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Oral history interview with James L. Waters

  • 2002-Aug-21

Oral history interview with James L. Waters

  • 2002-Aug-21

James L. Waters begins his interview by discussing his family history and the emigration of his ancestors from England to Massachusetts in 1638. Waters was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1925, where his father, Leland L. Waters, worked at the family insurance business. Waters describes himself as an independent child, who preferred to do things on his own without the help of his parents, something he feels was critical in his success as a businessman. As a youth, Waters participated in little league football and maintained a paper route, a job that enabled him to gain a sense of independence. During Waters' junior year of high school, his father was offered a position as the treasurer of the B&W Bus Line, an opportunity that took the Waters family to Framingham, Massachusetts. Waters graduated from Framingham High School in 1943 and enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he became a member of the Navy's V-12 program for engineering. Waters was sent to Columbia University to continue his studies as a physics major at the end of his second term. He was then discharged from the Navy and entered the University of Nebraska. In 1947, Waters accepted a position as project manager's assistant at Baird Associates Inc. and was soon promoted to project manager, working as an assembler and service man on various instrumentation. Waters, however, felt unfulfilled, and after a short while, decided the time was right to start his own instrumentation company. At the age of twenty-two, Waters founded James L. Waters, Inc., working from his parents' basement. At the same time, Waters met Faith Pigors, whom he married in 1948. In spite of his lack of experience and naiveté in business, Waters' sheer determination to succeed enabled him to overcome the many obstacles that occurred while working on his first instrument, an infrared gas analyzer. Waters sold James L. Waters, Inc., to Mine Safety Appliances Company in 1955, but continued his work on instrumentation in a contract capacity with Mine Safety. Waters founded Waters Associates, Inc., in 1958, and shortly afterwards began to delve into the field of gel permeation chromatography (GPC). As Waters Associates' GPC instruments evolved, the company experienced phenomenal growth and in eight years managed to double its profits, many times over. The business began to decline due to R&D problems, so Waters Associates merged with Millipore Inc. in 1977. After conflicts with the Waters Associates board, Waters left the company to become the director of Millipore and, finally, a venture capitalist. Waters concludes the interview with a discussion of his wife and children and their careers.

Property Value
Place of interview
  • 74 pages
  • 04:40:00
Rights Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License
Rights holder
  • Science History Institute
Credit line
  • Courtesy of Science History Institute

About the Interviewers

Arthur Daemmrich is an assistant professor in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School and a senior research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. His research examines science, medicine, and the state, with a focus on advancing theories of risk and regulation through empirical research on the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and chemical sectors. At HBS he also plays an active role in an interdisciplinary Healthcare Initiative, advancing scholarship and developing applied lessons for the business of creating and delivering health services and health-related technologies. Daemmrich was previously the director of the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He earned a PhD in Science and Technology Studies from Cornell University in 2002 and has held fellowships at the Social Science Research Council/Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He has published widely on pharmaceutical and chemical regulation, biotechnology business and policy, innovation, and history of science.

Arnold Thackray founded the Chemical Heritage Foundation and served the organization as president for 25 years. He is currently CHF’s chancellor. Thackray received MA and PhD degrees in history of science from Cambridge University. He has held appointments at Cambridge, Oxford University, and Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1983 Thackray received the Dexter Award from the American Chemical Society for outstanding contributions to the history of chemistry. He served for more than a quarter century on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the founding chairman of the Department of History and Sociology of Science and is currently the Joseph Priestley Professor Emeritus.

Institutional location

Oral history number 0262
Physical container
  • Shelfmark QD22.W38477 A5 2002

Related Items

Interviewee biographical information

  • October 07, 1925
  • Lincoln, Nebraska, United States
  • May 17, 2021


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1946 Columbia University BS Electrical Engineering

Professional Experience

United States. Navy

  • 1943 to 1946 Reserve, Apprentice Seaman
  • 1946 Reserve, Ensign

Baird Associates

  • 1947 Project Manager

James L. Waters, Inc.

  • 1947 to 1958 Founder and President

Waters Foundation

  • 1955 Founder and Trustee

Waters Associates, Inc.

  • 1958 to 1972 Founder and President
  • 1972 to 1980 Chairman of the Board

Waters Enterprises, Inc.

  • 1978 Founder and President

Cetek Corporation

  • 1998


Year(s) Award
1993 DSc (honorary), Northeastern University

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PDF — 2.5 MB

The published version of the transcript may diverge from the interview audio due to edits to the transcript made by staff of the Center for Oral History, often at the request of the interviewee, during the transcript review process.

Complete Interview Audio File Web-quality download

8 Separate Interview Segments Archival-quality downloads