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Evolution of the Pittsburgh Conference

In February 1950, the first Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy was held on the 17th floor of the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

by Katia Caporiccio
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After war broke out in Europe in 1939, the demand for quality goods and supplies skyrocketed. Mary Warga, an emissions spectroscopist and physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, became heavily involved in the war effort and started organizing small meetings on applied spectroscopy that gave rise to what is known today as the Pittsburgh Conference. Meeting attendance grew, and by 1946 the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP) was born. With Warga as its chairperson, the SSP held its first annual Pittsburgh Conference on Applied Spectroscopy.

The SSP joined the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP) and in February 1950, the first Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy was held on the 17th floor of the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh.

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1950 (Pittsburgh)

The three-day conference attracted 800 attendees at an admission price of $2 each. Prominent researchers in analytical chemistry included Van Zandt Williams, head of infrared spectroscopy at PerkinElmer, and Arnold Orville Beckman, inventor of the pH meter and founder of Beckman Instruments, which in 1998 became Beckman Coulter.

1957 (Pittsburgh)

The number of attendees had grown steadily over the first few years of the conference, as new technologies emerged. Automation was a popular catchphrase in 1957, with automatic recording being applied to burettes for titrimetry, vacuum microbalances, flow colorimeters and turbidimeters.

1960 (Pittsburgh)  

1967 (Pittsburgh)

Every space within a fiftymile radius of the Penn-Sheraton Hotel was filled to capacity. Debates started to emerge over whether to move to another city and grow even larger, or stay in Pittsburgh and limit the show’s growth.

1968 (Cleveland)

In October 1967, the Penn-Sheraton Hotel workers went on strike, so the Pittsburgh Conference organizers scrambled to find space for exhibits and housing for attendees. There were no other venues in Pittsburgh that could meet the needs of the ever-expanding conference, and the strike showed no signs of a resolution. The Cleveland Convention Center was available the first week of March, so the show was moved to Ohio. The committee members did not immediately abandon the idea of one day returning to Pittsburgh, but to this day the Conference has not seen its hometown.

1978 (Cleveland)

This was the first year that a woman, Jane Judd, served as exhibition president. Attendance numbers continued to soar. The 13,489 attendees at the 29th conference took in symposia on glass capillary gas chromatography, lab automation, microcomputers, OSHA and industrial hygiene, FT-IR and liquid chromatography on coal liquefication products.

1980 (Atlantic City)

When the staff at the Cleveland Convention Center scheduled a flower show the same week as the 31st Pittsburgh Conference, they damaged their relationship with the Pittsburgh organizers. Even the offer of free shuttle service and the construction of customized seminar rooms if they would stay one more year was not enough to bring the volunteers back to Cleveland. The conference moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

1984 (Atlantic City)

The theme for the 35th Pittsburgh Conference was “Instrumentation of the Future and an Overview of the Pimentel Report: New Frontiers in Chemistry.” More than a thousand people attended the central presentation by George C. Pimentel. “The Practice of Capillary Column Gas Chromatography I, II and III” highlighted this successful analytical technique.

1985 (New Orleans)

Arnold Beckman was honored at the 1985 Pittsburgh Conference on the 50th anniversary of the founding of his company, Beckman Instruments. The scope of the Conference had been increasing progressively since its inception in 1950, and it now ranked as one of the top technical meetings and trade shows in the country, if not the world. Its net worth was documented to be in the millions of dollars.

1989 (Atlanta)

Short course topics now included chromatography, electrophoresis, mass spectrometry, ICP-mass spectrometry, near infrared and supercritical fluid chromatography, among others. Rich Danchik, volunteer and president of the 37th Conference in 1986, credits PerkinElmer with a major technological advancement. “In the late 80s we had the first LIMS system from PerkinElmer,” he said. “It really changed the way things worked.” Ann Puskaric, president of the 41st Conference in 1990, agreed that LIMS was a breakthrough. “I tell people how I used to acquire data and they look at me like I’m an antique!” she said.

1990 (New York City)

A new symposium was introduced in 1990: the James L. Waters Annual Symposium Recognizing Pioneers in the Development of Analytical Instrumentation, which focused on gas chromatography. Even before the 1990 Conference opened, the show’s requirements were greater than what the available facilities could provide. There weren’t enough program and seminar rooms, and many of the conference programs and expositions spilled out into the halls, so the show was forced to move again.

1992 (New Orleans)

The name “Pittcon” was finally trademarked, after it had been used as a nickname by conferees and exhibitors since the early 1970s. The 3rd James L. Waters Annual Symposium focused on infrared spectroscopy. Among the speakers at the Waters Symposium was Paul L. Wilks, who built PerkinElmer’s first commercial infrared instrument in 1944.

1993 (Atlanta)

With continued popularity, The James L. Waters Symposium honored four pioneers in nuclear magnetic resonance. Ed Ladner, chairman of activities, remembered the “fun runs” Bio-Rad had sponsored for several years in Atlantic City and used the idea to host something similar—the “First Annual Pittsburgh Conference 50-Trillion-Angstrom (5k) Run.”

1995 (New Orleans)

The 6th Waters Symposium focused on high performance liquid chromatography after James L. Waters turned his company, Waters Associates, into an HPLC company.

2001 (New Orleans)

The technical program consisted of 215 sessions, including 50 symposia which focused on various topics: bioanalytical and electroanalytical chemistry, spectroscopy, mass spectroscopy, computers, laboratory information management systems, chromatography and capillary electrophoresis, microscopy and general difficulties with analytical chemistry. Much attention was given to LIMS.

2009 (Chicago)

In the face of a global economic recession, many exhibitors focused on customer needs and amplified workflow in order to remain competitive by offering rapid return on investment. Hot topics at the show were near-infrared spectroscopy, nanotechnology, genomics, chemical imaging, informatics, ELNs and LIMS. Attendance fell just below the 20,000 mark in 2008 and 2009, most likely due to budget constraints caused by the recession, but the number of exhibitors and papers continues to rise.


One of the biggest challenges facing Pittcon is the change in the way information is exchanged. With so much information available on the Internet, and the surge of online communication tools such as webcasts and virtual meetings, product literature and vendor information can be accessed without traveling to an annual exhibition. However, online tools can also compel companies to come up with new ways to interact with their customers.

“One-on-one communication is still important,” said Rich Danchik, who’s been a Pittcon volunteer for more than 40 years. “You can only get so much from statistics on a [web]site.”

Looking to Pittcon 2010, Danchik has a positive outlook. “We understand the economy isn’t the greatest right now,” he said. “We’re hoping for the best and encouraging people to come.”

References: Wright, Judith. Vision, Venture and Volunteers: 50 Years of the History of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy. Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1999.

Photo Credit: ©2009 Roy Engelbrecht/for the Pittsburgh Conference