Biz Kid

Robert Allington was already an engineering undergraduate at 16 when he was diagnosed with polio. Boredom during recovery drove him to open a part-time business based in his home, repairing and making scientific instruments. He called the company Isco.

By Kelly Tuttle | January 16, 2013

Playing hide-and-seek in Lincoln, Nebraska, hadn’t changed much until 1950, when 15-year-old Robert Allington designed and built a night-vision scope. Suddenly, the boys in his neighborhood could play in the dark. In his CHF oral history Allington says of that time, “I wanted to astound the kids in the neighborhood, get their admiration, and all that kind of stuff.”

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Robert Allington (right) and his brother John Allington, ca. 1960

Robert Allington (right) and his brother John Allington, ca. 1960.

Teledyne Isco File Photos

Born in 1935 in Madison, Wisconsin, where his father was a professor of plant pathology, Allington spent most of his life in Lincoln, where the family moved in 1948. Junior high was a social disaster: Allington says he wanted no part of the social scene, unless he could sidetrack the bullies with his inventions; the idea was that they would stop tormenting him and he could make friends and impress people. He started experimenting out of curiosity, but what he made was often determined by what other kids wanted. Electronics interested Allington, and, along with building a working radio at age 13 and the night-vision scope at 15, he also put together high-voltage, “truly evil” Tesla coils and designed a stereo system.

A natural next step for the young tinkerer was the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL), and he went there as a 16-year-old to study engineering, with a sideline in chemistry. In the summer of 1955 he interned at the Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington, Massachusetts, working on the 100-square-foot by four-stories-high Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air-defense computer AN/FSQ- 7, which went online three years later and was retired only in 1983. Allington loved working with the computer built to track and intercept enemy bomber aircraft.

In August of that year, shortly before he was to return to school, Allington was diagnosed with polio. The Lincoln Lab doctor dropped him at the emergency entrance of the nearest hospital and told him to call home. Allington walked slowly to the hospital’s elevator. He never walked again.

In June 1958, after three years of treatment, recovery, and agonizing physical therapy, Allington was finally done with all hospital care. He returned to UNL to complete his studies. A master’s degree in electrical engineering followed quickly. But the acute boredom Allington suffered during his recovery contributed more to his future life than any degree. In 1957 this boredom drove him to open a part-time business based in his home, repairing and making scientific instruments. In partnership with toolmaker Jacob Schafer, Allington took requests for specialty equipment, which he designed and Schafer built.

In 1959 a near disaster resulting from Allington’s business naïveté ultimately turned the tide for Isco, their company. A customer in the Veterinary Science department at UNL had asked for a device to measure potentially fatal gas pressure in cow stomachs. Too much rich food like alfalfa can cause dangerous bloating, which can be deadly to the cow if not treated. This was a technically difficult project that took almost a year to complete. Allington says “the transmitter had to be small enough to be shoved down the animal’s throat.” It also had to float with its pressure-sensitive end above all that digesting food. When Allington delivered the product and a bill for $3,500, he discovered his customer had no money. Instead, he offered Allington 10 cents on the dollar. “I figured my pride was worth more than $350,” says Allington, “so I flounced out, or at least flounced as well as somebody in a wheelchair can flounce!” Fortunately for Isco a man from the Feed Service Corporation called that very day asking for a similar product. Allington was shocked and remembers thinking, “I could sell my ruminant pressure apparatus for mechanical oxidation-reduction potential for studies in ruminant animals.”

“Why, yes, indeed,” he told the man on the phone. “We can probably supply you with one of those systems in just a couple of months, and how much is it worth to you?” Not only did that single order (for which Allington made sure to have a contract) provide him with enough money to leave his basement for better business quarters, it also gave him a quick but effective lesson in management.

By 1964 Isco was established enough to allow Allington to buy out Schafer’s share when he decided to leave. The company had mostly stopped making one-off items at that point since they were not worth the trouble. The cash cows were an ultraviolet absorbance detector and a fraction collector, both used in chromatography. Allington headed his company for another 40 years, shepherding it through several major expansions and restructurings, and playing a significant role in R&D right up until its sale two years before his death in 2006.

As part of his bequest Robert Allington endowed the Allington Fellowship at CHF’s Beckman Center, which funds short-term research on any topic in the history of chemistry. Past Allington Fellows have researched topics ranging from English alchemy to the history of Prussian blue to quantum chemistry in the Soviet Union.

The print edition of this article misidentified John Allington in the photo caption. Chemical Heritage regrets the error.