Registering some new compounds for testing, as I’ve been doing recently, has me thinking about how that was done when I started at my first company. This was in the fall of 1989, so while it’s not exactly the Ancient Old Days, it’s not last week, either. (There are plenty of readers here who go back further). But as far as the technology involved, it looked a lot closer to 1950 than it does to today.
For one thing, I saw the tail end of the Bare Desk Era: we didn’t have computers on our desks - at least, most of us didn’t. I found that a bit strange when I joined – not outrageous, as it would have been just two or three years later, but a little disappointing. Some scientists at the PhD level shared computers, but I started out not even doing that. In that company, in those days, those machines were Macs. (After a long PC interregnum, I’m working in a Mac environment again these days, which is fine by me). I didn’t even have a shared computer at first; when I finally got a part of one, it was a Mac IIcx, which these days hardly seems like something you could even use to archive your tuna salad recipes. Of course, you could wander around at that point and still see Mac SEs in use out in the biology labs, so everything was (is) relative. I thought the IIcx was a fine machine; even half of one was a lot better than a bare desk.
The lack of computers was official policy. The way I heard it put was that management wanted us in front of our hoods, not in front of our screens. Had they only known about web surfing, their fears would have been confirmed but good. They'd have needed a fortune teller, though, since there was no web to waste any time on in 1989. (I remember using Telnet from my home machine in late 1991 or early 1992 to go look at this hypertext thingie at CERN that I’d read about, and I distinctly remember the odd sensation when the welcome screen scrolled up, as if I’d suddenly traveled to Geneva).
No computers meant no e-mail, of course. That came along within a couple of years, but I got a similar brief exposure to the pre-electronic workplace, where those office mail slots down the hall were where you got printed notices of the meetings you needed to attend. Papers you needed to read or documents you needed to have came in those brown envelopes with the string closures, one of which now shows up in my current mail slot every three weeks or so. And no computers meant no online registration of new compounds. That you did with a paper form.
And not with just any form. This one had multicolored layers, and was made out of that pressure-sensitive paper with the odd feel to it. You pressed hard as you drew your structure with a ballpoint pen in the box provided – the yellow copy at the bottom of the stack was for your files, and you wanted to be able to read the thing if there was a problem with the registration. Below was an area with multiple check boxes for the different assays. That was a bit out of date even when I got there – the company had printed up piles of these things with all the assays that they typically ran, but as cloned receptors and the like became available, the assays were beginning to change faster than paper forms could keep up.
Then you took your forms and the corresponding vials and walked them over a couple of buildings to turn them in. In a few days, you’d get a printout of your compound by interoffice mail, with its structure now re-entered into some sort of mainframe database (probably with one of those Calcomp or Summagraphics drawing tablets). My first compound had a registration number in the high thirty-thousands; this in a company that had been around since the Second World War. By the time I left, eight years later, the registration numbers were over twice that figure and climbing fast, and that didn’t count the separate libraries that had been purchased along the way.
The project I was on generated a lot of data, but there was no central place for all of it. The people who ran the assays rated desktop computers of their own, and they kept the numbers there, in whatever format suited them. One biologist retired on us, and when we needed his assay data a few years later, it turned out that no one could put their hands on his files. Everyone, it seemed, had figured that someone else was taking care of that. In the end, a note went out for everyone to root out their old meeting handouts from 1990, since those had his presentations of the assay numbers – those would have to do until we could get the compounds re-run. Even at the time, it occurred to me that this was no way to handle data.