DNA synthesizer and other instrumental platforms for genomics. Even with the new biology, Dr. Beckman was just getting started. Beginning in the 1930s and especially in the 1950s, he led his firm in profoundly important new directions con- nected with the emergence of the modern electronic age. Initially, the guts of the pH meter became products in themselves. Dr. Beckman realized that he had a powerful measuring device in the amplification circuits used in the meter, which made it a superb microam- meter. He began producing the microammeter as a product in itself. For example, it found considerable service in monitoring the performance of early nuclear reactors. This led him to other kinds of electronic devices. The helical potentiometer was a component of the pH meter for which Dr. Beckman had a patent. During World War II, engineers developing radar discovered that the available variable potentiometers were not accurate enough. So Dr. Beckman set up a new company, the Helipot Company, to produce helical poten- tiometers during the war and after and began serving a booming market. In the 1950s, Dr. Beckman was creating electronic measuring devices, advanced electronic components, laboratory and industrial automation, digital computing, and semiconduc- tor technologies. In all of these areas, he was ahead of his time, but he had seen the sweet spot of opportunity. If you follow this thread out, in the 1970s, Beckman Instruments was, for instance, the global leader in the production of liquid crystal displays. The systems divi- sion of Beckman Instruments produced both analog and digital computers serving a vari- ety of customers, including oil refineries, NASA, the Air Force, and aerospace companies. INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW 15
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Even with all of this, we haven't touched upon the birth of Silicon Valley. Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of William Shockley's momentous phone call to Arnold Beckman, along with the fortieth anniversary of Moore's law. In 1955, Shockley, who was trying to develop the transistor, called Dr. Beckman and said, "I'm leaving Bell Labs. I need someone to back me." Arnold Beckman became the 100 percent funder of Shockley's semi- conductor laboratories. Shockley also said, "There are only going to be about a dozen of us, and I don't really want to be in Pasadena. I'm awfully attached to my mother, who lives in Palo Alto. Do you mind if I set up there?" Another company acquired by Dr. Beckman, the centrifuge manufacturer Spinco, was already in Palo Alto, so Dr. Beckman said, "I suppose so." That's how the silicon got to Silicon Valley. Shockley went in a direction that did not have commercial utility, but under the influence of Arnold Beckman he hired the best people. These individuals went from Shockley to Fairchild to Intel and into all the rest of what became Silicon Valley. These were the people who understood where to go with this technology, and Dr. Beckman made this history possible. A Beckman ad from 1960 read like this: "Since the year one there has been no change in the scientific method. Only the tools are different. Our job--providing them. . . . One day the present science of electronics will be supplemented or replaced. Still newer technolo- gies will need even more advanced instruments to implement them. Our catalog for the future? We're working on it now." That's a wonderful text for our discussions today. Our task is to take up the challenge that Dr. Beckman laid out more than 40 years ago. 16 INSTRUMENTATION FOR A BETTER TOMORROW
Representative terms from entire chapter: