Robert W. Allington

Born: September 18, 1935 | Madison, WI, US
Died: March 26, 2006 | Lincoln, NE, US
Robert W. Allington

Robert W. Allington

Robert W. Allington had an interest in electronics from a young age. During his adolescence, Allington developed his skills in electronics through building radios, among other things, and by working as a television repairman. Later, he worked as an intern at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory on the SAGE air defense computer; near the end of the internship he was diagnosed with polio. Eventually he became an entrepreneur and founded Instrumentation Specialties Company (Isco), which focused on separation and environmental instrumentation.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0225
No. of pages: 59
Minutes: 251

Interview Sessions

Arnold Thackray and John R. Van Ness
13 November 2001
Lincoln, Nebraska

Abstract of Interview

Robert W. Allington begins the interview with a sketch of his family history. His father, a scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture, and later at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln [UNL], encouraged Allington’s interest in science. During his adolescence, Allington developed his skills in electronics through building radios, among other things, and by working as a television repairman. He worked as an intern at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory on the SAGE air defense computer in the spring of 1955. Near the conclusion of the internship Allington was diagnosed with polio, and throughout the interview describes the effect of the disease on his life. While still in the hospital, he met his future business partner, Jacob Schafer, an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jobs repairing scientific equipment evolved into projects to fulfill requests from his clients for novel instrumentation. This led Allington to become an entrepreneur. He completed his master’s degree in electrical engineering at UNL, having taken an unusually large number of chemistry courses for an electrical engineer. Allington abandoned his original intention of a career in academic research to found Instrumentation Specialties Company [Isco]. Originally creating specialized instruments on request, the company gradually evolved into two major divisions, separation and environmental instrumentation. Robert Allington remained active in the research and innovation behind product development even as chief executive officer of his company. He concludes the interview by sharing recollections of his personal life and briefly discussing his future plans.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1959 University of Nebraska-Lincoln BS Electrical Engineering
1961 University of Nebraska-Lincoln MS Electrical Engineering

Professional Experience

M and M TV Clinic


Lincoln TV Center


University of Nebraska-Lincoln

1953 to 1955
Electronic Development Technician, Agricultural Engineering Department

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Intern, Lincoln Laboratory

Instrumentation Specialties Company [Isco, Inc.]

Founded Instrumentation Specialties Company
1959 to 2006
Chairman of the Board
1959 to 1996
1961 to 2006
Chief Executive Officer


Year(s) Award

National first prize for article in engineering student periodical, Engineering College Magazine Association and McGraw-Hill Publishing Company

1959 to 1961

National Science Foundation Fellowship


First prize for undergraduate research paper, American Institute of Electrical Engineers

1965 to 2006

Registered Professional Engineer


Accredited Professional Chemist


Handicapped Nebraskan of the Year


Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award, Professional Engineers of Nebraska


Distinguished Service Award, Lincoln Kiwanis Club


IR-100 Award, Research and Development Magazine


National Small Business Person of the Year, U. S. Small Business Administration


Honorary D. Sc. , University of Nebraska


IR-100 Award, Research and Development Magazine


Honorary D. Sc. , Chemistry, University of Nebraska


Lincoln Jaycees Outstanding Chief Executive Award


Support of Research Award, Sigma Xi


Business Leadership Award, University of Nebraska


Friend of Science Award, The Nebraska Academy of Sciences, Inc.


Executive of the Year, Research and Development Magazine


Outstanding Alumnus Award, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, College of Engineering


Entrepreneur of the Year, Nebraska Center for Entrepreneurship, College of Business Administration, University of Nebraska–Lincoln


Alumni Achievement Award, University of Nebraska


Pittcon Heritage Award, Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy and the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Table of Contents

Family History and Early Life Experiences

Allington family history, illustrated with anecdotes about grandfather and father. Father's work with U. S. Department of Agriculture on an antibody to Virus X. Early penchant for electronics and interest in chemistry. Social experiences in grade school and junior high. Work as a television repairman.

Internship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Acquiring internship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Spring 1955. Work at Lincoln Laboratory on SAGE air defense computer. Descriptions of government research, with details of computer's capabilities and features. Development of polio and its impact on life at school.

Origins of Future Entrepreneurship from Instrument Repair Work

Meeting future business partner Jacob Schafer. Brother's skills as a machinist, and woodworker. Artistically inclined. Religion in the Allington family. Beginnings of the Instrumentation Specialties Company. Creating a customer base and hiring new employees. Developing new products.

Education and Continuing Development of Instrumentation Specialties Company (Isco)

Work on master's thesis. Development of ruminant pressure apparatus, thus generating sufficient profit to begin full-time business. Starting a career with own company instead of planned career in academic research. Breadth of electronic engineering curriculum at University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Growth, Change, and Product Development at Isco

Personnel changes at Isco and shift in company objectives. Development of environmental instruments. The competitive field of liquid chromatography. Expansion of premises, issuing of public stock, and improved inventory control. Description of the hydrogen sulfide process analyzer and supercritical fluid extraction products. Consolidating the two operational divisions both operationally and physically.

Further Personal and Professional Recollections

Home life with dog, Steinmetz, and marriage. Reminiscing about owning a Mercedes-Benz Model 600. Community service and purchase of a historic home for restoration. Professional focus on innovation and research. Increasing the competitiveness of separation instrumentation at Isco. Plans for retirement, further reminiscences about cars, and current work.




About the Interviewer

Arnold Thackray

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

John R. Van Ness

John R. Van Ness was the vice president for external relations of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.  He received Ph.D. and M.A. degrees in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and holds a B.A. from Colorado College, Colorado Springs.  Van Ness has held several executive positions at colleges in the Philadelphia area, most recently as associate vice president for development at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  In addition, he is a noted scholar of Hispanic history and culture in the American Southwest, a series editor at the University of New Mexico Press, and the author of four books.  He has won several grants, honors, and awards for his scholarship, and has been included in Who’s Who in America.  He is also on the board of directors of the Mexican Cultural Center in Philadelphia, and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.