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Epilogue | Robert Wallace Beckwith

Inventor Robert Beckwith thrived on the theoretical edge

LARGO — Robert Beckwith, the owner of a successful electric company, was at home on the fringes of science.

While his employees made devices for generators, he was trying to levitate a quarter. While they were listening to customers, he was driving rods in the ground, listening for earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean.

The 125 employees of Beckwith Electric Co. don't mind if Mr. Beckwith, who died Oct. 25 at 90, lived on the theoretical edge. The 42-year-old company he started hasn't had layoffs in more than a decade.

He invented six of the products his company sells, including a 1990s precursor to the "smart grid" technology envisioned today.

"There was always an intensity in Bob," said engineer Drew Craig, 55. "He had these ideas, and these ideas burned in him."

Mr. Beckwith admired turn-of-the-century inventor Nikola Tesla, who introduced powering machinery with alternating current, a key component in the industrial revolution. He shared Tesla's fascination with magnetism and time travel, but couldn't get a magnetic coil to levitate a coin.

"The joke around the office was, maybe he should have used a dime instead of a quarter," said his son, Tom Beckwith, the company's chief executive.

Mr. Beckwith grew up in Kent, Ohio, an only child in a family with traceable roots to the Mayflower-era American colonies. He worked for General Electric before founding Beckwith Electric in 1967, which designs and manufactures devices for generators and transformers used by utility companies. A tornado destroyed the building in 1992, an event Mr. Beckwith calmly declared an "opportunity to rebuild."

He obtained 30 patents over the years, most of them for nuts-and-bolts methods of regulating electrical current. In recent years he was working on a way to predict earthquakes by measuring underground electrical vibrations. Mr. Beckwith had collected data that seemed to show a pattern between rumblings in the ground — as far away as the Pacific — and electrical signals received.

"We saw that we were getting vibrations that appeared to have some correlation to seismic events," Craig said. If the electrical field around the earth (discovered by Tesla) reacts to shifts in the earth, it could allow for advance warning for earthquakes, Mr. Beckwith believed.

Away from work, Mr. Beckwith and his second wife, Evelyn, enjoyed yearly trips to New Mexico, where he looked for Hopi art at an annual festival and in villages. The paintings he brought back hang on his office walls, interspersed with Mr. Beckwith's own artwork: including a drawing of an iron bridge that emerges from a mountainside and stretches across a gorge — until it stops in midair, suspended by a couple of balloons.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Robert Wallace Beckwith

Born: July 25, 1919.

Died: Oct. 25, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Evelyn Bortner-Beckwith; son, Tom, and his wife, Liddora; daughter, Barbara Anderson; step-children, Marty Orosz and Robert Bortner; three grandchildren; and four stepgrandchildren.

Inventor Robert Beckwith thrived on the theoretical edge 11/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 6:24pm]
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