"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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