It wasn’t easy jockeying the wheelchair into place under the keyboard of the baby grand piano. The chair arms were a little high and the footrests kept getting hung up on the pedals, but after a few moments everything was set and Arnold O. Beckman began to play.
They were old songs. Timeless songs. “Yankee Doodle.” “Jingle Bells.” Ditties, really.
But each note spun the engine of time in reverse until Beckman, age 98, was a young man again. In Newport Beach, the Four Seasons hotel ballroom--the scene Tuesday of a dinner in Beckman’s honor--became a movie theater in a small Illinois farm town, the chairs filled by long-forgotten neighbors watching the silent, flickering screen as young Arnold played along in the dark.
It’s been a long time since those days, since Arnold Beckman first played piano. At his age, it’s been a long time since Arnold Beckman first did most things.
But everything he’s done has invariably been done well. He was such a good student, Caltech hired him as a chemistry professor after graduation. A good idea man, he solved a friend’s technical problem--how to measure acidity in lemons--by developing the pH meter, now a laboratory staple worldwide.
And he was such a good businessman that he parlayed his innovative instruments into an international company that, when he sold it in 1982, netted him a reported $500 million.
These days, Arnold Beckman is proving to be a good spender. Last week, Beckman, a Corona del Mar resident, announced a $14.4-million program to improve science education in Orange County’s school districts, the second-largest private donation to a California public-school system.
The program, called Beckman@Science, provides $3 million for the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana to train elementary teachers in science; another pool of money for grants of up to $200,000 for individual districts; and hundreds of science kits for children to conduct experiments with.
The gift came through the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation in Irvine, which over the last 20 years has given away more than $300 million, some of it to establish research facilities at five universities and medical centers, including the Beckman Laser Institute at UCI. The foundation also has granted 112 awards totaling $21 million to early-career researchers to support their work. Existing assets rank the foundation 109th in the nation, according to the Foundation Center, a nonprofit watchdog group.
In many ways, the bequests mirror the giver. Friends and colleagues describe Beckman as a man with a lifelong passion for scientific inquiry and invention.
“He’s a scientist first in his thinking,” said Louis T. Rosso, who retired earlier this month as president of Beckman Coulter medical diagnostic equipment, and remains chairman of the board.
And for many, Beckman has served as mentor and role model. Tuesday’s banquet, an invitation-only affair at which Beckman performed his unannounced mini-recital, drew seven present and former heads of universities and dozens of Orange County business leaders.
During the meal, a slide show of aphorisms, some coined by Beckman, flickered on large screens. “Change is inevitable except from a vending machine.” “Be nice to your kids. They’ll choose your nursing home.”
And Beckman’s personal code: “There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence.”
As Beckman ran through the old ditties on the piano--fingers remarkably nimble and accurate for their years--his face remained impassive, as though all the work was being done inside, the fingers connected directly to memory.
“How about one more song?” developer George Argyros, the host, asked as applause faded.
“Which one?” Beckman responded.
“How about ‘The Old Gray Mare?’ ” Argyros suggested with a sly grin.
The crowd erupted in laughter. A hint of a smile seeped into Beckman’s face as he locked warm eyes with Argyros. Gnarled fingers reached out for those old and familiar notes.
When Science Was Young
By his own admission, Beckman doesn’t do much these days.
“Rest,” he said when asked how he spends most of his time.
Details of the past are cloudy, and the present isn’t much clearer.
But the wit is sharp. Beckman has encountered some of the major names in 20th century science. Former schoolmates went on to win Nobel Prizes. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr were part of a stream of visitors to Caltech before Beckman left to make his millions. He reflects for a minute when asked who stands tallest among all those names.
“Einstein would be the one,” he said.
“I don’t know, he just does,” Beckman said dismissively; then, with the hint of a smile: “One reason is, his name is easy to pronounce.”
Beckman was born four months into the benchmark year of 1900, the son of a blacksmith and his wife in rural Illinois. At age 10, Beckman was rummaging in his parents’ attic and found a copy of an 1861 chemistry primer. Half of the book was given over to home experiments.
“At that time, chemistry was pretty simple stuff,” Beckman said.
He was hooked.
It was the dawn of astounding developments in science. Einstein had promulgated his theory of relativity five years before. Telephones were becoming a modern, pervasive gadget and the first radio broadcast was still 10 years away.
After a stateside stint in the Marines as World War I was winding down, Beckman earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois. He earned his PhD in chemistry in 1928 at Caltech, and after graduation stayed on as a professor, often trying to solve problems carried in by strangers.
“California at that time was the focus of oddballs,” Beckman said in a 1985 oral history project conducted by the Center for the History of Chemistry. “It still is. But we had more goofy people coming in and we just had to be happy now and then that a legitimate person came along . . . with a legitimate technical problem.”
