Computers 1967-2011: a personal perspective. Part 2. 1985-1989.

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As a personal retrospective of my use of computers (in chemistry), the Macintosh plays a subtle role.

  1. 1985: In the previous part, I noted how the Corvus Concept computer introduced a network hard drive (these still being too expensive for any one individual to afford one); the same principle applied to the 1985 Macintosh but now relating to the remarkable introduction of the laser printer. Until then, us chemists had used french curves (see previous post for an explanation), stencils or transfer lettering. It could be really tedious preparing a complex manuscript. Indeed, in some published articles of the time, one often saw hand-drawn chemical diagrams! So when the Macs arrived in 1985 (and it has to be said the associated rise of ChemDraw at that time), it became imperative to network them so that everyone could have access to that precious laser printer (I still remember its network name, selected using the aptly named Chooser utility). Fortunately, the Mac came with a network port (unless I am mistaken, this was not an invariable feature of the IBM PC of the period). The network was created using a router (the first time I had come across one of these) from the Webster corporation in Australia, and our local electrician and his colleagues suddenly found themselves putting in Appletalk cables everywhere. The poor chemists in the department not only had to get used to the mouse pointing device and unfloppy floppy disks, but to the idea of selecting network devices.
  2. 1987:We also acquired a Microvax with an Evans and Sutherland PS390 stereographics device at this time (more of which later in another post), and this came with an interesting bonus. Haggling had managed to leave about £25K left over, which I decided to spend on a “grown up proper network”. This took the form of a thickwire ethernet of about 400m length. This stretched from the Microvax to the main college hub and thence the outside world (the “Internet”) and also to the close-by new network distribution cabinet where one end of the Fibre optic cable was terminated (a bonus of all this was a Pirelli calendar, yet another story that must wait to be told).  The fibre was strung to a catenary connecting to our other building (the idea being that it should be immune to lightening strikes. I had earlier explored the idea of a copper cable routed through tunnels connecting the two chemistry buildings, and spent a most interesting day down in those tunnels exploring. Therein lies yet another story for another day). Anyway, we now had a 10 megabit network (1000 times faster than the old PADs, which were still around) and this was connected to the Webster multigate routers (there were two of them now, one for each building). Our Macs all had the Internet!

    Apple, bless their hearts, distributed a control panel called MacTCP, and after I figured out what it all meant (network masks, Class C subnets and the like) I let everyone know that another network device had been added to join the laserprinter. Few IBM PC owners could boast this. At this stage, in truth, there was not that much people could connect to. Using MacTelnet, we could indeed access CAS Online, and print the search to a laserprinter. Using MacFTP, we could get files remotely from other FTP servers, and we started to acquire coordinate files for our molecular modelling. This in turn brought the realisation that the existing formats (Brookhaven protein databank files were the most common at the time) were not ideally suited for the purpose, and this could be seen as another spark for the CML (XML) work that started about nine years later. I also remember discovering that Apple computer ran their own FTP server, where I could download the latest operating system disk images (Systems 5-7 as I recollect were obtained from this site ). Things were free (but not always that easy) in those days. Our Macs ended up have the latest OS on them (in other words, they tended to crash a little less) almost as soon as it was released (and the Mac app store™, with its impending 4.6 Gbyte of OS X Lion about to be downloaded is merely the latest example of this).

  3. 1987: Armed with all this experience, I was also asked to serve a two year stint on the editorial advisory board of the Royal Society of Chemistry. At the time, what is now called supporting information was just starting, and of course it was going to be in print only. I suggested that perhaps the RSC should plan for the day when it could be online instead (the term online was not, I think, in that common use then, and electronic journals were also not yet common). I was still not happy that the only way to access that information would have to be FTP file transfers, but then little did I realise then that Tim Berners-Lee at CERN already had a glimmer in his eye.
  4. 1988: The network on the Macs became a little more useful in this year, when a Macintosh email client called Eudora was released (in truth, I had already sent my first email in 1976, from CMU in Pittsburgh whilst on a visit there, to the person standing next to me!). The Microvax alluded to above provided the mail relay, and a few brave individuals started sending email (not that many people had email addresses in those days mind you). The RSC was still grappling with this. I remember putting my email address at the top of an article submitted to them, and the copy-editor deleted it from the proofs as “unrecognised address form“. I re-instated it, they deleted it again. After some telephone negotiation, it remained (although the RSC assured me it would confuse the journal readers mightily). For the record, if you do manage to find it, it no longer works (being something like rzepa@vaxa.ch.ic.ac.uk. We were still learning how to do things properly then).
  5. 1989: I managed to convince the department that it would be useful to use computers for undergraduate teaching, and we opened a computer room with 12 Macs. I maintained them using a wonderful network utility called  RevRDist for Mac, which cloned a master Mac onto the 12 clients, and made the task of adding new software very easy. There was always lots of good software for Macs in those early days. But to introduce students to how to use them, I did feel impelled to produce a 4 page printed handout explaining it all. And I only did this once a year. Clearly again, the need to manage this better must have been in my mind.

This post focuses on a very short period, because I wanted to get across how (in my mind at least) chemistry became globally networked for the (chemical) masses (or at least those with Apple Macintosh computers!), and the role the laserprinter Pippa played in this development.

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3 Responses to “
Computers 1967-2011: a personal perspective. Part 2. 1985-1989.

  1. […] Rzepa Chemistry with a twist « Scalemic molecules: a cheminformatics challenge! Computers 1967-2011: a personal perspective. Part 2. 1985-1989. […]

  2. […] almost, to the rest of the world! I have described some of the disruption this introduced elsewhere. By around 1987, most of our Mac users were happily going online (it has to be said that owners of […]

  3. […] to reach California and download Apple’s system 5.0 for the Macs in the department (I have described elsewhere the role the Mac’s printer port played in this). From then on, we always did have the latest […]

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