The Fourier Revolution
Nicolet Instrument Corporation operated between 1966 and 1992 in Madison, Wisconsin. NIC
designed, manufactured, and sold spectrometers, computers, digital oscilloscopes and
biomedical equipment. NIC was bought out by Thermo Scientific in 1992. Thermo's infrared
spectrometers still bear the Nicolet name.
Analytical chemists want to know how molecules are put together. There are many tools available to do this, but nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, mass spectroscopy (MS) and infrared (IR) spectroscopy are the major ones. Fourier versions of all three became practical realities around 1970. The improvement in sensitivity and resolving power constituted a revolution. All three tools depended originally on software and computers supplied by Nicolet.
The Fourier revolution has many roots. The digital computer is one. The Fast Fourier Transform (FFT), a 1965 mathematical discovery, is another. Digital scientific instruments, for example, signal averagers, is yet another.
This is an account of the Fourier revolution of scientific instruments. It includes
historical perspectives, personalities, science and business. Revolutions start when
seemingly unrelated ideas come together. For example, the designer of the PDP-8 and the
mathematicians who discovered the FFT did not know they would revolutionize chemistry.
The unexpected connections between ideas is what makes this website interesting, I
This website is also a personal story. My name is Jack Kisslinger. I spent 23 years at Nicolet and I played a role in the revolution.
The story begins with the Mnemotron
An important enabling technology in 1951 was the magnetic core memory. It was random access. It was fast at 100,000 reads and writes per second and reliable too. There could be a thousand or more memory locations, each holding a 4 or 5 digit number. If you were an engineer working in 1951, you were presented with new and very interesting possibilities.
Read about the Mnemotron.
The digital computer
Charles Babbage could claim credit for the invention of the digital computer in 1830. His claim is weakened somewhat by the fact that the prototype did not run until 1993. (Microsoft billionaire Nathan Myhrvold has the second prototype in his living room.) Babbage called it a "difference engine" in reference to the fact that it could only add and subtract. But it had 31 digit accuracy. Its purpose was calculating and printing(!) mathematical tables. It was not a stored program computer. It could not make decisions based on inputs or calculations.
Charles Babbage was the Stephen Hawking of his day. He, like Hawking, was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.
The difference engine project had a software engineer. Her name was Ida Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter. She can legitimately claim to be the first software engineer.
The PDP-8, introduced in 1965, was the first digital computer capable enough and cheap enough to be useful in scientific instruments.
Read about the PDP-8.
Fast Fourier analysis
The need to perform Fourier analysis was very apparent in 1965. The need arose from seismology, crystallography, sonar and many other applications. There was also a realization that Fourier Transform Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometers could be useful. But there was a problem. It was impractical to evaluate the Fourier integral because it was too computationally intensive. A mathematical discovery changed all that in 1965.
Read about the Fast Fourier Transform.
How Nicolet got started
Nuclear Data was founded in 1958 to exploit an opportunity created by magnetic core memory. Nicolet spins off from Nuclear Data.
Read about how Nicolet got started.
The PDP-8 and the Fast Fourier Transform meet at Nicolet in
Nicolet thrives and grows because it recognizes new opportunities. Nuclear Data slowly dies because it does not stray from its core business.
Read about Nicolet's killer application.
Nuclear Magnetic Resonance(NMR) spectroscopy explained
The connection between Mnemotron, Varian and Nicolet explained. Read the story of how I smoked a Varian A60. Understand carrier wave NMR. Understand Fourier Transform NMR. Maybe even listen to a FID.
Read about CWNMR and FTNMR.
World's first carbon 13, proton decoupled FTNMR
Bruker's carbon 13 FTNMR and Nicolet's 1070/PDP-8 make history.
Read how the four threads come together.
How the 1070/PDP-8 becomes one box
In 1969 I proposed a single box which combined the functions of a 1070 and a PDP-8. It came to be known as the 1080.
Read how Nicolet got into the computer business.
Technical description of the 1080
The 1080 was a 1070-style signal averager and a 20 bit computer but not simultaneously.
Read the technical description of the 1080.
Nicolet participates in the Fourier revolution
The Nicolet 1080 is present at the birth of FTNMR, FTIR and FTMS. Nicolet becomes a manufacturer of all three.
Read about the Fourier revolution.
The Nicolet computer evolves
The Nicolet 1080 becomes faster, smaller and cheaper through succesive generations. It goes extinct in 1996.
Read about how the 1080 evolves.
The Nicolet 1280 needs to be ten times faster
The 1280 gets a 24 bit assistant in the form of an array processor.
Read about the FFT array processor here.
The Nicolet 1280 needs to be replaced in 1983
The Nicolet FTIR spectrometer gets smaller, better and cheaper. The FTIR data system must get smaller, better and cheaper too.
Read about efforts to replace the 1280.
How to use this website.
This is a large website and there are many links. The navigation buttons can take you everywhere. But there is another way. You can use Google to search this website. Try searching for OAO or MRI.
Number of unique visitors since 29 March 2009:
Minor update: 15 April 2009
Major upload: 29 March 2009
First upload: 23 January 2009