Early computer for biomedical research subject of exhibit

A piece of medical and computer history is at the center of a new exhibit at the Bernard Becker Medical Library at Washington University School of Medicine.

Many computer scientists regard the new exhibit’s focus, the Laboratory INstrument Computer (LINC), as one of the first personal computers. Before LINC, computers were massive high-maintenance units in multiple cabinets that filled most of a room and could only be put to work on problems by computer specialists.

Led by Charles Molnar and Wesley A. Clark, a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer scientists and engineers decided to create an alternative: a smaller unit that could be incorporated into a research laboratory and, with a modest amount of training, be put to use directly by the laboratory’s scientists in analyzing data.

Molnar, Clark and their colleagues began work at Lincoln Laboratory at MIT and brought the first LINC computer online in 1962.

The initial goal was to use LINC to provide support for neurophysiological research. Molnar was personally interested in the question of how sound is transduced into brain signals, and early LINC units helped create “a revolutionary change in our understanding of cochlear mechanics,” according to Molnar.

It quickly became apparent that a computer in the laboratory offered many potential advantages. One of the most important, Molnar noted in a 1984 Washington Magazine article, was the ability to adjust an experiment in progress based on data analysis from LINC.

“Knowing what you should have done a couple of days later is useless,” Molnar said in the article. “LINC gave the researcher much more control.”

Jerome Cox, ScD, senior professor in computer science, founded Washington University’s Biomedical Computing Laboratory and served on the evaluation board for the LINC project. When he heard that the group was interested in moving, he helped facilitate its transition to Washington University in 1964.

In a 2006 oral history interview, Cox remembered a joking complaint prompted by the arrival of a LINC in the laboratory of Don Eldredge, a colleague at the Central Institute for the Deaf.

“He complained that the LINC eliminated many, many hours of happy scut work that he used to be able to do – copying numbers from his lab book to get his data results and to make calculations on those results,” Cox said. “So he no longer had to do that and this made his life harder because he had to spend more time thinking than doing happy scut work.”

LINC innovations developed at WUSTL included the LINC Assembly Program, which was created by Mary Allen Wilkes, who worked at WUSTL in the 1960s as a software system designer and programmer. Wilkes’ contribution made programming the LINC much easier and faster.

Applications for the LINC began to diversify after the group arrived at WUSTL, expanding to include computer-assisted planning of radiation treatments, monitoring of heart arrhythmias, rendering of radiological imaging data and understanding of the molecular properties of new drugs.

In the 1970s, LINC’s design would help inspire the development of some of the world’s first personal computers.

The new exhibit at Becker Library, funded by the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, features a restored LINC, donated by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and information on the roles it played in the development of medical and personal computing. The exhibit will be on display in the Becker Library until August, then move to the Danforth Campus.