Donated by Mr. Jay Vinton
“Vast amounts of time, attention, and money are spent on the collection, preparation, and updating of text, including computer programs, letters, forms, lists, manuals and user guides, books, reports and proposals. In the computer field, a significant amount of effort is devoted to the clerical aspects of programming. Data entry consumes even more time and money than program preparation. Computers are ideally suited to assist in much of this text gathering and manipulation in an efficient and timely fashion, often at reduced cost,” wrote Roger Fajman and John Borgelt in 1973.1
Beginning in 1967, Roger Fajman and John Borgelt invented a text-editing software called WYLBUR to deal with the issue of wasted time, money, effort at the Stanford University Computation Center. By 1969, the software was in use at both Stanford and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where Fajman moved that year. At the NIH, the software would be tweaked, updated, and modified until finally discontinued 40 years later at the end of 2009.
WYLBUR was accessed via phone lines from computer terminals connected to the IBM mainframe computers at the NIH Division of Computer Research and Technology (DCRT). The terminals weren’t desktop computers, which were in the future, but computers that users often shared with others, having to sign up for computer time. The advent of these remote terminals, however, allowed people who weren’t computer specialists easy access to computer resources. Fajman and Borgelt designed WYLBUR for these noncomputer specialists so users would not be distracted from what they were working on to program a computer, too.
Features that we take for granted today had to be intentionally built into the WYLBUR software:
- The command structure was like the English language.
- You could use a backspace key to erase a mistake, or even delete a whole line with the attention key.
- Special prompts alerted the user to missed or improper operands.
- Each user had a password for logging in and protecting data, which could be changed at any time.
- WYLBUR kept a copy of the most current copy of a working file in case of a system disruption.
- Almost instant responses (two seconds at the most was the goal) kept users productive.
- It was affordable, with a one-hour session costing only $4 at Stanford.
The DCRT 1968 Annual Report described in glowing terms the software that NIH users were just beginning to use before Fajman’s 1969 arrival: “WYLBUR provides the user, in his home or office, the facility to create and edit source programs in real time, submit them for compilation and execution by the standard job stream processor, and retrieve the results of execution at his terminal. In addition, the user may work with arbitrary text material, libraries, and interrogate the system about the current status of the batch job stream. WYLBUR represents a significant move toward lowering the amount of non-programming overhead involved in the development of programs. With the job output available at the user’s terminal, effective turnaround time is substantially lowered. In addition, the added ease of using a typewriter-like terminal instead of a keypunch contributes to more rapid development and debugging of programs.”2
Putting the microbiologists’ call for using computers to compile a database into practice, Drs. Donald S. Young, D. W. Thomas, and R. B. Friedman from the NIH’s Clinical Center’s Clinical Pathology Department reported in 1972 that “A listing of approximately 10,000 effects of drugs on tests performed in clinical laboratories has been developed in a time-shared computer. The list contains a directory for matching proprietary and generic names of drugs and an explanation for the mode of action of the drug on each test. Each entry is supported by a bibliographical reference that contains the author names, and the title of the article and journal. It is possible to search for specific ‘character strings’ (word or words, number, etc.) to obtain all the effects of a particular drug, or all drugs that affect a particular test, or even to search for a specific explanation for an effect. The system is
undergoing trial in the Department’s own computer to permit of automatic correlation of the effects of drugs with laboratory data from patients in one hospital ward.”6 The database was designed using WYLBUR and their article presents WYLBUR line structure and entry examples. Young went on to edit the Directory of Rare Analyses, Effects of Drugs on Clinical Laboratory Tests, and Effects of Disease on Clinical Laboratory Tests. In 2004, he began Young’s Effects Online with the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, which offers instant access to the effects of thousands of diseases, drugs, and herbal remedies on medical lab tests.