The youngest child in the family, he was the most industrious and even embarked on a business venture while still attending high school. His research laboratory, ‘Bloomington Research Laboratories’, studied the chemical components of the natural gas and other petroleum products produced by the local gas company.
After completing High School with flying colours in 1918, he decided to join the army and served as a chemist for the defence forces employed in WWI. The same year on his eighteenth birthday, he decided to join the United States Marine Corps.
He attended the three month training in the boot camp in South Carolina and was then posted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But ceasefire was enforced before he could be assigned to active service.
After the WWI, he enrolled at the research inclusive ‘University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign’, in 1918. Beckman, who had initially decided to pursue a major in organic chemistry, later opted for physical chemistry after suffering from ill health caused by toxic effects of mercury.
Under the tutelage of fine teachers like Worth Rodebush, T. A. White, and Gerhard Dietrichson, in 1922 he completed his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering. At the university he was a member of frat groups like the ‘Alpha Chi Sigma’ and the ‘Gamma Alpha Graduate Scientific Society’.
During his masters, Arnold was particularly interested in the thermodynamics of aqueous ammonia solutions. In the year 1923 he completed his masters in physical chemistry from Illinois.
He then moved to California and enrolled at ‘California Institute of Technology’ (‘Caltech’) for his post graduate studies. But only after a year at the institute, he left Caltech and took up a job in the ‘Western Electric Company’ in New York. It was working in the engineering department, that he was introduced to circuit design by physicist Walter A. Shewhart and thus began his fascination with electronics.
In the year 1926, Beckman went back to Caltech to complete his post graduate studies. For his doctoral dissertation he worked on devising a method to calculate the energy of ultraviolet rays.
After successfully completing the design of the intended device he was awarded a Ph.D. in photochemistry in the year 1928 and offered the position of a research instructor for chemistry at the ‘University of California’.
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In 1929, Orville started his teaching career at Caltech, which would span over the next decade. Starting out as a research instructor he was then promoted to the post of professor in chemistry and he taught introductory and advanced graduate level students.
He focussed on the need of precise and accurate instrumentation and his background in electronics helped him gain the approval of his peers and seniors at the university. It was with the consent of his seniors Arthur Amos Noyes, department head and Robert Andrews Millikan, the then President of the University, that he started consulting work outside the institution.
While working for the ‘National Postal Meter Company’ in 1934, Beckman embarked on his first entrepreneurial venture. Unable to find a manufacturer for making a non-clogging ink using butyric acid, which can be used by machines for printing postage, Beckman started his own ink manufacturing establishment ‘National Inking Appliance Company’.
Though he developed the product and even obtained a patent for the non clogging ink, he failed to convince any buyers. The company he started with two of his students was used later for a different product.
Another of his client Sunkist Growers was facing difficulties while measuring the acidity of their products such as pectin or citric acid. As sulphur dioxide was a component used in the manufacture of the products, using litmus paper to determine acidity was not a viable solution.
When the company approached Arnold, he utilised his skills in glassblowing, to design a vacuum-tube amplifier. Impressed by the working prototype of the apparatus, the company ordered for a second piece.
Improving his design of the acidity measuring device, he made the apparatus more portable and easier to handle. Thus came into being the world’s first ‘pH meter’, which was patented to Beckman in 1934. Initially the ‘Arthur H. Thomas Company’ which was a major player in the field of scientific instruments originating in Philadelphia handled the marketing and distribution of the Arnold’s “acidimeter”.
Propelled by the success of the pH meter, he reinvented his company and named it ‘National Technical Laboratories’ in 1935. With the new company, he focussed on manufacturing scientific instruments which included the pH meter.
The company moved out of the old garage to a bigger precinct and as the sales picked up over the years, Orville quit his job at the university to handle the operations of his company in 1939.
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The following year, his loan for establishing a factory was approved and the manufacturing unit was built over a sprawling area of 12,000 sq.ft. in South Pasasena. Also in 1940, the research team of National Technical set out on the goal of designing a simpler device for measuring the light energy in visible spectrum.
The resulting model, was easy-to-use and efficient, received the credibility of the ‘National Bureau of Standards’ and was named as the ‘DU spectrophotometer’. The device significantly reduced the time required for obtaining results from chemical analysis of samples. The spectrophotometer was also used in production of penicillin during WWII.
Another important invention by Beckman came in the year 1942, when he was handed the assignment to develop a spectrophotometer that could measure the light energy in the infrared zone. Beckman was instructed to be highly discreet by the ‘Office of Rubber Reserve’, thus he could not publish the developments of his ‘IR-1 Spectrophotometer’.
He improvised the model of IR-1 Spectrophotometer to encompass the choice of using a single beam of light or double beam for analysis, in 1953. The earlier model only had the option of using a single infrared beam but the dual beam model allowed users to calculate and compare sample energy with a reference, simultaneously.
He also improvised the design of the knob or the helical potentiometer dubbed as “helipot” so that they could be used in airplanes, ships or submarines. With a board, which was still wary of the emerging field of electronics, Beckman started ‘Helipot Corporation’ which dealt with electronics hardware.
The perspicacious inventor was then involved in the production of the ‘Pauling oxygen meter’ for the ‘National Defense Research Committee’, which was designed by his ex-colleague at Caltech, Linus Pauling. The device was manufactured by ‘Arnold O. Beckman, Inc.’, another spinoff and Arnold used a miniature glass-blower designed by him to create the glass dumbbells used in the oxygen meter.
The devise which was initially used to measure concentration of oxygen in submarines and airplanes during the World War, were later used to supervise the oxygen levels in incubators used for premature babies.
The micro-ammeter, he invented by remodelling his pH meter and the dosimeter, used for measuring exposure to ionizing radiation, were utilised by the scientists working on the ‘Manhattan Project’ during WWII.
From 1948-52, he was designated as the scientific consultant to the ‘Air Pollution Control Officer’ of the newly established ‘Air Pollution Control Districts’ in Los Angeles.In this capacity he collaborated with chemist Arie Jan Haagen-Smit and worked on developing methods to combat the ‘Los Angeles smog’.
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He designed a device to measure the smog and outlined an advisory charter for the Californian governor. He also contributed to the creation of the non-profit ‘Air Pollution Foundation’, which served to educate masses and raise funds for further research on smog.
In 1950, ‘National Technical Laboratories’ was rechristened and by then Orville owned a controlling interest in the company. ‘Beckman Instruments, Incorporated’, issued stocks on the ‘New York Curb Exchange’ for the first time in 1952 and in subsequent years the company underwent significant expansion.
In 1954, with the acquisition of ‘Specialized Instruments Corp.’, Beckman Instruments delved into manufacture of centrifuges. The following year Arnold he funded the ‘Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory’ which was established as a subsidiary of his own company and was headed by the Nobel laureate William Shockley.
In 1958, Beckman integrated the ‘Helipot Corporation’ into Beckman Instruments and named it the Helipot Division. Two years later he sold the semiconductor laboratory to ‘Clevite Transistor Company’.
The Systems Division, in Arnold’s company, which was formed after acquiring the ‘Berkeley Scientific Company’ during 1950s, dealt with manufacture of analog computer systems for clients which included NASA and aerospace companies like Boeing.