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03/18/2004 08:00:00

Revolutionary Chemical Instrument Receives Historical Recognition

PASADENA, Calif. -- In the mid-1930s, Arnold O. Beckman, then an assistant professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, solved a problem confronting the California citrus industry: how to get a rapid and accurate measure of the acidity of lemon juice. His pH meter--a faster and simpler acid and alkaline measuring device--revolutionized instrumentation.

On Wednesday, March 24, the development of the Beckman pH meter will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark in a special ceremony at Caltech. The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, is sponsoring the landmark program. Charles P. Casey, president of the society, will present the bronze plaque to David A. Tirrell, chair of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering at Caltech.

The Beckman pH meter was the first commercially successful electronic pH meter. Beckman soon discovered there was a market for the instrument, which he manufactured on the side while he continued his academic career. Strong sales led Beckman to leave his teaching post in 1939 and devote his full attention to the company.

Beckman Instruments went on to become a leader in manufacturing instruments used in medicine, industry, and scientific research. Now called Beckman Coulter, it is a multinational company with sales in excess of $2 billion last year.

Later in his long life (he will be 104 in April), Beckman turned to philanthropy. The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation--established in 1977--has donated more than $350 million to support scientific research and education. The foundation provides ongoing research support to five Beckman centers and institutions in the United States, including one at Caltech (which is in addition to numerous other generous gifts by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation to Caltech).

The American Chemical Society established the chemical landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal historic events in chemistry and increase public awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. The program will begin at 2 p.m. in the Beckman Institute auditorium on the Caltech campus. Speakers include John D. Roberts, institute professor of chemistry, emeritus, Caltech; Gerald Gallwas, the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation; Arnold Thackray, the Chemical Heritage Foundation; and Harry Gray, Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and the founding director of the Beckman Institute.


Written by Marcus Woo