It fits in the palm of your hand and has the ability to detect invisible particulates in the air. The electron capture detector (ECD) was created by James Lovelock, who built the prototype at his kitchen table.
In the late 1950s Lovelock was a young researcher attempting to determine the damage done to living cells when frozen. He discovered that his own instrumentation was not nearly sensitive enough; so he built the ECD to handle the analysis. The ECD is an analytical device that can detect extremely low concentrations (down to a few parts in a trillion) of select substances.
Lovelock created the first version of the device in 1957. By 1960 an updated version was ready for use by organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where researchers tested for pesticides on a variety of foods. But the ECD’s reach went even further as researchers used the instrument to investigate just how far halogenated pesticides had penetrated into the environment. In 1967 Lovelock, with the ECD’s aid, found that the air on the western Irish coast was not clean, as previously believed, but rather was laden with chlorofluorocarbons, compounds we now know damage our atmosphere. The data amassed by ECD-armed researchers gave Rachel Carson a sound basis for her work Silent Spring, which not only asserted that pesticides were reaching further into the environment than we once thought but also that the effect of these compounds was detrimental to a variety of organisms.
ECDs, themselves undergoing a series of transformations throughout the years, became integral parts of other scientific instrumentation, like gas chromatographs, by the early 1960s.
Scientists create tools that range in size and sensitivity but accomplish the same general goal: to understand just one more piece of the puzzle of the world around us. The ECD is another example of not only the ingenuity of the creators of instrumentation but the ability of the scientific community to adapt those tools to help solve new problems and answer new questions about our environment.
In the video below Jody Roberts explains how the ECD came to be and its relevance in a new vocabulary of environmentalism.