Carrots and the First UV-VIS Spectrophotometer

World War II generated a lot of interesting propaganda and a lot of interesting hardware. In this post, we’ll see a mix.

From 1939-1945, Great Britain was dark at night as a result of wartime blackouts that were designed to make it difficult for the Germans. “Carrots provide a good remedy for blackout blindness, which afflicts many a Briton, on these wartime nights and have the additional merit of improving the complexion, the British have been told officially. The Ministry of Agriculture in London declares that carrots are the best source of Vitamin A, which is healthy for healthy eyes. They should be eaten raw, as cooking tends to destroy the vitamin. “If we included a sufficient quantity of carrots in our diet,” said the ministry, “we should overcome the early prevalent maladay of blackout blindness.” Carrots are termed the best vegetable for improving the complexion, by Gaylord Hanser, Hollywood beauty expert, according to the Ministry.” [1]

Food was scarce, but there were plenty of carrots and carrots were inexpensive. The British government wanted Britons to eat more carrots. They generated interesting recipes to help facilitate it…even carrot fudge.

Perhaps more hopefully, the British government wanted the Germans to think that the reason British fighters were succeeding against German aircraft at night was…..carrots. They did not want the Germans to know about its new airborne RADAR, which was responsible for thwarting the nighttime raids. It’s doubtful that the German bought the story.

But this note is not really about carrots. Leading up to World War II, the US military was confronted with a young male population that was suffering from a nutritional deficit caused by The Great Depression. There was a big push for more research into vitamins and nutrition. Vitamin A is important to good health and it received a lot of attention.

Before 1942, the standard procedure for measuring the concentration of Vitamin A in a food supplement/sample was:

  1. Feed the sample to rats for three or four weeks
  2. Measure the growth in the length of the rats’ tails
  3. Develop a model for tail bone growth as a function of Vitamin A concentration

Dr. Arnold O. Beckman had a better solution. He said, “In 1940, no one at National Technical Laboratories had any extensive experience in spectrophotometry. The fact was recognized, however, that the amplifier of the Beckman pH meter was well suited for use with vacuum-type phototubes. The company began a spectrophotometer development program in early 1940, and the responsibility for this program was assigned to H. H. Cary. Consulting assistance was sought from recognized optical experts, but World War II was under way and experts were hard to find. Roger Hayward, a professional architect and amateur scientist with some optic experience from his association with the Mount Wilson Observatory, provided a needed link to monochromator technology. His genius for quickly translating ideas into useful sketches was partially responsible for the extreme rapidity with which the DU spectrophotometer was developed. Douglas Marlow provided proficiency in mechanical design.

The Beckman DU at the time of product launch.

The first instrument designed was a glass Fery prism instrument, but its performance was not considered suitable. A quartz prism Littrow design with a tangent-bar drive followed and was designated the Model Β. Of the two quartz Model Β instruments produced, one was sold to the Chemistry Department of the University of California of Los Angeles in February 1941, and the other is in the company’s historical museum. This instrument utilized a tangent-bar mechanism which provided a substantially linear wavelength scale. Unfortunately, the scale was too compressed, particularly in the ultraviolet region, and was replaced by a Model C with its innovative scroll drive, which was used in all subsequent Beckman quartz prism monochromators. Of the three Model C instruments produced, California Institute of Technology, Vita Foods Co., and Riverside Experiment Station each purchased one. The Caltech instrument was later returned to the company for its museum.” [2]

After Beckman’s DU, the process for Vitamin A concentration measurements became:

  1. Dissolve the nutritional sample in water
  2. Place it in the DU and measure absorption

Rats were spared, researchers were spared the three weeks for tail growth, and the military improved the nutrition of warfighters. Yes, carrots were tested in a DU!

It’s important to note that visible and IR spectrophotometers were already present in the marketplace by the time of the DU’s introduction. However, Dr. Beckman realized that biological samples required UV sources and optical systems. The DU was the first commercial UV-VIS device. This was a very big deal.

I’m hunting for a DU to inspect and perhaps refurbish.

[1] “Carrots Remedy for Blindness,” The Daily Colonist, Victoria BC, FEB 9, 1941.

[2] Beckman, A.O., Gallaway, W. S., Kaye, W., and Ulrich, W. F. “History of Spectrophotometry at Beckman Instruments, Inc.”. Analytical Chemistry, 49, pp 280A-300A (1977).