Liston-Becker Model 28 Exhaust Gas Analyzer
ca. 1956
Science History Institute

As early as the 1940s it was clear to any observer that the air in some major U.S. cities was being polluted. Dense smoke, or smog, appeared in the sky over Los Angeles in 1943. By the 1950s episodes of smog around the country had prompted government action and scientific study, and automobile exhaust became the most likely suspect.

But proving automobiles were the culprit necessitated mobile analysis of smog and the emissions of automobiles themselves—and a capable instrument to measure them. Liston-Becker, cofounded by engineer Max Liston and Morris Folb, had developed emissions testers and sold their analyzers to major U.S. auto manufacturers during the early 1950s. In 1955 the company was purchased by Arnold Beckman’s Beckman Instruments. Beckman, a Southern California resident, had a strong interest in solving the smog issue and was drawn by Liston-Becker’s history with gas analysis.

In 1956 the city of Los Angeles conducted emissions tests to determine whether cars were to blame for the smog of Los Angeles. Why was the Model 28 an appropriate instrument? It was portable: the instrument could fit in a car’s backseat and was powered by batteries in the trunk. Liston recounted the findings of those tests:

What the emissions tests uncovered was unbelievable. Many of the test cars had V8 engines that were maintained poorly. Experimenters commonly discovered one or two of an engine’s cylinders wouldn’t fire under some conditions, which caused raw fuel to pour out of their tailpipes. The experimenters also discovered that the smog in L.A. was causing a varnish to form in the automobiles’ carburetors, which changed the fuel-to-air ratio.

Thus the Model 28 helped shape the science that would solve and attempt to mitigate the urban smog issue. Research conducted by many atmospheric scientists, including Deb Niemeier, attempts to understand how our driving patterns continue to affect our air.