One walk-in problem in 1934 led Beckman to develop a new kind of nonclogging ink. With backing from National Postal Meter, he set up a side business in Pasadena to produce it. The next year, he devised the industrial-grade pH meter for a friend having trouble reliably measuring acidity in lemons.
“His influence has just been profound,” said Rini Paiva, who curates exhibits at the Inventure Place, the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.
Beckman eventually earned 14 patents, for devices such as the potentiometer, a variable electrical resistor known to most of us as the volume knob on a radio, and the spectrophotometer, which allows scientists to quickly determine the chemical makeup of a compound by measuring the intensity of various wavelengths in a spectrum of light.
“These inventions have had major impacts on people’s lives, and they don’t always realize it,” Paiva said.
Some Beckman inventions have had unanticipated uses, and effects. The potentiometer was designed as a replacement part for the pH meter, and it was several years before Beckman realized the broader applications.
Another device he developed regulated the flow of air into a precision machine that made tiny glass tubes. But it also found its way into hospitals. A persistent problem during that time was that incubated babies risked permanent blindness after inadvertently receiving too much oxygen.
Beckman’s gadget for making bulbs also saved the vision of countless people.
Discovering Smog’s Origin
Beckman’s history also, in some ways, is Los Angeles’ history.
In the late 1950s, as chairman of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, he was drawn into the city’s growing debate over the nature--and causes--of smog.
Conventional wisdom then was that the culprit was sulfur dioxide from refineries and smelting operations. Beckman arranged for a group of researchers to analyze the air itself, and they determined that the smog came from cars.
As Los Angeles moved toward regulating air pollution, Beckman and others involved in the issue traveled to Detroit “to inform the automobile manufacturers what would lie ahead of them.”
In the oral history, Beckman recalled meeting Henry Ford II, then head of Ford Motor Co.
“He had a little bit of drinking problem at that time,” Beckman said. Ford treated the group as meddlers. “That was the attitude he had.”
The group was suggesting the replacement of internal combustion engines with either steam or a new technology using hydrogen-based fuel. The other option was “to clean up the dirty exhaust.”
“They chose the latter,” Beckman said. “I suspect they did it because they could see the big repeat business on the afterburners, which is unfortunate. . . . I think if we had spent the amount of money we spent on afterburner research on developing a nonpolluting engine, we’d have a nonpolluting engine now.”
The science wasn’t easy, even in the early, relatively uncomplicated years. Beckman once contracted mercury poisoning from work in the lab. Another time a glass cylinder exploded in his face.
“I had glass in both eyes, but it didn’t get into the pupils,” Beckman said in the oral history. “It was painful as the dickens. I had to hold my eyelids out and somebody took me down to the doctor’s. . . . The glass has about the same index of refraction as tears, so you couldn’t see the glass in there. The only way to find it is to probe around until you hear a little grating noise.”
Eventually, the glass was cleaned out and his eyes healed. But Beckman said this week that he never considered the risks of the experiments.
“I never thought to be scared,” he said.
In the oral history, he said he never gave much thought to the future in general. If he could sell an instrument, he’d make it. If there was a problem to be solved, he’d solve it.
Interest in solving what he perceived to be mismanaged government in the 1950s led him to politics. A co-founder of the Lincoln Club, a conservative group of Orange County businesspeople, Beckman was among those who persuaded Ronald Reagan to first run for governor.
In 1982, Beckman--then 82 himself--decided to sell his company to SmithKline, a deal that neared $1.1 billion. The sale came five years after he and his wife, Mabel, formed the Beckman Foundation, planning to give away the bulk of their fortune in their lifetimes.
Mabel Beckman died in 1989, and her husband decided to change the foundation into a permanent one to underwrite research in a wide spectrum of sciences, from laser research to biochemistry. He has two children, a son, Arnold Beckman, and a daughter, Pat Beckman.
The foundation, despite its wealth, has only three full-time employees. It earns high praise from philanthropy watchdogs.
“He’s very highly respected,” said Ann Castle, who monitors philanthropic organizations. “This [foundation] is a big deal. When they make gifts, it’s always to very respectable causes and organizations.”
Awash in praise Tuesday night, Beckman sat quietly until Argyros handed him the microphone.
“This is overwhelming,” he said. “I have a guilty feeling I just don’t deserve it.”
Later, he was asked about his standing as an inventor, and the wealth, and the accolades. He grudgingly acknowledged that his has been a life to be proud of, but that he tries not to dwell on it.
“It’s my Rule No. 7: Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he said. “I tell myself, ‘Wait a minute, Beckman, count yourself again. You’re only one person.’ ”
* STARTING YOUNG
The Beckman grant already is bringing science education to earlier grades. B2