History's People: Fueling the Scientific Revolution

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Author: 
Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Publication: 
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
January 19, 2012

When most people think of Chester County's history, they think of rolling fields, the Underground Railroad, and the American Revolution.  But Chester County is not just farms and cannonballs. Its heritage includes a vast technological revolution that influenced the modern world. At the heart of that revolution was Kennett Square resident Aaron Martin and F & M Scientific in Avondale. 

The story begins, like many histories of scientific corporations in the mid-Atlantic, with DuPont, a company at the forefront of post-WWII scientific advancements.

During the post-war boom, Lancaster native Aaron Martin graduated from Franklin and Marshall College with a B.S. in Chemistry, and later a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Penn State. Soon after, he and college friend Eugene Bennett joined the Polychemical Division at DuPont's Experimental Station, just outside Wilmington. They quickly noticed the talents of Frank Martinez, a skilled glassblower who fabricated apparatus used to analyze materials, including gas chromatographs.

Chromatography, a method of separating a mixture into its chemical components, began in Russia in 1906. In this process, various components of a liquid sample moved at different speeds, and separated into colored bands, hence the name “chromatography,” which means the reading of colors. In the 1950s, the concept became widely applicable to analysis problems. 

Frank Martinez, while working for Drs. Martin and Bennett, began producing gas chromatographs which could detect a wider range of materials than their predecessors. Demand for his devices grew, and with DuPont's permission, Martinez began moonlighting in the basement of his Wilmington home. He built chromatographs for DuPont and, later, for other corporations under the name “F & M Scientific Glassware Co.” Drs. Bennett and Martin saw the potential of these instruments, and the three decided to start a company to produce them.  Martinez left DuPont in 1958; Bennett and Martin in 1959.

They started their business at the New Castle County Airbase with Martinez at the helm, Dr. Martin in charge of research and development, and Dr. Bennett handling marketing. It was risky - all had young families to support. However, as Dr. Martin remarks today, "even though it was just the three of us, F & M was already an established business and we always felt like we could go back to DuPont or another suitable employer."

The company's meteoric rise began at the Pittsburgh Conference, the annual showcase of analytical instrumentation. As Dr. Martin recalls, they were "too late to secure a booth... so F & M set up  shop in a room on the second floor of the hotel." Soon, a buzz grew about the young company that had an innovative new instrument - a programmable high temperature chromatograph. Its capabilities vastly expanded the number and type of detectable materials and the speed and accuracy of analysis.

This instrument, the F & M model 202 Gas Chromatograph, was the star of the show. Representatives from companies like Pfizer, Dow, and Esso lined up with samples to be analyzed. Now, things like petroleum, polymers, and drugs could be analyzed in a matter of minutes.

Orders rolled in and the company expanded greatly in 1959. F & M hired most of the graduating class of Wilmington’s Brown Votech School as manufacturing staff. The number of employees went from three to 25, sales doubled from $250,000 to $500,000. Those statistics nearly doubled every year thereafter for several years.

In 1961, F & M outgrew its facility and moved to Avondale, where the fledgling company was welcomed by the community.  The 30-acre property had a mansion they renovated into offices and called "the castle." They added a large plant to the property and all three men moved their personal residences to Chester County.

That year, they also opened offices in Texas, Chicago and Cleveland. By 1962, F & M had 110 employees and produced 150 instruments monthly that were shipped all over the world. In 1963, Dr. Martin and his family moved to Amsterdam for a year to open a new factory overseas. 

In 1965, Martinez, Martin, and Bennett sold the company to Hewlett Packard (HP), who took on employees who wished to stay. All three became part of the company and in 1966, HP constructed another building on the site which still exists today. They continued in their Avondale plant until the 1970s and eventually, the company split from HP as Agilent. According to David C. Brock, Senior Research Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, "Agilent has gone on to become one of the top instrumentation companies in the world."  

 According to Brock, the story of F & M is "part of a general revolution in the practice of chemistry that occurred from 1940 to 1970, and gas chromatographs became particularly important for biochemistry in the 1960s and 1970s." "In fact," Brock continues, "they became one of the central tools for monitoring environmental contaminants in water, soil, and air in the 1970s." All three of F & M's founders are in the “Instrumentation Hall of Fame” of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Aaron Martin remained with HP for about three years before moving on. Just as he did when he left DuPont, Dr. Martin believed in several new products so strongly that he left the company to develop them. One of those spin offs, Chemical Data Systems, still exists today in Oxford, PA.  His spirit of innovation persisted for decades, as he ran his own research and development activities in his basement.

Today, Dr. Martin is proud to serve the community in a variety of leadership capacities. He was on the board of Franklin and Marshall College and served as its chairman. A 50-year resident of Kennett Square, he  is involved in numerous non-profit organizations. In 2002, the Chester County Community Foundation awarded him the prestigious Jordan Award, which recognizes exemplary leadership in philanthropy. 

When reflecting back on his time with F & M, Dr. Martin notes the differences between the spirit of invention and entrepreneurship then, compared to today.  "Since then," Dr. Martin remarks, "innovation in analytical chemistry has slowed." This has been an evolution that was "perhaps replaced by biotechnological developments such as DNA sequencing."

Despite these changes, the work of Dr. Martin and F & M in Avondale has indelibly left its mark on the world's scientific advancements. For Chester County, the spirit of F & M's entrepreneurial innovation both reflects and contributed to the overall character of the County - a place firmly rooted in a rich past, while fueled by the creativity and innovation of those that call it home.

Caption (below):  This photograph shows (l-r) Aaron Martin, Eugene Bennett, and Frank Martinez just before Aaron Martin's journey to set up operations in Amsterdam, 1963. Original photo by Martinez's Secretary, Kenneth G. Emerson and restored by Dallas Knight, both current CCHS volunteers.