Humboldt State University ® Department of Chemistry

Robert A. Paselk Scientific Instrument Museum

 
The following history is provided courtesy of John and Geraldine Shannon, ©1999, and is reprinted with permission. For the original illustrated chapter and additional infomation (including a general history of the precision balance, other manufacturers, illustrations of assay balances, reprinted catalog materials, footnotes, etc.) see their book.
 
© Richard Paselk 2002
 

 
 

Christopher Becker and the Becker Companies

John Meeks Shannon and Geraldine Collins Shannon

Although Ernest Child in his Tools of the Chemist relates that Christopher Becker was the pioneer American balance maker, it may be more correct to state that he was a pioneer in the United States in the making of scientific balances and to a certain extent, other scientific instruments. Henry Troemner began making scales and balances in Philadelphia in 1844, at least eleven years prior to Christopher Becker's introduction to analytical balances in 1855. Becker was, nonetheless, one of ten balance manufacturers to begin making assay balances in the United States. The Becker companies contributed to the development of not only the assay balance, but also to the analytical balance, the bullion balance, as well as other specialized and general scales and balances.

Christopher Becker was born at Filsum, near Hannover, Germany in 1803. He attended school in Filsum and became an apprentice to Mr. Humboldt in Hannover. There he acquired the early training that resulted in his becoming an outstanding manufacturer of balances, scales and scientific instruments. Around 1828, he moved to Groningen, The Netherlands where he made many accurate instruments of great variety: airpumps, dividing machines, heliostats, pendulums, and balances. He later moved to Arnhem, The Netherlands where he established an instrument factory in 1836 and became well-known for balances, electrical instruments and barometers.

It was in Arnhem that he met and married Louisa J. Marius, which marriage resulted in five sons: Christian (b. August 16, 1844) , Ernst, Jule, Henry and a fifth son whose name is unknown. (The authors were not able to determine if the fifth son was August Becker who apprenticed to Herman Ausfeld in Gotha, Germany and to Wilhelm Apel of Gottingen, Germany in approximately 1868. August later owned the establishment of Moritz Meyerstein in Gottingen, which in turn was purchased by Florenz Sartorius, the famous balance maker. As another possibility, was the fifth son was the late nineteenth century balance and instrument maker F. E. Becker of London? It is hoped that future research will determine if there is a connection between the Christopher Becker family and these last two Beckers.)

In 1854 or 1855, the Beckers and four sons emigrated to America, where Christopher began manufacturing nautical and astronomical instruments in an observatory at 54 Columbia St., Brooklyn, New York. From here "he gave the correct time to ships in the harbor by means of a ball on top of the observatory. The ball was controlled electrically and coordinated with an extremely accurate temperature-compensated clock that Christopher had built. The accuracy was checked periodically by astronomical observations." (Biographical History of Westchester Co., New York, 294)

Sometime in 1855, "the precision capabilities demonstrated by Christopher attracted the attention of Prof. J. Renwick of Columbia College, who asked him to manufacture an analytical balance to supplement several British and German ones that he already had." (Carley, 1002) Using design suggestions from Professor Renwick and his own experience since 1836, an instrument was built that carried a distinct advantage in precision construction. The beam arrest was so constructed that the arms were pivoted about a common axis of the center knife edge and moved through the same arc as the supporting points of the beam. The success of this project resulted in Christopher's devoting his entire business time to the manufacture of analytical balances and weights. Together with Christian and Ernst he formed Becker & Sons.

It was also during these early years that Christian Becker attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, which later became Polytechnic University. Records from the school show that he attended the third grade in 1857-58, was in the senior academic department in 1859 and the junior collegiate department in 1860. There is no evidence from those records that he graduated. He eventually entered his father's factory, and, one by one, mastered every department and detail of the business, thus becoming a practical workman in the manufacture of scales and balances.

The Brooklyn, New York city directories classify Christopher an instrument maker living at 25 Hicks in Brooklyn from 1856 to 1859. From 1859 to 1862 the directories show that he lived at 54 Columbia. Shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War, the family returned to The Netherlands, where they established a balance factory in Antwerp. Here they were joined by other sons who had not accompanied the family to America in 1854.

After the Civil War in the United States, Christopher, along with his wife and Christian and Ernst, returned to the United States and established a new factory in Hudson City, New Jersey. (The other two sons stayed on the continent and established Becker's Sons in Rotterdam and Delft, Holland and H. L. Becker Fils, in Brussels, Belgium.)

Meanwhile, after 1865, Christopher moved his factory twice, first from Hudson City, New Jersey to Newark, New Jersey and then in 1875 to New Rochelle, New York. "(Christopher's) excellent workmanship and his honest dealing soon won him a liberal patronage, and his trade constantly increased. This enabled him to employ a considerable force of skilled workmen, and his scales gained a wide reputation for accuracy, durability and fineness of finish." (Biographical History of Westchester Co., New York, 295) As further evidence of this increasing reputation as a balance maker, the 1878 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica refers to a "very excellent instrument (i.e., balance) made by Messrs. Becker and Company of New York . . ." In addition to the statement, the article includes a drawing of a Becker balance and a drawing of the end of the beam.

In 1870 Christian Becker married Anna C. H. Alker of Jersey City, New Jersey and they had five children: Christopher A., who became associated with his father in business; Cora L., Florence L., Anita E. and Frank C.

