Fullerton has been home to many large manufacturing companies over the years, such as Hughes Aircraft Company and Sylvania Electric Products. More recently, the Kimberly-Clark factory was demolished and with it one of the last orange groves in Orange County. However, the Beckman Instruments Building, located at 4300 North Harbor Boulevard, still stands and was just selected to receive a 2021 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. This award is the only official preservation award presented by the State of California. to recognize outstanding achievement in the field of historic preservation. While the awards ceremony won’t take place until April, I wanted to dig deeper into the history of the Beckman Instruments Administration Building.
According to Bob Ziebell Fullerton: An Illustrated History, “The company dates back to 1935 when a young chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology used his skill and inventiveness to build a simple pH meter for a scientist friend.” That professor was Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, and he worked with two students in a metal shed to develop a pH meter or acidimeter, a device that could accurately determine the acidity or alkalinity of any solution. . The pH meter became such a hit within the scientific community that Beckman was able to resign his teaching position at CalTech and assume the full-time role of President of National Technical Laboratories.
With World War II underway, there was a greater demand for scientific instruments. According to the Fullerton Heritage web page for Beckman Instruments, Beckman realized that there was a “great need for new spectroscopic instruments. In the 1940s he invented the first quartz spectrophotometer, commercial infrared spectrophotometer, precision helical potentiometer, analytical ultracentrifuge, direct-write oscillographic recorder, and automatic amino acid analyzer. The DU spectrometer has helped revolutionize chemical measurement to the point where many scientists divide the history of biochemistry into periods, pre-DU and post-DU. All of these groundbreaking scientific inventions led to the growth of National Technical Laboratories, which was renamed Beckman Instruments, Inc. in 1950.
In 1953, the company needed more space, so they began construction of an expensive factory and headquarters here in Fullerton, which cost $2.5 million to build. Beckman Instruments’ headquarters and factory were established on a forty-acre orange grove on unincorporated land between La Habra and Fullerton “at a time when Fullerton was just beginning to industrialise”, leading to an economic boom “for the still predominantly rural city”. according to Fullerton Heritage.
The 43,000 square foot structure was the first large, high-tech industrial “campus” to be developed in Fullerton, and one of the first in Orange County. According to historian Arnold Thackray in the book, Arnold O. Beckman: One Hundred Years of Excellence“The design was very modern, centered on the concept of flexibility for further expansion. Additional space could be easily built and integrated, and all interior spaces could be reconfigured quickly and efficiently. Such a flexible design suited a dedicated business to new instrumentation in an increasing array of technologies.Buildings were interconnected and there was extensive landscaping.Its mid-century modern architecture was the precursor to many of Fullerton’s other major manufacturing ventures in the 1950s and 1960s.
Most factories and factories built in Fullerton during the post-war period were box-like structures. Some companies have hired notable architects, such as Kimberly-Clark employing Skidmore, Owing and Merrill, and the American Electronics Plant hiring Eugene Choy, according to American Architects Directory. However, most of the architectural designs that emerged after the war were unremarkable. Beckman Instruments hired architect Lawrence Whitney Davidson to design their new facility, according to Fullerton Heritage. Davidson, whose early work was done in the Mid-Century Modern style, went on to design golf clubs, industrial facilities, movie studios, classrooms and civic buildings, transitioning between projects with ease. private, military and public works. He had a strong architectural and engineering background and had designed other manufacturing plants before his Fullerton project. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Beckman Administrative Office Building became a recognized architectural symbol of the scientific instrument company.
In an article in the February 20, 1953, issue of Fullerton Newsstand, Beckman acknowledged that he chose Fullerton because of its low tax rate and ample water supply to run his operations. He also believed that Fullerton’s residential areas would be a good fit for his current and future employees. In November 1954, when Beckman’s facility officially opened, 8,000 people visited the building, which was an impressive number of visitors considering Fullerton’s population at the time was only 13,958 In 1955, Beckman was chosen from a pool of 500 Factory of the Year nominees to receive the Significant Factory Award from national Factory Management & Maintenance magazine. “Faced with extraordinary demands for flexibility and scalability, Beckman meets both of these demands to a remarkable degree with a factory that is also a pioneer in looks and employee services,” the magazine noted.
From this Fullerton location, Beckman Instruments would grow from scattered locations into a unified and cohesive multinational corporation and, over the next 30 years, become one of the most recognizable companies in the world.
Nine hundred workers were hired at Beckman’s plant, many of whom moved from Pasadena and South Pasadena. Beckman Instruments required “a multitude of scientific professions, crafts and skilled workers”, according to Fullerton Heritage. Over the decades, the company continued to employ thousands of Fullertonians, many of whom spent much of their lives at the Harbor Boulevard facility. The company has also hired many Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton graduates. Several former employees and corporate executives eventually left Beckman Instruments to form new companies, such as International Biotronics Corporation, and an active group of Beckman retirees still meet in Fullerton.
By the time it closed in 2010, Beckman Instruments had become a global leader in the development and manufacture of products for the scientific, medical, educational, space exploration and defense industries, with its products helping scientific communities around the world. Interestingly, scientists working on the Human Genome Project used Beckman’s Biomek 1000 robotic workstation in their study of DNA structure. Beckman Instruments had become a source of pride for local residents and a trademark for the town. The company has built its reputation by making generous donations to local groups in Fullerton, including St. Jude’s Hospital, the Boys Club, the United Fullerton Fund and the Children’s League of Fullerton. Beckman has offered dozens of scholarships to local high school and college students; donated instruments to Fullerton College and CSUF; and funded science and technology exhibits, programs, and excursions.
Today the building is home to AJ Kirkwood Electric, a company involved in construction, electrical engineering, and systems technologies, and is located in the Beckman Business Center. Fullerton Heritage helped preserve the building with little modification. The City of Fullerton recently received a letter from the California Office of Historic Preservation, informing them that the Beckman Instruments Administration Building is among the projects selected to receive a 2021 Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. The letter was signed by Julianne Polanco, responsible for state historic preservation, and was sent on behalf of Governor Gavin Newsom. The Governor’s Awards ceremony will take place on Thursday, April 28 in Sacramento.
To see my video presentation of a visual history of the Beckman Instruments building, visit my YouTube channel HERE.