Magnifying glass icon Magnifying glass icon Close icon

A Community at Risk: Los Angeles and the Fight for Clean Air (ONLINE EXHIBIT)

MARCH 16, 2024 - ONGOING

Online Exhibit Video and PDFs

In the 1940s and 1950s, Los Angeles was blanketed with a thick layer of smog that impacted the health of its residents. Dr. Beckman led a committee to investigate the cause of the smog and published an influential report on the study's results. Instrumentation was developed to measure chemical pollutants in the air, as well as for long-term air quality control. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce issued an Action Plan, and new rules and regulations went into effect. This online exhibit tells the history of the smog fight in L.A. and Dr. Beckman's efforts working toward cleaner air.

The online exhibit is accessible below for viewing here, or on its host platform. Its mp4 file format was rendered in high definition (1080p). Sounds runs throughout (“I Can Breathe Again” music track) but can be muted, if preferred. The viewer can also pause the presentation to allow for additional time reading photo interpretations. A progress bar near the bottom indicates the viewer’s journey through the slides. Run time is 2:06 minutes.

Viewing tip: Enlarge the video to the size of the browser, or switch to the host platform and select HD.

Except where noted, all images depicted in the online exhibit were sourced from the Beckman Foundation Collection and are property of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. As such, they may not be copied, reproduced, used, stored, or sold without written permission.

Viewers can also access PDFs of the online exhibit slides in 3 parts using the following document links:

Selected Highlights


Curatorial Notes

This online exhibit was an exciting one to create because we approached it first as a project for teaching children about smog and the steps they can take to help with keeping our air clean. So, the coloring book story we’ve shared was actually the first component to be finished. We did this because we host an annual event in the community that provides children and families with opportunities to explore the connections between science and the arts. It’s called the Beckman Arts & Science Family Festival, and it features live performances and hands-on STEM activities in a fun, outdoor setting on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts campus in Costa Mesa, California. About 2,000 people attend and we host a large, STEM-themed booth with mini archive exhibit. This year, the performance group, Polyglot, will be costumed as bees and introduce the children to bee-haviors that they’ll participate in to learn more about recognizing patterns and more.

The bees got us thinking about the importance of pollinators, of clean air, and of Dr. Beckman’s role in advocating for environmental protections through science. Our coloring book has a story we’ve titled, “People, Pollinators, and Pollution,” and it’s the story of the science of clean air and how smog covered the Los Angeles around the mid-century. It provides a history of the problem, the committee that researched it, and the solutions that resulted, using a combination of pictures and words chosen with younger children in mind. Once we had that put together, it became the springboard for our in-person archive display and our online exhibit for adult science enthusiasts shown here.

Where our coloring book used illustration outlines, our online exhibit uses archival photos and documents, including some that are around 75 years old. This exhibit was curated to show the smog in a way that helps the viewer imagine what it might have been like to wake up to it, drive through, walk within it. When the residents of Los Angeles went about each hazy day, the smog irritated their eyes and made them cough as they breathed it in. The images in this exhibit show a smog layer so thick, it’s easy to understand how it impacted the health of the city’s residents and why organizations like the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and scientists like Arnold O. Beckman and Arie Haagen-Smit felt compelled to identify its source and develop a plan to ensure clean air for the future.

Some of the instrumentation (and their modern counterparts) that ultimately helped solve this major health concern, including the catalytic converter and the vehicle emissions analyzer, are still in use today. Perhaps viewers will be surprised to learn how tools used to smog check their cars came to be, and the role that Dr. Beckman played in their development. Our hope is that the exhibit we’ve curated here shines a light on the importance of clean air and the remarkable instruments used for air quality control, and provides a visual reminder of why attention to the health of the environment remains so vital.


Coloring Pages and Story for Kids

Our printable coloring pages tell a story about the science of clean air and share how Dr. Beckman helped identify the cause of smog and develop instruments to reduce pollution in California's skies.

Exhibit Section Divider

Visit the Beckman Arts & Science Family Festival on Saturday, March 16 from 12:30pm-3:30pm to get a free printed coloring book and see our in-person mini exhibit! Details here.

Additional Resources

  • Read this Scientific American article by James M. Lents and William J. Kelly, published in 1993.
Scientific American Article_1993
  • Listen to this Distillations podcast episode from 2018 by Science History Institute titled, "Fighting Smog in Los Angeles."
Exhibit Section Divider (1)
  • Watch this video from Beckman Foundation's YouTube channel titled, "Fresh Air, Bright Light"; uploaded in 2017.
  • Study this technical leaflet of the Liston-Becker plant, Beckman Division, to learn about the infrared gas analyzer developed to check motor vehicle exhaust gases for mixed hydrocarbons and more.
Liston Model 28 Exhaust Analyzer

Keywords: Beckman, archive, exhibit, curated, AMBF, Arnold and Mabel, Arnold O. Beckman, Los Angeles, air pollution, smog, Southern California, science, clean air, midcentury, Arie Haagen-Smit, vehicle emissions, pollution, AQCD, mobile sampling, chemistry, community, coloring, podcast, video, resource library, YouTube