Humboldt State University ® Department of Chemistry

Robert A. Paselk Scientific Instrument Museum

The following history is provided courtesy of Shellie Snell of the Central Scientific Company, and is reprinted with permission. I have added additional comments/information as footnotes. (R Paselk, 1998)
© Richard Paselk 1998

The company was incorporated in 1900 as Central Scientific Company, located at 315 Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago. It was formed out of what was left of the Olmstad Scientific Company after a disastrous fire in 1898, which killed the founder and owner, W.A. Olmstad, and ten of his staff. Olmstad had been in the science equipment business since at least 1889. Records are sketchy, but another Chicago Company, the Central School Supply House, may have been involved in founding Central Scientific.1
From the begining, Central Scientific manufactured and distributed science teaching equipment for schools, colleges, and universities by catalog mail order. 2The company put out its first complete catalog dated 1903 (but issued in 1904), a larger one in 1909, and a much bigger one in 1915. The trademark "CENCO" was used from 1909 onwards, and is still in use today. By 1915 the company had moved several times, and was then in a facility on East Ohio Street, where they stayed for twenty years. They had also diversified, and were making and selling equipment for industrial laboratories as well, including food testing.
Between 1915 and 1935 the company established itself as one of the leading national suppliers of science equipment. Manufacturing expanded considerably; the company had its own engineers and drafting office since at least 1919, and they were early users of chrome plating techniques (1929). An extensive network of sales representatives was established. The company issued a regular newsletter, the "Cenco News Chats," with their own innovations and new products from 1932 onwards.
{Cenco 1929 - a photo gallery}
In 1935, Central Scientific moved to a new purpose-built facility ìin the green fields' at 1700 Irving Park Road. Here they stayed until 1968, acquiring a series of surrounding buildings in the later years. During World War II, part of the manufacturing facility was turned over to war production, making bomb sights for airplanes and fuses for large bombs. Following the war there was a period of rapid expansion, during which branch offices were opened in several states, and a number of companies in related fields were acquired- Soiltest (civil engineering), Refinery Supply (oil equipment), Atomic Labs (advanced education), and Standard X- Ray (medical). The technical vaccum line of products grew very rapidly. The company was also a major exporter of scientific equipment (citation from the Secretary of State, ca. 1961). During this period, the company reorganized as a holding company, CENCO Instruments, Inc., and several specialized subsidiaries (including Central Scientific Company). About 1965 the group went public (NYSE). In 1968 they moved to a very large facility ( 1 million square feet), the "CENCO Center." This was an old truck plant on South Kostner Avenue. "Cenco" now claimed to be the largest science equipment supplier world wide.
After 1968, the company began having difficulties. It was large and unwieldy, difficult to keep focused, had troubles with computerization, and needed large investments to replace aging production equipment. The medical activities were not doing well. In 1974 a large scale inventory fraud was uncovered and two executives went to jail. The companyís stock plummeted. The assets of the group, including Central Scientific Company, were sold off to competitors and other interested buyers. The educational activity retained the name Central Scientific Company, and attempted to continue manufacturing and selling as before. This was not very successful.
In April, 1979, Central Scientific's assests and activities were acquired by two business men from Buffalo, NY. They already had a successful track record with an earlier Buffalo based company. They incorporated a new company with CENCO assets, organizing it along similar lines. Only physical science equipment for schools and colleges was to be sold, with an emphasis on catalog-based distribution. A thorough, efficient computer system was installed to maintain business control. The new Central Scientific gradually recovered customers. From 1985, a job-shop based production was revived to fill the holes in the program left by the loss of the old proprietary products. Many of the old designs were re-engineered and used.
In 1992, the decision was made to expand the product offering for high schools to a full line, including life sciences. At the same time, a need was felt to become more specialized in marketing to post-secondary customers. To accomplish this, the company was subdivided into two divisions- Secondary and College- and two completely new catalogs were created and issued in 1993.
With the current editions of the catalogs, it is just 94 years since Central Scientific put out its first edition. We are looking forward to repeating the success that it enjoyed.
1 According to Childe [Child, Ernest. The Tools of the Chemist. Reinhold Publishing Corporation, New York (1940) pg 202.] "The Central Scientific Company . . . purchased the scientific department of the Central School Supply Company, formerly Alfred A. Robbins Company, who had taken over a similar departement of the National School Furnishing Company [founded in 1871]."
2 Frank Aronson joined the company in 1904. "Aronson had long experiance in the manufacture of scientific supplies, having conducted his own shop, where he had manufactured much of the apparatus sold by the many school supply houses." Ibid.

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Last modified 5 August 2000