old nicolet logo
Nicolet Computers
The Fourier Revolution
fourier integral


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.

The Aim of this Website

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 hope.

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.

Chapter 1 teal (1K)

reanimated frog 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.

Chapter 2 teal (1K)

Charles BabbageThe 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.

Ida Lovelace 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.

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Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier 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.

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Nuclear Data logo 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.

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Nicolet logo The PDP-8 and the Fast Fourier Transform meet at Nicolet in 1968

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.

Chapter 6 teal (1K)

spinning protonNuclear 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.

Chapter 7 teal (1K)

Bruker logo 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.

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janus (3K) 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.

Chapter 9 teal (1K)

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.

Chapter 10 teal (1K)

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.

Chapter 11 teal (1K)

evolve (3K) 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.

Chapter 12 teal (1K)

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.

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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.

Chapter 14 teal (1K)

museum Personal notes

Read about how the Mountain View Computer Museum inspired me to write this website.

Read personal notes.

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.

WWW versci.com

Number of unique visitors since 29 March 2009:

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Update: 5 July 2009
Minor update: 15 April 2009
Major upload: 29 March 2009
First upload: 23 January 2009