Early Computing at the NIH
LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer), c. 1963
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.
Fifty original LINCs were produced and shipped to laboratories around the country at a cost of $35,000 per unit—expensive, but affordable for important laboratory equipment. A typical LINC configuration included the computer and a rack holding the tape drive, a small Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) display, a control panel, and a keyboard. In contrast to the large mainframe computers typical of the time, the LINC could fit into eight square feet of space, and its components could be arranged in a variety of ways to make use of small amounts of precious bench space. Later LINC models were produced by private industry, and some of these companies were able to build on the underlying circuitry and programming to produce ever smaller computers for personal use, which eventually evolved into what we think of as personal computers today; however, the original machine, a highly specialized device for a very specific use, would never have been developed without government funding. [89.0001.014]
DEC PDP8/E, c. 1965
The basic PDP-8 model came with 4000 words of memory split into 32 blocks of 128 words each. Supplemental memory was available with a tape drive first developed for the LINC computer and analogous to the later floppy disk drive. Hard copy output was printed via a teletype terminal. The combination of these capabilities with the relatively low price set by DEC — only $6,500 — led to the PDP-8 becoming a major commercial success. The PDP-8/E was one of the most common variants of the PDP-8; it was particularly attractive to users because of the many types of available input/output devices. PDP-8/E devices were used for office work, recording laboratory data, and controlling equipment during surgery. Over 50,000 units of the PDP-8 mini-computer were eventually sold, the last in 1979, fourteen years after the launch of the series.
This PDP-8/E pictured here was used by Dr. James V. Silverton, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, who studied the structure and function of various chemical compounds to determine if they were suitable as drug treatments for diseases. [90.0002.003]
Olivetti Electronic Printing Calculator Microcomputer, P652, c. 1973
The P652 increased the capability for handling trigonometric and logarithmic calculations and came with a standard keyboard for common mathematical functions as well as a number of special keys for entering routines and programs. The built-in printer recorded the input data as well as the results of calculations on a roll of paper. Programs could be input directly on the keyboard, by means of a built-in magnetic card reader, or by a punched paper tape reader. A number of peripheral devices, which were sold separately, increased the utility of this microcomputer. These add-ons included: a typewriter; an auxiliary disk data storage unit; a cassette tape unit for data and program storage; and an X-Y flat bed plotter. Olivetti also made a software library of programs for various technical routines available to users. The P652 was widely used for collecting data from biomedical experiments and subjecting that data to statistical analysis; it was often listed in the footnotes of publications from that era as having been used to analyze experimental results.
This computer was used by Dr. Harry R. Keiser, Clinical Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute from 1976–1998. His primary research focus was on the activity of signaling molecules in metabolic diseases. Keiser published over 200 articles in medical journals and textbooks, and received a lifetime service award from the Washington Academy of Sciences. [89.0001.013]
CRAY X-MP 22 Supercomputer, c. 1986
This Cray X-MP/22 was used from 1986 to 1992 at the NIH’s Laboratory of Mathematical Biology, a part of the National Cancer Institute, in the Advanced Scientific Computing Laboratory (ASCL). Although housed in Maryland, this computer was used via network by scientists across the country and has the distinction of being the first supercomputer dedicated solely to biomedical research. It was used in applications such as crystallography, DNA sequence analysis, image processing, molecular structure determination, and statistical analysis. [92.0010.001]
Hewlett Packard 9845-B Desktop Computer, c. 1980
The graphics screen was particularly important for search programs that relied on user-input chemical structural diagrams to search large collections of compounds held by the National Cancer Institute or the Chemical Abstracts Service database of compounds.
While the stand-alone computer could be used to perform intricate mathematical operations, statistical calculations, and other heavy calculation-dependent applications, it did not have any of the application programs, such as a word processor or spreadsheet manager, that now are basic in computers. While workstations in general have been replaced by true personal computers, many of the top-selling HP 9845-B units still exist and are still operational, attesting to the ruggedness of the computer design.
Dr. Louis Sokoloff, Laboratory of Cerebral Metabolism, National Institute of Mental Health, used this HP 9845-B in his work on the deoxyglucose method—a method for measuring local glucose metabolism in the brain, used as a measure of brain activity, which has been used as the basis for PET scans. For this contribution to science, he won the 1981 Lasker Award. He also wrote user-friendly programs for the HP-9845 to statistically analyze his data. [06.0006.001]
Mac Classic Apple M0420, 1990
The spread of personal computers allowed scientists to easily write and edit their ideas, leading to faster publications. After acquiring the Mac Classic, Wehr said that it “revolutionized [his] approach to data-analysis, graphics and writing.” Wehr, the former chief of the Clinical Psychobiology Branch at NIMH, is best known for his research on the effects of light on the secretion of melantonin and on sleep. Wehr and NIMH colleague Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal identified and described Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and developed light therapy to treat it well before Wehr’s success was amplified by the Mac Classic. Wehr went on to co-author “Circadian Rhythms in Psychiatry (Psychobiology and Psychopathology)” with Frederick Goodwin. [13.0014.002]
Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, c. 1980
Starting in 1979, the Tandy Corporation introduced a class of computers each designated as “TRS-80” with a suffix to indicate the model. They were sold through the Tandy-owned Radio Shack stores. The popular Model 100, introduced in March 1983, was actually a computer that Tandy licensed from Kyocera in Japan, where the machine had originally been designed and manufactured. Kyocera also licensed the design to Olivetti and NEC, each of whom went on to introduce proprietary versions of that machine. The TRS-80 Model 100 was wildly successful, selling over 6,000,000 units while it was in production, due to the ubiquity of Radio Shack stores. Bill Gates wrote the BASIC programming language available on the machine; it was the last version of BASIC in which he wrote the majority of the code.
This particular unit was used by Drs. Robert Highet and James V. Silverton of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Highet and Silverton both studied the structure and function of various chemical compounds to determine if they were suitable to develop as drugs for treating diseases. [98.0016.001]
Thinkpad w butterfly keyboard, c. 1996
Dolch Portable Add-In Computer P.A.C. 386 Model, c. 1989