and The Fourier Revolution |

Introduction

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
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

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

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.

Chapter 3

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.

Chapter 4

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.

Chapter 5

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

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.

Chapter 7

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.

Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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.

Chapter 13

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

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.

Number of unique visitors since 29 March 2009:

Minor update: 15 April 2009

Major upload: 29 March 2009

First upload: 23 January 2009