Arnold O. Beckman: the early years


Arnold O. Beckman was born on April 10, 1900, in Cullom, Illinois, a town of about 500 people. His father, George Beckman, was a blacksmith. As a nine-year-old, Arnold stumbled on a book that once belonged to an aunt, J. Dorman Steele's Fourteen Weeks in Chemistry. Steele was a teacher who loved developing new scientific lectures and experiments. Aiming to encourage inquisitiveness in his readers, Steele related his lessons to household objects and materials. Steele probably thought his audience would be curious adults and high school students, not nine-year-olds.

Beckman devoured Steele's lessons, which left him with a life-long love of chemistry. He was especially enamored of the illustrations and descriptions of laboratory experiments, encouraging the youngster to try his own hand at them. For his tenth birthday his father gave Arnold a small "shop," an 8-by-10 foot shed that stood behind the family home, in which he could conduct his "experiments." For chemicals, Arnold scoured his mother's pantry and shopped at the local druggist for "vinegar and baking soda - sodium bicarbonate, lye - ordinary things of that sort."1 And soon his older brother Roland, who worked in Chicago, obtained for Arnold chemical equipment such as glassware, test tubes, and a mortar and pestle. In later years, when the family moved to Normal and Bloomington, Illinois, Beckman always commandeered laboratory space in which to do his chemical experiments.

The family moves allowed Arnold to attend University High School, the teaching school affiliated with Illinois State University in Normal. As a freshman, Beckman convinced the school principal that since he was planning on studying chemistry in college, he had no need for Latin and should be allowed to take chemistry in his first year. Soon, Beckman found the chemistry laboratories at Illinois State; then he found a mentor, Professor Howard Adams, who agreed to allow the high school student to take college chemistry courses. Adams also drove the youngster fifty miles every Saturday to Urbana so Arnold could use the more sophisticated equipment in the chemical laboratories at the University of Illinois. Beckman later called Adams "a great friend of mine."2

Adams helped the seventeen-year-old land a client, the local gas company, so that Arnold could get practical experience as a consultant in analytical chemistry. Arnold had business cards printed and the little laboratory in his home became the "Bloomington Research Laboratories" with him as "Chief Scientist." Beckman's consulting work for Union Gas and Electric was to run analyses of woods chips soaked in ferric chloride to determine if the concentration was high enough to remove the noxious smell that came from burning Illinois coal.

Beckman aided the American war effort in the First World War when Adams helped him land a post at the Keystone Steel and Iron Company in Pekin, Illinois. There was a great need for steel during the war, and Beckman was allowed to leave University High several months early so that he could analyze steel samples for Keystone to determine their carbon content. The quality of the manufactured steel depended on its carbon content. "The procedure," Beckman later said, "was that the chemist would go over to the open hearth furnace with a little mold, reach in and get a sample of the molten iron, put in the mold, and then with tongs carry it back to the lab while it was still hot." Beckman had to make four different tests, and "as I recall, I got to the speed where I could run all four analyses in 30 minutes."3

Despite leaving high school two months early, Beckman was the valedictorian of his class. After graduation, Beckman entered the Marines, but never served overseas. He did make it as far as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Mabel Meinzer, the future Mrs. Beckman, served him Thanksgiving dinner in November 1918. The following fall, Beckman enrolled at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Since Beckman already had completed two-and-half years of college chemistry, he skipped the introductory courses, enrolling instead in advanced courses offered by the chemistry department. He also came into contact with Carl "Speed" Marvel, then a budding young chemist who would go on to a brilliant career as an organic chemist. Marvel "commanded the respect of everybody, first of all from his knowledge and competence, and also from his general behavior."4 Marvel assigned Beckman a research project involving mercury compounds. While the dangers of mercury poisoning were not unknown in 1920, Beckman and Marvel took risks in their experiments that would not be permitted years later. Both men soon began to show symptoms of mercury poisoning, which for Beckman led to a change in career emphasis, as he switched from organic to physical chemistry.

Armed with a B.S. degree in chemical engineering and a master's in physical chemistry, Beckman entered the new California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to pursue a Ph.D. After a year at Caltech, Beckman headed east, to be near Mabel. He took a job with Bell Labs in New York, where vacuum tubes were being perfected and which Beckman made good use of ten years later. In June, 1925, Arnold and Mabel were married, and a year later the young couple journeyed to California so that Beckman could finish his degree at Caltech.

As a graduate student, Beckman won his first patent, for a signaling device that rang when a car exceeded a certain speed. "You might draw the conclusion from that," Beckman says, "that my interest in that was derived from the number of tickets I was getting for fast driving."5 After receiving his Ph.D. in 1928 for research on the photochemical decomposition of hydrazine, Beckman was invited to join the Caltech faculty. Beckman easily settled down to life as a university assistant professor, continuing his photochemical research and teaching freshman chemistry. But he had other pursuits as well. The chemistry department at Caltech prided itself on pure research, while Beckman had an interest in applied science, served as a private consultant for industry, and remained intrigued by industrial innovation and instrumentation. And then in 1934 Glen Joseph came to visit.


1 Arnold O. Beckman, Interview by Mary Terrell, 16 October and 4 December 1978 (California Institute of Technology, Oral History Project, Caltech Archives, 1981), p. 2.

2 Arnold O. Beckman, Interview by Jeffrey L. Sturchio and Arnold Thackray at University of Pennsylvania, 23 April 1985 (Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Oral History Transcript #0014A), p. 1. Beckman also says "I've always been indebted to him for the encouragement I got." Beckman, Interview by Terrell, p. 4.

3 Beckman, Interview by Sturchio and Thackray, 23 April, 1985, p. 2.

4 Ibid., p. 5.

5 Ibid., p. 27.


 

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