» Dr. Arnold O. Beckman Bust

“Education is one of the best means we have to empower people to meet their responsibilities.”

- Dr. Arnold O. Beckman

Critical Essay By
Dr. L. Andrew Lyon
Professor, Dean of Fowler School of Engineering
Fowler School of Engineering; Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
View Bio

Cross-country train rides were not uncommon in mid-1930s America. Perhaps less common were cross-country train rides shared by a husband and wife selling pH meters to scientists in an almost door-to-door fashion. Yet there they were, Dr. Arnold O. Beckman and his wife Mabel, doing everything they could to grow the customer base of his fledgling company, National Technical Laboratories. Those train trips embodied an entrepreneurial spirit – one of the many characteristics of Dr. Beckman that aligns with the mission and vision of Chapman University.

Dr. Beckman’s pH meters, instruments now so commonplace that they are largely taken for granted by our students, were remarkable technological achievements in the 1930s. Their invention was made possible only through Dr. Beckman’s powerful interdisciplinarity, as he leveraged his knowledge of chemistry, physics, electronics, glassblowing, woodworking and optics to converge upon a solution to what was then quite a “grand challenge” for Orange County: the measurement of lemon juice acidity. The pH meter was a solution so disruptive and transformative that Dr. Beckman fearlessly left a promising career as a professor at Caltech to enter the world of business and bring his invention to the broadest possible range of industries.

Determining lemon juice acidity was a challenge that, at the time, demanded input from multiple different perspectives and knowledge bases before a solution could emerge – a process called convergent problem solving. Throughout Dr. Beckman’s career as an inventor and businessman, and by virtue of his own intellectual breadth and depth, convergent problem solving resulted in a remarkable array of innovations.

Another early invention, the DU spectrophotometer, enabled an understanding of Los Angeles smog and helped identify its sources, paving the way to the dramatically improved air quality we enjoy today. That same instrument helped elucidate the role of vitamin A in human health, identifying which foods were essential for replenishment of the nutrient. Additional advances in biotechnology, genetic analysis and the development of penicillin also arose from that single invention.

Remarkable innovations in magnetic sensors led to the oxygen meter, which kept submariners safe and eliminated blindness in premature babies. Automated blood analyzers allowed for more rapid diagnosis of disease. Microprocessors led to self-contained life support systems for astronauts. Analytical ultracentrifuges revealed the inner workings of cell and molecular biology, enabling the discovery of new therapeutics. Indeed, throughout the growth of National Technical Laboratories and Beckman Instruments, Dr. Beckman’s precise focus on the improvement of human health remained a constant storyline.

That storyline extended into philanthropic activities. Their desire to support young, ambitious scientists and engineers who embodied entrepreneurial thinking, interdisciplinarity and the desire to tackle grand challenges led Dr. and Mrs. Beckman to form the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. Dr. Beckman felt strongly that the ambition of future generations represented the world’s greatest opportunity, and by supporting their ideas – even (and perhaps especially) those that seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom – he and Mabel could extend their impact on humankind in perpetuity. To date, thousands of scientists, including a Nobel laureate, have received their first major funding from the Beckman Foundation, serving as a launchpad for some of the most remarkable scholars and scientific advances the globe has witnessed. Dr. Beckman was an entrepreneur possessing the depth of a scholar, the breadth of a Renaissance man, strong core values, expansive vision, a desire to support humankind and a passion to see his impact persist through the work of future generations. It is a privilege for Chapman to honor Dr. Beckman, bring his story to our community and share in his values as we support and educate the globe’s future leaders and innovators.

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Dr. Arnold O. Beckman bust


Beckman Hall

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Campus Location
Beckman Hall, Orange Campus