At least between 1879 and 1884, Becker & Sons also had offices on Murray Street in New York City. First at No. 4 and later at No. 6. (See section in SeKo article regarding the financial district.)

In 1884 Christian and Ernst left their father and started their own business as Becker Brothers and Christopher changed the name of his company to Christopher Becker; for a short while there were two Becker companies doing business in the Westchester County area. Boyd's Westchester County Directory for 1884-85 lists "Christian Becker (Scales NY) with his home on Banks near Prospect and Christopher Becker, scales with his home on Church near Trinity." Christopher Becker continued to be engaged successfully in business until a short time before his death in 1890, when the firm of Christopher Becker ceased to exist.

In 1892 Ernst died and the name Becker Brothers was changed to Christian Becker. It continued as such until February 8, 1915 when The Torsion Balance Company bought the company and formed a New York corporation called Christian Becker, Inc. At least at one time during the era of Christian Becker, Inc. a factory was located at 147- 149 Eighth Street, Jersey City, New Jersey, while an office was located at 92 Reade Street, New York, NY. Later the factory address became 147-153 Eighth Street, Jersey City, New Jersey, suggesting a major expansion.

Perhaps one of the best known products of the Beckers was the "chain-o-matic" system of weighing. "Christopher A. Becker, son of Christian, was granted in 1915 a patent for the chain-o-matic system. This provides the beam with a special chain attachment by means of which the use of a rider is obviated and permits weights between 0.01 and 0.0001 gram to be rapidly ascertained. The principle of the system was conceived and patented in 1890 by Serrin, a Frenchman, who previously had applied it to electric arc regulators. The first balance to employ his chain principle was made about 1900 by Demichel of Paris, who sold his business in 1903 to Poulenc Freres, later Prolabo Poulenc, the present French makers of these balances. A similar patent was granted in 1891 to an Englishman, G. P. Bidder, Q. C. (1836-1896), but on the advice of a prominent English scientist, its commercial application was not pursued. The principle was applied to a scale, however, by the famous Egyptologist, Sir William M. Flinders Petrie, in his work of weighing thousands of ancient weights." (Child, 88)

Richmond's Annual Directory of New Rochelle, Larchmont, Pelham and Mamaroneck of 1913 tells that Christian Becker (a scale maker), along with Christopher A. and Frank C. Becker, were living at 7 Davenport Avenue.

In 1943, Christian Becker, Inc. was dissolved and became a division of The Torsion Balance Company. The name of Christian Becker, however, was registered as a trade-mark with the U. S. Patent Office. Vertex Industries, Inc. purchased The Torsion Balance Company in 1975, and in 1983 Vertex Industries Inc. merged with its subsidiaries and The Torsion Balance Company became the Torbal Division of Vertex Industries, Inc.

As recently as 1961, the American Balance Corporation, manufacturers of Analytical Balances and Precision Weights, had as its president H. C. Becker. The firm was located at 48 Potter Avenue, New Rochelle, New York.

Although obviously biased for a local company, the following statement indicates how widespread was the use of Becker products. "Becker scales and balances have been used by pharmacists and in government assay work, and were at one time adopted in all the leading colleges of the United States. They were also shipped to every part of the civilized globe, and the company received the highest compliments concerning the accuracy and finish of their scales and balances, which at one time were considered preferable to the finest London manufactures." (Biographical History of Westchester Co., New York, 295)

The Becker family may be considered a major force in the small but important balance manufacturing industry in the United States. They preceded by many years the efforts in the western states of Ainsworth, Smith and Thompson, Franow, Keller and Heusser, all of whom developed their companies around the turn of the century. In addition to providing for businesses many accurate and very well-made balances and scales so important to early trading, Becker also afforded the opportunity for others to learn the trade and establish their businesses in turn. Primary in this category are Gottfried Voland, Henry Van Zelm and Herman Kohlbusch, who have already been mentioned and whose stories are discussed elsewhere.

Sources for quotes:

  1. Child, Ernest. The Tools of the Chemist. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation (1940).
  2. Biographical History of Westchester Co., New York Vol. 1. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Co., (1899).
  3. Carley, Tod. "A Tale of Two Companies: Torsion Balance Co. and Christian Becker." Equilibrium 2 (1987): 996-1003.


Catalog Records


Vendor Catalog Scans

As a supplement to the catalog information gathered above by the Shannons (some of which is illustrated in their book), a collection of scanned images and descriptions of balances is available via the table below.

The images and catalog descriptions are scanned from vendor catalogs in the curator's collection, beginning in 1910, and ending in 1968, the last catalog to include Becker balances. In each case an effort has been made to scan all of the balances of a given manufacturer in the catalog. It should be noted. however, that the distributors generally show only a selection of balances from any one manufacturer. Catalogs are selected from the curator's collection at approximately ten year intervals, when available, with a second criteria being representation of the specific manufacturer.

Time Period Catalogs 
1910-1930

 Eimer & Amend (1910)

Arthur H. Thomas Co. (1921)

Braun Corp. (1934)

 1940  Braun-Knecht-Heiman-Co. (1940)
 1950-1970

 Central Scientific Co. (1950)

Fisher Scientific Co. (1958)

Van Waters and Rogers (1968)


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© R. Paselk
Last modified 18 July 2002