Willis A. Humphreys

Born: November 15, 1918 | St. Louis, MO, US
Died: December 16, 2017, CA, US

Willis Humphreys describes his long tenure as Production Supervisor with Beckman Instruments, Incorporated. Humphreys worked on the electronics for many of the company's instruments, including the Helipot and the Model R pH meter. Humphreys also reflects on the intense World War II production of new instruments and the evolution of electronics technology.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0238
No. of pages: 26
Minutes: 105

Interview Sessions

David C. Brock and Gerald E. Gallwas
7 March 2002
Fullerton, California

Abstract of Interview

Willis Humphreys begins the interview by describing how he came to work at National Technical Laboratories (NTL) on 31 March 1938. Before joining NTL, Humphreys worked for a small company in Pasadena, California, but was laid off due to lack of work. He was referred to the position at NTL and began there lacing cables. The company was still quite small at the time; Humphreys could recall only about 15 employees working there. Humphreys had little day-to-day contact with the management of NTL, including Arnold O. Beckman and Howard Cary, but what contact he had was positive. Humphreys worked on the electronics for many of the company's instruments including the Helipot, Model R pH meter, and others and remained with the company during its moves to new facilities in South Pasadena, and then Irvine, California. The need for instruments during World War II led to an increase in production and the development of new instruments. Although Humphreys was eligible for the draft, company executives helped him to get a deferment by arguing that he was doing work essential to the war effort. Humphreys remained with the company throughout his career. Although he did rise to supervisory positions, he surmises that he may have risen further if his interest in working hands-on with electronics had not distracted him from office politics. Humphreys concludes the interview by reflecting back on his career and the changes in electronics technology.

Professional Experience


National Technical Laboratories

1938 to 1941
Production Assistant, Electronic Department

Beckman Instruments, Inc

1941 to 1981
Production Supervisor and Assistant Production Manager

Table of Contents

Early Career

Building police transmitters. Move to National Technical Laboratories (NTL). Helipot (helical potentiometer). Description of NTL facility and co-workers. Model G and R pH meters. Howard H. Cary. Dr. Arnold O. Beckman. pH meters and water plants.

Move to New NTL Facility in South Pasadena, California

DU spectrophotometer. Frank Camarda. Dr. Warren Baxter. Description of production processes. Quality control.

World War II Period

Helipot. Model RXG. Microammeters. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Howard H. Cary. Hanford, Washington. Helipot Corporation. pH meters. Spectrophotometers. Model R. Model DU. IR-1 infrared spectrophotometer. Atomic Energy Commission. Arnold O. Beckman, Inc. Growth of NTL. Draft deferment. Importance of products to the war effort. IR-2. Departure of Howard H. Cary.

Post-War Years

Promotion to Supervisor. Liquid-Scintillation Radiation-type instruments. Nuclear instruments. Porterville plant. Move to Irvine, California. Reflections on changes in electronics technology. Position as supervisor of spectrophotometer testing. Management style.


Reflections on career and electronics field. Influence of transistors. Life long interest in electronics. Impressions of Howard H. Cary.


About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.

Gerald E. Gallwas

Gerald E. Gallwas was a member of the original team in the mid 1960s that founded and managed the growth of what became the clinical diagnostic business of Beckman Instruments. As the business grew, he served in many roles from new product development to directing clinical field trials in the United States, Europe, and Japan. This led to an extensive involvement with professional and trade organizations as well as regulatory agencies. He retired after thirty years of service as director of program management overseeing new product development programs.