W. Nelson Beck

William Nelson Beck (1923-1996)

Joliet Herald News article from 1996 | Discovery of Ultrasound | Argonne National Lab Official site | Obituary


The Joliet Herald News published the following article in the Neighbors Section on June 22, 1996


"He was a kind of a handyman. He could . . . fix anything."

Janet Madrigal, Neighbor

As a college instructor in 1949, Nelson Beck built his "car of the future."
The wooden vehicle got 45 miles per gallon.

The man who invented ultrasound could also be relied on
to fix the neighbor's dishwasher


John Beck always knew that his dad could fix things. William Nelson "Nels" Beck liked to tinker. He was a gadget man. But the son had no idea just how important one of his father's gadgets has been to the world.

About five years ago, the younger man told his father that his pregnant wife was going to take an ultrasound test. Nels smiled and nodded his head at his son. "I discovered ultrasound," the older man replied.

John couldn't believe that he didn't know about his father's role in the development of ultrasound. But Nels was a modest man. A man who didn't brag about all the things he had done in his life.

navy fly boyPBYAs a young navy pilot in World War II, Nels was known as "Cadet Gadget." He was a bright pilot who was always inventing some kind of gadget that would help his fellow pilots. Among those gadgets was something that probably has saved many pilot lives. The original Mae West life jacket required a pilot to manually inflate it before entering water. Nels developed a modification that automatically inflated the Mae West when it hit the water.

He went on to college at Dakota Wesleyan and the University of South Dakota after the War. While serving as a college instructor in 1949, Nels built what he called the car of the future. It was made of plywood and cost $76.37. The car got 40 miles per gallon of gas.

physicistIn 1955, Nels joined the staff at Argonne National Laboratory as a physicist. He discovered the use of ultrasound there in 1957. At the time, Nels was working on a scanner for the production volume testing of reactor fuel elements. In an experiment, he substituted his own arm for the fuel element and adjusted the sensitivity of the recording unit so that it was possible to discriminate between flesh and bone on the electrosensitive paper.

first ultrasound"X-ray pictures with sound waves?" a science magazine asked on Dec. 9, 1957. "Argonne National Laboratory is demonstrating it can be done, though the pictures aren't yet of standard quality. W.N. Beck of Argonne's Metallurgy Division pioneered the technique..."

Nels continued to tinker with gadgets. In an Argonne newsletter story about him, he said that when he saw someone doing a task that required energy and hand movement, he wondered if it could be done by a machine of some sort. In that same article, he said it was much easier to invent a gadget than to get it manufactured and marketed.

patentkeyhole Over the years, he had invented a magnetized key hole for the late night party-goer. And there was a toothbrush that he invented with a hollow handle to hold toothpaste. A back screw would force the paste upon the brush's bristles. He had a patent on a garden hose timer valve that he had developed.

Nels retired from Argonne after 39 years. But he continued to make gadgets in his basement workshop, and he did all kinds of repairs for his neighbors. "He was a kind of neighborhood handyman," said Janet Madrigal, a next-door neighbor. "He could figure out what was wrong and fix anything." He took her dishwasher apart and fixed it. He helped remodel her bathroom.

But even more so, Madrigal said her friend and neighbor was an extremely kind man.

Nels Beck died on June 16 at the age of 72. Funeral services were held Wednesday in Joliet, Illinois.

He was very active in the Grace United Methodist Church, where he sang in the choir. Nels was the son of dedicated missionaries who had spent their lives in Bolivia. His father, a medical doctor built a 100-bed hospital for the Indians at La Paz.

John Beck, 38, said his father was a practical joker who expressed his humor on any occasion. In the hospital and on his death bed, Nels was still joking.

"My dad was like a good friend," John said. After his father died, John was trying to repair his mother's vacuum cleaner. He went to several places in Joliet trying to find a certain kind of bolt to make the repair. No one had that kind of bolt. Then it suddenly hit John. I couldn't find that kind of bolt because my father had made that bolt himself," John said. That was just one more gadget that Nels Beck had made.

Story by John Whiteside, June 22, 1996


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