William Nelson "Nels" Beck

Joliet Physicist's
Work Changed
Medical World

William Nelson Beck, of Joliet, IL, was the man who invented ultrasound. William Nelson "Nels" Beck liked to tinker and could fix anything. He was a gadget man.

As 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.

In 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.

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.

His neighbors remember him as an extremely kind man. Nels Beck died on June 16, 1996 at the age of 72.

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.

Nels was a practical joker who expressed his humor on any occasion. In the hospital and even on his death bed, Nels was still joking.

William Nelson "Nels" Beck was a modest man. The Joliet man never bragged about the contribution that he had given the world. Even his own son didn't know until later in life, when he mentioned to his father that his pregnant wife was going in for an ultrasound test. Only then did Nels tell his son that he discovered ultrasound.

In 1957, Beck, a physicist, was

conducting an experiment at

Argonne National Labratory. He

was working on a scanner for

production volume testing of

reactor fuel elements. He

substituted his arm for a fuel

element and adjusted the

sensitivity of the recording unit.

He could distinguish flesh from

bone on the electrosensitive

paper. He had a picture. And

ultrasound had been discovered.