The Instrumental Chemist Released
For the last two years, I’ve been part of a team working on a documentary film about Arnold Beckman (1900-2004). Now that film is available for free, via the Science History Institute.
Beckman is one of those scientists who hardly anyone outside of science has ever heard of, but whose work really has transformed so many aspects modern life.
He made his name as an inventor of chemical instruments, though he started his career as researching professor and ended it as a philanthropist. The instruments his company manufactured made analytical chemistry ubiquitous and much cheaper, thus reshaping the production of food, fuel, pharmaceuticals, and all kinds of other materials that depend upon careful control of chemical processes.
Readers of this blog will be most interested in Beckman’s role in air pollution control. Beckman built the oxidant recorder that Arie Haagen-Smit used in developing his photochemical theory of smog, and his political connections helped make Haagen-Smit into the most prominent scientific voice in the evolving institutions of air quality regulation. Beckman was also a very successful industrialist, and his work within the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce focused LA’s business elites on air pollution as a problem in need of urgent attention in the mid 1950s. As part of the Air Pollution Foundation, he framed smog as a problem best solved by automotive engineering. Beckman’s instruments became important to the regulatory regime of automotive testing and air quality measurement that he helped to create. While this approach has reduced per vehicle emissions considerably, it also obscures the ways that air pollution is an inevitable result of building a society dependent upon automobiles. (The smog story starts at minute 28:00.)
One of my favorite parts of the film shows descendants of the instruments that Beckman developed in use today. Director Glenn Holsten and his team at Fresh Fly Productions filmed gorgeous footage of pH meters monitoring ocean acidification at an oyster farm in Washington State, of atmospheric chemist Pete DeCarlo measuring air pollution from an oil refinery in a canoe, and of conservator Kristin Deghetaldi using a spectrophotometer to restore fine art.
All that, and the film is a touching love story too. I hope you enjoy meeting Arnold and Mabel Beckman.