Apr 10, 2014

Arnold Beckman

I write "Analog Footsteps" seeking common paths, literally, that key figures in analog took. I sit near an analog design guy who graduated from MIT and now lives in Mountain View. There are sidewalks that he walked that so many others have walked before him. But of course, not everyone did. Some branches of analog history are solo trips to nowhere in particular; some people were just at the right place at the right time. I noticed that April 10th would have been Arnold Beckman's birthday so I decided to follow that branch.

I could easily mistake a photo of Sherman Fairchild in the late 1950s for a photo of Arnold Beckman in the same decade. So the photo here is one from the 1930s, which doesn't remind me of Fairchild. Unfairly, I associate the same traits to both men - men with money and numerous businesses who happened to be associated with the origins of Silicon Valley. Arnold Beckman and Beckman Instruments bankrolled Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and Sherman Fairchild and Fairchild Camera and Instrument bankrolled the ex-Shockley eight who started Fairchild Semiconductor. What little I knew about Beckman made me thing this would be a dead-end branch with no interesting analog footsteps. But lets have a look, anyway. So on the anniversary of his birth, I present to you a better picture of Arnold Beckman.

Arnold Orville Beckman was born in rural Illinois in 1900. His father, George Beckman, was a blacksmith and he converted his old tool shed into a laboratory for his curious, youngest son. (No silver spoon or old money, here.) Arnold had discovered a chemistry book when he was nine and began performing experiments in his home lab. He ran centrifuge tests for a local store as a kid and while still in high school, started his own business, "Bloomington Research Laboratories", doing analytic chemistry for the local gas company. He excelled in high school and was allowed to take university level classes; graduating as valedictorian.

He went on to receive a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1922 and his master's degree in physical chemistry in 1923. Chemistry. Gordon Moore was a chemist; maybe there is hope for analog footsteps. Beckman decided to go to Caltech for his doctorate (as did Moore). He stayed there for a year, before returning to New York to be near his fiancée, Mabel. He found a job with Western Electric's engineering department. Beckman developed quality control programs for the manufacture of vacuum tubes and learned about circuit design. Excellent! Beckman discovered his interest in circuits.

In 1926, Arnold and Mabel - now married - moved back to California and Beckman resumed his studies at Caltech. No analog footsteps, however. He received a Ph.D. in photochemistry. He stayed on as a professor. He shared his expertise in glass-blowing by teaching classes in the machine shop and also taught classes in the design and use of research instruments. Beckman dealt with instrumentation as manager of the chemistry department's instrument shop. Now we're back on track; this sounds like Jim Williams.
Beckman Vacuum Tube used in pH Meter

With the school's blessing, Beckman began accepting outside work as a consultant. A former classmate of his from the University of Illinois had the job of measuring the acidity of lemon juice and asked Beckman to devise an electrical instrument for the task. Beckman, familiar with glassblowing, electricity, and chemistry, suggested a design for a vacuum-tube amplifier and ended up building a working apparatus. The glass electrode used to measure pH was placed in a grid circuit in the vacuum tube, producing an amplified signal that could then be read by an electronic meter. Beckman saw an opportunity, and rethinking the project, decided to create a complete chemical instrument that could be easily transported. With that, he started National Technical Laboratories. Among its other early products were an ultraviolet spectrophotometer (1940) and an infrared and visible spectrophotometer (1942). Beckman was asked to secretly produce a hundred infrared spectrophotometers to be used by authorized government scientists during the war. He did some work for MIT's Radiation Laboratory. The Manhattan Project also used Beckman instruments.

John J. Murdock held substantial stock in National Technical Laboratories. When Murdock died in 1948, Beckman was able to gain a controlling interest in the company. In 1950, National Technical Laboratories was renamed Beckman Instruments.

William Shockley had been one of Beckman's students at Caltech. In 1955, Shockley contacted Beckman about starting a new company to make semiconductors. “We propose to engage promptly and vigorously in activities related to semiconductors. The initial project contemplated is the development of automatic means for production of diffused-base-transistors.” Because Shockley's aging mother lived in Palo Alto, Shockley wanted to establish the laboratory in nearby Mountain View, California. Frederick Terman, provost at Stanford University, offered the firm space in Stanford's new industrial park. To build the company Shockley tried to raid Bell Labs for talent, but was unsuccessful, as no one wanted to uproot their families to move across the U.S. (or work for Shockley, whose reputation had been tarnished by that time at Bell Labs). He did succeed at recruiting talent from Motorola, Philco, Raytheon and Sylvania as well as from top schools such as Berkeley, Caltech and MIT.

Probably the most significant recruit was Robert Noyce, who later recalled the first contact from Shockley “It was like picking up the phone and talking to God. He was absolutely the most important person in semiconductor electronics”. Noyce had a fascination for the west coast and said “All ions wind up in California, if they meet their dream.” I love that line! Of course, you know the Shockley-Fairchild-Silicon Valley history.

Beckman companies live on today in many forms including instrumentation. Beckman himself went on to be a significant philanthropist. In retrospect, he was quite an inventor and is quoted as saying, "The fun, the heart of the thing, is in the technical aspects".

Fun.


NOTES

Most of this is from Wikipedia.

Chemical Heritage Foundation:
http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/electrochemistry/beckman.aspx
A History of Semiconductors from the Archaic to the Monolithic Compiled by David Laude

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