Computing at the NIH
LINC (Laboratory Instrument Computer), c. 1963
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
The National Cancer Institute Real Time Picture Processor
Photograph of the Quantimet-TV and control-console for the RTPP using the BMON2 software. This was taken after we had moved the RTPP to the Park Building in Rockville, MD. (Reproduced from a figure with permission from Environmental Health Perspectives, 1980
The Real Time Picture Processor (RTPP) was one of the first special-purpose hardware computers developed for grayscale image processing and was designed to aid in biological image analysis. It was developed at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Many properties of biological materials can be visualized directly using microscopy, electrophoresis, or other visualization mechanisms. The image subjects may have been improved before digital image capture using various detection-enhancement methods (such as stains, dyes, autoradiography, phase-contrast, interference microscopy, etc.) to visualize the data of interest. Digital image processing (see wikipedia.org and dictionary.com entries) is a method for the separation, detection, and quantification of the objects of interest in biological materials. Quantified data helps scientists perform more rigorous analyses of their biological experiments and improve the conclusions of their analyses.
There are two major goals of this history: to document the events and conditions that led to the creation of one of the first grayscale image processors, and to describe the highly effective complementary collaboration that alloAsilomar Third Engineering Foundation Conference on Automated Cytologywed this project to flourish. Occasionally, references will be made to other later advances indirectly related to the RTPP work that would not have happened without the RTPP.