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June 25, 2009

Professor wants to promote decades of UW innovation with science museum — on campus or online

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What’s an integrating nephelometer? “It measures how hazy the air is, but it does it quantitatively, and does it very accurately,” he says. Charlson is a retired — “and rehired part-time on a research grant” — professor of atmospheric sciences and chemistry.

The nephelometer itself, which looks rather like a homemade aluminum bazooka, isn’t as important as the part it plays in UW history, according to Charlson. And he ought to know — he invented the device in the 1960s with colleague Norman Ahlquist. Bearing both of their names, it’s U.S. Patent number 3,563,661.

“As far as I know, it’s the first royalty-bearing patent of the University of Washington,” he said with understandable pride. A black and white photograph from 1968 hangs on the wall of Charlson’s office in the Chemistry Library Building, showing the presentation of the first nephelometer-based royalty check, from a Battelle Institute representative to Donald Bevan, then UW vice provost for research. A youthful Charlson looks on, holding the prototype and beaming.

A Battelle Institute representative, right, hands a royalty check for the integrating nephelometer to Donald Bevan, then UW vice provost for research. Bob Charlson looks on, holding the prototype. Charlson invented the nephelometer with colleague Norman Ahlquist in the 1960s.

UW Photo

A Battelle Institute representative, right, hands a royalty check for the integrating nephelometer to Donald Bevan, then UW vice provost for research. Bob Charlson looks on, holding the prototype. Charlson invented the nephelometer with colleague Norman Ahlquist in the 1960s.

Charlson still remembers how he and Ahlquist merrily took the nephelometer prototype down to the Canoe House for a test run in a small rented plane. “We surreptitiously bolted it on the outside of a Cessna 180 sea plane and flew out over Hood Canal! Somewhere out there, there’s a UW photograph of that thing on the door of the airplane.”

Now, Charlson feels strongly that the prototypes for such notable UW inventions should be gathered and preserved for posterity in some sort of display — a campus science museum at best, a virtual, online presentation at the least.

“I think there’s value attached to the original device, even if it’s only as a curiosity,” he said. “It’s something to whet the imaginations of young people. And to bring the message to the public that the University of Washington is a place where invention occurs, and where money-making inventions are developed.”

He added, “Ideally, (the display) should be on the UW campus and it should be a place that is frequented by students, because I believe that’s the primary audience.”

Charlson is eager and willing to be a sort of one-man lobbying effort for this cause. Though knowing any such project to be a hard sell during tough financial times, he said, “This is exactly the time to come forward with big ideas and dreams.”

And of course this isn’t just about the nephelometer — he’s talking about the many UW-based inventions dating from before the creation of UW Tech Transfer, the office that has for years, and very capably, overseen UW innovations. These also are inventions before the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which laid down increased regulations on intellectual property rights.

Charlson is thinking of inventions like Belding Scribner’s arteriovenous shunt, which widened the use and effectiveness of kidney dialysis; Karl Edmark’s heart defibrillator and a later portable defibrillator, which counteract spasmodic twitching in the heart; Ben Hall’s groundbreaking and profitable work on protein expression in yeast, and many others. With the searching help of some friends, Charlson has a nine-page list of such UW innovations the prototypes for which he feels deserve to be gathered and preserved.

He said the notion came to him when he was reorganizing his office. “I came upon the collection of old patents from the 1960s and 1970s that I was involved with.” Some of the prototypes, such as the nephelometer, are in his office, lacking a better home. “I wondered what to do with all these old things.” He said contacted a few campus colleagues “and nobody had any idea whatsoever as to what to do with them.”

Charlson has an ally in Alvin Kwiram, who is both an emeritus professor of chemistry and former vice provost for research who served in that capacity from 1990 to 2002. Kwiram was series editor for the three Century of Excellence books about UW innovation published in the 1990s. Pathbreakers detailed scientific research, Showcase discussed scholarly activities in the professional schools and arts and sciences and Ventures profiled companies that were spun out of UW-related work.

Kwiram also has long felt that there should be some kind of science museum at the UW. “It would help us understand where we’ve been and what we have accomplished, and give a sense of the role this institution plays in the overall endeavor of the country and the world.”

Kwiram said, “It’s fair to say there has not been a systematic policy of maintaining records on past inventions.” No one’s to blame, he stressed — it’s just that “the typical scientist wants to do the next hot thing, and once they’re done, that’s history” and they’re moving on again.

As he pursued the idea, Charlson spoke with Stephanie Wright, a natural sciences librarian with UW Libraries, to see if the libraries might be interested in hosting such a display. Wright is truly supportive in theory, but also offers a difficult truth: In a time when libraries are actually closing, funding for such a project will be difficult to come across.

“I don’t want to diminish how important I think this project is — I absolutely think it’s valuable.” Wright said. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen quickly.” She said she’s willing to help research grant opportunities for the project “when things slow down” but has no time for such work now.

Charlson’s hopes are reflected, too, by Linden Rhoads, vice provost for UW Tech Transfer — both as a professional and as a parent. Rhodes wrote in an e-mail, “I applaud Bob’s efforts as we have had similar conversations regarding innovations that have come out of our office and the need for an exhibit of UW discoveries. As a parent, I think it would also serve as a wonderful educational tool to inspire school-age children.

In the meantime, though, Kwiram suggested a way to begin: “One thing I’ve thought about is to encourage individual departments to set aside a small space (for such items) and to be sure to solicit any notable artifacts from faculty or retirees, to preserve them before these people disappear.” Of the larger project, he added, “There’s no point starting to collect things if you have no way of dealing with them.”

The integrating nephelometer — and its more sophisticated cousin the multi-wavelength integrating nephelometer — are in use globally today, Charlson said. But like so many other inventions, they started at the UW.

He looks forward to the day when there’s an organized display telling — and showing — future generations about all such groundbreaking innovations.

“This is an opportunity looking for a place to happen,” he said.