By Tom Zinnen, based on interviews with Henry Lardy and Robert Gilson, 2004
Micropipettes are hand tools used to measure and move small amounts of liquid, such as water or blood or milk, in a lab or clinic or dairy plant.
Some pipettes are fixed in volume, but others are adjustable.
Adjustable micropipettes are more useful than fixed pipettes, as long as the adjustable ones are also accurate.
The adjustable pipette is a Wisconsin invention developed through interactions among severalpeople, including inventor Warren Gilson and Henry Lardy, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Warren Gilson’s company manufactured a machine developed by Lardy and others to measure the amount of oxygen used while cells grow. The machine included a tool to measure air pressure. That measuring tool included a tiny piston used to gauge changes in the amount of oxygen.
The gauge worked by using a screw to move the piston to keep the air pressure constant in a pipe as oxygen was used up.
Three key things were the small size of the piston, the accuracy of the measurement and the adjustability of the volume.
A piston moving into a small pipe will push air out, and once you’ve pushed air out you can move the piston in the other direction to suck water up.
That’s the idea behind the handheld adjustable micropipette. So from a tool originally made to measure the change in tiny amounts of air, the inventors set out to make a tool to measure and move tiny amounts of liquids.
While the first version was small enough to fit in the hand, it wasn’t yet a hand tool: it was too clunky to fit the form of the hand. At least one scientist scoffed at the idea of making it into an accurate, durable, comfortable tool. But another innovator, Eric Marteau D’Autry, found the idea worth toying with. With D’Autry’s encouragement, Bob Gilson, Warren Gilson’s son, used a belt sander to shape the prototype. Bob’s approach: “I cut away everything that hurt.” This resulted in a comfortable shape that made the micropipette a hand tool.
That was some 30 years ago. Today people recognize the pipette from news stories about biotechnology research and from crime shows on TV. Now the micropipette is not just a tool, in the eye of the public it has become the icon of molecular biology.
We use micropipettes today!