Significance of the
pH meter


Glen Joseph's request for a second unit led Arnold Beckman to conclude that if Joseph "could use two of these [amplifiers to measure pH] in that little laboratory he has, maybe there's a market them."1 Beckman immediately built two more devices, one for Joseph and one to see if it could be marketed. But more importantly, Beckman began to rethink his approach, soon concluding that the amplifier should not be a separate device but part of an integrated instrument to measure pH. As Beckman later recounted, his initial patent, filed in 1934, was not for a pH meter but rather for an amplifier. "It was later on," he said, "that we put the thing all together in a little walnut case."2 Initially called an "acidimeter," it included a vacuum tube amplifier, a measuring electrode, and a data meter.

Chemists were just beginning to make use of electrical instruments in their research. This was usually done to meet a specific need and consisted of linking various devices together, which were then spread out on the workbench in a laboratory. Beckman changed this: Not only did he invent an amplifier that was innovative because of its sensitivity, but he also built an integrated instrument. In other words, Beckman not only figured out how to measure pH accurately; he also revolutionized instrumentation by building the first chemical instrument in one compact unit that utilized electronic technology and which was portable. This simplified research as a chemist no longer had to assemble various components to test data. Now the chemist could purchase the instrument, provide a power source, and immediately begin collecting data. It was no longer necessary to assemble the requisite components and the chemist did not require much knowledge of the electronics. This rather basic but innovative approach to instrument design provided the basis for the subsequent development of modern instrumentation by Beckman and others.

Beckman's new instrument forced him to rethink his career. He was still an assistant professor at the California Institute of Technology, an institution that frowned on faculty that linked research with commercial endeavors. Beckman later said he "was happy there, doing research and teaching chemistry."3 He had devoted time to the problem of the pH meter only as a favor to an old college friend. At the same time, Beckman realized the significance of the design of the pH meter and believed there was a market for what he called an "acidimeter," an instrument which chemists and technicians could take into the field to measure acidity. His dilemma was simple: how could he, a Caltech professor, market his instrument?


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. 28.

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. 31.

3 Arnold O. Beckman, Speech before the Newcomen Society, Los Angeles, November 10, 1975, printed as Arnold O. Beckman, Beckman Instruments, Inc. (New York, The Newcomen Society in North America, 1976), p. 11


 

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