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LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer), c. 1963

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This machine is the direct ancestor of all personal computers. The Laboratory Instrument Computer (LINC), developed at MIT in 1963 by Wesley A. Clark and Dr. Charles E. Molnar, was revolutionary not for its circuitry, but for its new data storage medium: small, portable data tapes, allowing each user to have a personal record of their data and programs. Funded by the NIH and NASA and designed specifically for laboratory use, the LINC allowed scientists to control complex experimental conditions and collect multiple data points in real time, making ever more complicated hypotheses testable. 

After the LINC prototype was developed, researchers were invited to apply for a chance to test a free LINC in their laboratory for two years; in return, they would need to spend a month in Boston learning to maintain and program the machine, and they would need to participate in written evaluations of its performance at specified intervals.

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rack mounted computer station
LINC Computer

Out of 72 proposals, 12 labs were chosen to evaluate the LINC. Many of the scientists had no prior training in computer programming or circuitry, but all learned enough over the course of a month to assemble the machines in their labs and operate them without help. The test labs worked on a variety of systems and questions, ranging from blood flow calculations in dogs, to operant conditioning in rats, to activation of single neurons in mice. After two years, all of the test labs agreed that the LINC had greatly enhanced their research, and all were loath to give up the machines loaned to them for the evaluation.

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DEC PDP8/E, c. 1965

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Digital Equipment Corp. PDP8/e Computer

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The PDP8/E, one of the models in the PDP/8 line of the first successful “mini-computers,” was introduced in 1965. The PDP models were based on the TX-0, a computer developed for hands-on laboratory use by Wesley A. Clark and Dr. Charles E. Molnar of MIT, members of the same team that designed the LINC. The TX-0 was designed to accept input directly to its core memory via a component termed I/O (Input/Output) and was equipped with a keyboard and a cathode ray screen that could display input and output. At that time, there was a free exchange of personnel and ideas between MIT and the fledgling Digital Equipment Corporation, better known as DEC, also located in Cambridge. One of DEC’s first products was the PDP-1, a machine that incorporated many features found on the TX-0. The PDP-1 was sold, rather than leased, to users who were encouraged to modify the computer to best suit their needs. After several rounds of improvements on the basic model, the PDP-8, launched in 1965, would prove to be a bestseller in the field of mini-computers. 

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Olivetti Electronic Printing Calculator Microcomputer, P652, c. 1973

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An Italian manufacturer, Olivetti is renowned especially for its lightweight portable mechanical typewriters. In the early 1960s the company seized on the availability of integrated circuits to develop a desktop computer to supplement or even replace their line of electric calculators. The Programa 101 was launched in 1965 at the New York World’s Fair and incorporated in early form many of the features of modern desktop computers such as memory, a keyboard, an onboard printer, and a magnetic card reader/recorder. The Programa 101 is often considered the first generally available desktop computer. The production of better computer chips in the early 1970s led Olivetti engineers to design a new computer based on the Programa 101: the P652.
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Olivetti Electronic Printing Calculator, P652Image RemovedPhoto of a Olivetti Electronic Printing Calculator, P652Image Added
Olivetti Electronic Printing Calculator, P652

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CRAY X-MP 22 Supercomputer, c. 1986

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CRAY X-MP 22 SupercomputerImage RemovedImage Added
CRAY X-MP/22 Supercomputer

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Bearing more resemblance to a modern art installation than a powerful supercomputer, the Cray X-MP/22 was the fastest computer in the world from 1983 to 1986. It ran at 105 MHz, then the quickest processing speed available, and was capable of performing 400 million calculations per second under optimal conditions. The circuits necessary to produce this processing power gave off so much heat that a conventional fan was insufficient for cooling; the circuit board had to be immersed in fluorocarbons in order to function properly. It was the first computer containing two processors that could be simultaneously accessed by a single program. Such superior technology wasn’t cheap—each Cray X-MP was built to order and cost tens of millions of dollars.

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Hewlett Packard 9845-B Desktop Computer, c. 1980

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At first glance, the Hewlett Packard (HP) 9845-B computer looks very much like the personal desktop computers that became available in the mid-1980s. However, both the price—over $25,000—and performance of this machine clearly indicate that it was designed for use by scientists and engineers. One of the first commercially available workstations, the HP 9845-B included a highly integrated, complete system with graphics and networking capabilities, a variety of input/output devices, and large amounts of processing power.

The HP 9800 series were the first HP computers that were supplied with a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT)-based monitor; it was also possible to add a monitor that displayed graphics, a feature not present in the standard monitor, whose display was restricted to alpha-numeric characters. The display screen offered the programmer or user a visual check of programming steps—available in BASIC, Pascal, or Fortran—as well as the opportunity to debug the program. 

