A Life in Chemistry Computing

Peter Lykos got in on the ground floor of modernizing the chemistry curriculum with the use of computers.

By Peter Lykos | June 2, 2016

In 1955 I left my instructorship at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh to join the chemistry faculty at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. I had been recruited by the departments chair, Martin Kilpatrick, who had arrived there eight years before I did. Under Kilpatrick’s tenure the department was in the midst of a major transformation. By the time Martin retired in 1960, the department had grown from only an undergraduate teaching program to 24 tenured and tenure-track faculty, 80 undergraduate chemistry majors, and 80 postdoctoral and graduate students. I was fortunate to take part in this transformation; I had been hired to help modernize IIT’s physical chemistry program, but to Martin’s and my surprise my work evolved to have a strong influence in the new and rapidly emerging area of computing.

Peter Lykos

Peter Lykos

Peter Lykos standing in front of a rack of magnetic tapes, 1966.

Dan Ryan

After my first year at IIT, I returned for the summer to Carnegie Tech. Alan Perlis, a major figure in the emerging discipline of computer science, had been hired to bring computing to Carnegie Tech via the first commercially available digital computer, the IBM 650. The new computer technologies excited me and, together with a new graduate student, I learned to program the machine.

In the fall I returned to Chicago and began teaching my students at Argonne National Laboratory, where the accounting department let us use its IBM 650 on the weekends. In 1959 I began using computers in the classroom. My junior-year students in physical chemistry wrote a program in machine language for a UNIVAC 1105, which had been introduced in 1958 by the Sperry Rand Corporation.

Soon my work at IIT was spreading outside of the university. My nephew invited me to speak to his high school math club, but I turned that around and invited the math club to IIT over several Saturdays to repeat what I had been teaching in the lab: writing a least-squares fit to a straight line for experimental data taken earlier. Soon I opened up a formal program to other high schools in metro Chicago, and by that spring we had almost 700 applications for 300 slots. The Saturday program expanded to include graduate courses that applied to a master’s degree in computer science for teachers. Over 10 years the Saturday program accommodated over 15,000 high school students and 1,200 high school teachers, and additional high school students participated through remote teletypewriter access.

The success of my Saturday program combined with interest from many IIT undergraduates got the IIT administration enthusiastic about putting computer science in the college curriculum. In 1964 I created IIT’s computer science academic program, which was the first in metro Chicago and the fourth in the United States. The Saturday program continued to have gratifying results for years to come. My efforts convinced the college board to create an advanced placement test in computer science in the 1983-84 academic year, and that summer I was a reader for the first advanced placement computer science exam.

In 1971 I began two years of academic leave at the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a new section, Computer Impact on Society. Before I arrived in Washington, I organized the first of 12 biennial weeklong International Conferences on Computers in Chemical Research and Education. My time in Washington got me started on establishing broader policies for computer use in teaching and research in the chemical sciences. I became chair of Computers in Chemistry, a new committee of the National Research Council, and in this role I worked closely with Martin Paul, secretary of chemistry at the National Academies of Science. Together we started the National Resource for Computing in Chemistry at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 1974, cosponsored by the NSF and the U.S. Department of Energy, and also started the American Chemical Society’s new Division of Computers in Chemistry. At the request of the NSF’s chemistry section I used NSF discretionary funds to support and become involved in an initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, to buy a departmental midi-computer to complement the campus-wide mainframe. The success of that neat project precipitated the demise of the campus mainframe across the United States—a movement accelerated in 1981 with the advent of the IBM personal computer.

When my two years at the NSF were up in 1973 I returned to IIT. At the invitation of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, I wrote a report called “The Computer’s Role in Undergraduate Chemistry Curricula.” UNESCO distributed that 155-page piece to 300 chemistry departments in developing countries and to 500 departments in developed nations as well. My experience was further enriched when I was invited to join the ACS Committee on Professional Training that sets standards for almost 650 chemistry departments in the United States.

Since I began using computers in chemistry research and education in the late 1950s, I have seen their role in the curricula as vital. I am grateful to have had the chance to carry on Martin Kilpatrick’s vision for a modernized chemistry curriculum by getting in at the early stages of introducing computing into chemistry research and education.