Ideas That Changed The Rum World: Laboratory Equipment and pH Meter
Category: Laboratory Equipment
Most production facilities are only as good as the laboratory equipment they have. Sugar mills, alcohol distilleries and aging warehouses are no different: these facilities must rely on readings obtained through their laboratory devices to make decisions regarding quality, efficiency, safety, etc.
Idea: pH Meter
Arnold Orville Beckman was born in Cullom, Illinois, a village of about 500 people in a farming community. He was the youngest son of George Beckman, a blacksmith, and his second wife Elizabeth Ellen Jewkes. He was curious about the world from an early age. When he was nine, Beckman found an old chemistry textbook, Joel Dorman Steele’s Fourteen Weeks in Chemistry, and began trying out the experiments. His father encouraged his scientific interests by let ting him convert a toolshed into a laboratory.
After receiving a Caltech Ph.D. in photochemistry in 1928 for this application of quantum theory to chemical reactions, Beckman was asked to stay as a professor.
In 1934, Sunkist Growers was having problems with its own manufacturing process, they needed to know the acidity of the product at any given time, and the colorimetric methods then in use, such as readings from litmus paper, did not work well because sulfur dioxide (used as a preservative in the production of pectin and citric acid) interfered with them. Chemist Glen Joseph at Sunkist was attempting to measure the hydrogen- ion concentration in lemon juice electrochemically, but sulfur dioxide damaged hydrogen electrodes, and non- reactive glass electrodes produced weak signals and were fragile.
Joseph approached Beckman, who proposed that instead of trying to increase the sensitivity of his measurements, he amplify his results. Beckman, familiar with glassblowing, electricity, and chemistry, suggested a design for a vacuum-tube amplifier and ended up building a working apparatus for Joseph. The glass electrode used to measure pH was placed in a gr id circuit in the vacuum tube, producing an amplified signal which could then be read by an electronic meter. The prototype was so useful that Joseph requested a second unit.
Beckman saw an opportunity, and rethinking the project, decided to create a complete chemical instrument which could be easily transported and used by non-specialists. By October 1934, he had registered patent application U.S. Patent No. 2,058,761 for his “acidimeter”, later renamed the pH meter. The Arthur H. Thomas Company, a nationally known scientific instrument dealer based in Philadelphia, was willing to try selling it. Although it was priced expensively at $195, roughly the starting monthly wage for a chemistry professor at that time, it was significantly cheaper than the estimated cost of building a comparable instrument from individual components, about $500.
The original pH meter weighed in at nearly 7 kg, but was a substantial improvement over a benchful of delicate equipment. The earliest meter had a design glitch, in that the pH readings changed with the depth of immersion of the electrodes, but Beckman fixed the problem by sealing the glass bulb of the electrode.
Today, pH meters based on Dr. Beckman’s invention are used widely in the rum industry: testing the soil where sugarcane is grown, measuring the water used in fermentation and in proof dilutions and also testing the spent wash produced from the distillation, etc. His invention of the pH meter truly revolutionized the study of chemistry and biology.