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Hewlett Packard 9845--B Desktop Computer monitor
Hewlett Packard 9845--B Desktop Computer monitor

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Mac Classic Apple M0420, 1990

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Classic Macintosh Computer
Macintosh Classic

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“Not long after I acquired the computer, I published five first-author scientific papers…in one year.” So said Dr. Thomas Wehr, NIMH, about his Apple M0420. 

While critics dismissed the Macintosh Classic M0420 for having slow processing speeds, it was extremely popular due to its low price—less than $1000 if you didn’t require a hard disk. The low price combined with the availability of educational software made the Mac Classic the computer of choice for school systems in the early 1990s. Even after factoring in the additional cost of up to 4MB of RAM, its relatively low cost attracted new computer users such as Wehr, who didn’t require the extra computing power of an SE/30 or Macintosh II.  While this was the last Apple computer to use the 8 MHz 68000 CPU (all future models would have at least 16 MHz of processing power), it did have some unique features, such as the ability to boot from ROM by holding down “command-option-x-o” at startup, and screen brightness control through a keyboard-controlled “brightness control panel” rather than a knob. 

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Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, c. 1980

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Although it looks more like a calculator, the TRS-80 Model 100 was the first easily portable computer. Light and compact enough to be carried in a briefcase, the TRS-80 Model 100 was a favorite of scientists, journalists, and computer enthusiasts alike. With the 8 row by 40 character LCD screen in the same plane as the full-sized QWERTY keyboard, it came equipped with the precursors of programs we would now expect a portable computer to have: a text editor capable of holding up to 11 pages of text, an address book, a schedule organizer, and a BASIC programming module. It also had a 300-baud internal modem, allowing users to transmit data over any telephone line. Four AA batteries allowed the machine to run for 20 hours, with a 6V power adaptor available for static applications.
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Computer, cords and manuals
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 Portable Computer

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Thinkpad w butterfly keyboard, c. 1996

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Black IBM Thinkpad in open configuration
IBM ThinkPad 701C, 2630 open

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This laptop is a work of art: the IBM ThinkPad 701C is part of the design collection at the Museum of Modern Art due to its innovative design. Based on a bento box, the case opens to reveal a full-size folding keyboard and Trackpoint pointer, obviating the need for a mouse. At just 10 inches wide and weighing only 4.5 lbs, the 701C was the ultimate portable computer when it was released in 1995—making it the tool of choice for spies in movies such as “Mission Impossible” and “Goldeneye.” In addition to its sleek design, the 701C also boasted state-of-the-art features for the time: a 14.4Kbaud modem, a 75MHz processor, and the ability to wirelessly sync with other IBM devices.

The portability of the ThinkPad 701C made it popular among people on the go, such as scientists. This ThinkPad was used by Dr. Richard Nakamura during his tenure as Deputy Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) between 1997 and 2007. Nakamura began as a postdoctoral fellow at the NIH in 1976. His research focused mainly on the anatomical basis of thought in primates. Outside of the lab, he coordinated NIMH’s Biobehavioral Program and later was chief of its Integrative Neuroscience Research Branch. From 2007 to 2011, he was the Scientific Director of NIMH; and in 2012 he became director of the NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. [13.0009.001]

Dolch Portable Add-In Computer P.A.C. 386 Model, c. 1989

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At 20 pounds, the Dolch P.A.C. was a “desktop replacement” or portable computer that weighed almost as much as a desktop. It was meant to be plugged in for power — an extra battery was available but offered only one extra hour of power supply. Designed for maximum computing power in minimal space, the Dolch P.A.C. offered 1-8 MB of RAM, 20-170 MB of hard disk space, and up to six expansion slots. The display was electroluminescent and featured yellow text on a black background, said to enhance readability. With a $7,995 price tag for the basic model, the Dolch P.A.C. was clearly marketed towards serious users. And trade publications also appreciated its charms: PC Magazine lauded it as “the fastest portable on the planet” in its December 1989 issue. 

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Dolch P.A.C. Open with keyboard visible
Dolch P.A.C. in open configuration


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Dolch P.A.C. closed
Dolch P.A.C. in closed configuration

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This Dolch P.A.C. was owned by Dr. Barry Richmond, Chief of the Neural Coding and Computation Section in the Laboratory of Neuropsychology at NIMH. His laboratory studies the how information is encoded by single neurons, and as a result of this work, the laboratory developed an algorithm able to decode real-time neuronal firing in order to deliver real-time commands to a prosthetic device. [14.0004.001]