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An eye for success

Steve Jobs and Apple revolutionized the way scientists render their work.

Much of the praise heaped on Steve Jobs, the chief executive and co-founder of computer firm Apple, came from those who were introduced to the man and his company through the gadget wizardry of the iPhone and iPad. And it is probably through the eyes of this 'iGeneration' that the legacy of Jobs, who died last week, will be sealed. Yet Jobs and Apple did more than just revolutionize the way that people fill their spare time.

The use of computers in science now may bring images of data-crunching parallel processing and Unix-inspired open-source collaborations, but there was a time when the cutting edge — at least for molecular scientists — was being able to draw a benzene ring digitally on screen. Jobs and Apple gave scientists the power to do that, and more besides. Scientists responded with decades of loyalty and, on news of Jobs's death, with tributes of their own.

“Nostalgia has probably helped to delete memories of some of the early Mac's shortcomings.”

Apple lost the battle for dominance of corporate computing to the PC long ago, yet there is a good reason for the devotion to Apple computers in industries such as design and publishing (even if it might seem irrational to outsiders). The introduction in 1984 of the Apple Macintosh, or Mac, complete with mouse, brought easy graphic imaging to the masses. In doing so, it slashed the time taken for chemists and molecular biologists, among others, to represent their work and deliver their papers. Windows as we know it was years away, and Apple had a head start in these fields that, for many scientists, it never relinquished.

The mid-1980s was a time ruled by technology giants such as the Grafacon 1010, a table-top-sized digitizing tablet that was operated by a foot pedal. For the scientists fortunate enough to have access, the machine converted hand drawings into glowing lines on a screen. Most researchers got by with sheets of Letraset letter and symbol transfers bought from the local stationer and painstakingly rubbed onto written pages at the correct positions. Foreshadowing the modern use of punctuation to portray emotions (emoticons), chemists were not averse to inserting sheets of paper into their typewriters at oblique angles and using the equals sign and dashes to represent chemical bonds.

Henry Rzepa, a computational chemist at Imperial College London, says that the Mac, in tandem with associated software such as ChemDraw and early laser printers, “gave us back our science”. Before its introduction, he says, it was not unusual for a university scientist to spend an entire week transferring all the letters and symbols onto the pages of a research paper, which journal publishers were demanding in 'camera-ready' form. Some academic departments employed a staff member to do nothing else. The Mac made it a five-minute job and, Rzepa says, the effect was liberating. (Certainly, in a sign of what future Apple technology would do for record shops, the unfortunate staff member who was skilled with the transfers often found themselves liberated from a job.)

Susan Forsburg, professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, was an early user of the Mac. “It's hard to explain to my students today what a change it was to go from laboriously hand-drawing figures to making clean, crisp, computer-generated line drawings and digital images,” she says. “It was revolutionary.” Molecular biologists have been attracted to Apple technology ever since, she adds, and at least half of the attendees at scientific meetings are likely to have one on their desk. “These days, a lot of graphics software runs on Windows but I think Macs still have the edge, in part because they focus so much on ease of use. But I would think that, wouldn't I?”

Advocates of the PC are no doubt gnashing their teeth at this point, and rose-tinted nostalgia has probably helped to delete memories of some of the early Mac's shortcomings. A comprehensive review of “software for two-dimensional chemical structure editing” published in the late 1980s (A. C. Norris and A. L. Oakley Comput. Chem. 12, 245–251; 1988), for instance, rather stiffly points out that the Macintosh version of ChemDraw “is more difficult for a chemist to use than is at first apparent”. Among the drawbacks: “Rings have to be sized and oriented each time they are drawn, making drawing of fused rings tedious.” Still, this did not stop the potential of the new trend being recognized by the authors, who concluded: “Electronic publishing is likely to have a considerable impact on the way in which authors, research and commercial concerns, and publishers produce and distribute information.” Quite — and Jobs and Apple more than played their part. Thank you, Steve.

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An eye for success. Nature 478, 155–156 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/478155b

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