Friday, July 26, 2013

Instrument Nostalgia

For some strange reason, today I was reminded of one of my favorite instruments of all time: the HP 5890/5970 GC/MS.

Ain't she a beaut? Many thanks to UC Santa Barbara Mass Spec Facility website for having a good picture of one of these.
Oh, that sweet off-off-white plastic shell that hid the dirt so well (a color also as known as "early 90s pc not-really-yellow, almost-brown white"). The bluish LED display that felt almost cooling next to the constant heat of the GC oven. The oven door that always had some dried up, crumbling piece of paper taped to it (pictured) containing instructions or warnings or an "out of order" sign or a zany science cartoon.

This HP GC/MS was my first, being the one used in labs at my undergraduate institution. Perhaps my memories of this are tinged by nostalgia. Maybe from that one time my classmates and I sat in the lab, slowly and inadvertently getting buzzed off of fumes from the chloroform bottle we accidentally left uncapped on a hot spring afternoon in the small mass spec room with the door closed. Ah... memories.

But it was a good machine. Not too finicky. Relatively easy to troubleshoot. Minimal software problems since it wasn't run by a computer (the computer just recorded whatever data it spat out). Also, using a chemistry instrument from the same company that made your dorm-room printer was pretty cool.

A close runner-up for me as memories go is this beast:

It looks like this one is still running at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. Robust.

In contrast to the HP GC/MS, the Varian SpectrAA-20 was a constant pain in the ass to use. We had one in undergrad, but the one I spent the most time on was in the undergrad inorganic/analytical lab of my graduate school, where I spent many hours as a TA. I was constantly trying to keep it functional - cleaning the burner, swapping out parts with an out-of-commission twin instrument, aligning the lamp, replacing tubing, altering the experiment on the fly when the lab's last iron/nickel/copper/cobalt lamp burnt out.

But I loved it. I, as a lowly, untechnical first-year grad student, could understand it's inner workings. It had a cool open flame that impressed the students (because, you know, fire). It ran it's programming off of a 5.25 inch floppy! This was in the 21st century, mind you. Most students at the time had never used a "floppy" floppy disk before. Also, it was always connected to a dot matrix printer which constantly jammed from mis-aligned 20 year old fanfold paper.

This instrument was almost as old as I was and it was still completely functional (with a little elbow grease, mind you). And when I first used the GC/MS, HP wasn't even making scientific instrumentation anymore. It may still be in use at my alma mater today.

I contrast these two instruments with today's where it seems as though I'm always trying to get software or firmware patches or updates, mediating fights between the instrument and whatever computer operating system we're using, or discovering unexpected hardware problems that require a service call to diagnose and repair (with a software patch workaround typically).

Have I become that nostalgic already? I'm only in my early thirties. Is it too late to get these new-fangled instruments off of my lawn?

If you have any instruments of yore (or modern instruments) that you cherish, leave a fond rememberance in the comments.

I'll try to put a picture of any instruments mentioned in the comments or on twitter for nostalgia's sake. If I put the wrong thing, or you know of a better visual example of an instrument, let me know.

Chemjobber mentioned an aural love of the HP 1100 HPLC on twitter:

Here's what the internet says he's talking about (sans sounds):
Picture of an instrument at the University of Oklahoma's Mass Spec Facility.
While I've never actually done much HPLC, I'm pretty sure one of these sat in the corner of my graduate lab, a relic of the time our group had a organic synthesis component.

An anonymous commenter mentioned a Guilford Response Spectrometer, something I'm not familiar with, but the pictures jive with the commenter's nickname of the instrument being "big blue":

A few of these available for purchase from various used equipment websites. Get this one on ebay.
Commenter Patrick Kearney lists an "original Symphony Peptide synthesizer". Now, I'm not sure what the original looked like, but the internet gives many examples like this:

Picture source: USFMASP
Patrick also mentions one of the chemist's best, and often most overlooked, friends: the calculator. For him it was the Sharp EL-5100:

[picture under repair]

Over at In the Pipeline, Derek Lowe recalls, not with any fondness, "the JEOL NMR machines with the blue screen and light pen, and a water-cooled 80MHZ NMR made by IBM, of all people." I don't have the foggiest what he's talking about with the light pen (maybe it was before my time). I also can't find any good pictures of old NMRs to add in here. If someone knows of one, give me a heads up.

Update: Derek found a great picture and posted a link at his blog. It looks similar to the NMR I used throughout undergrad. I loved the built-in plotter.


  1. Aaaah yes the HP5890. We had one in my grad' school lab but without the MS, just a flame ionization detector (which always used to die over the weekends). Ours also had an auto-sampler that ran on compressed air - it would demolish Hamilton syringes at the rate of at least one a week, which got expensive after a while. The carousel only rotated in one direction, so running duplicates on the same sample meant 100 steps of ker-chunk, ker-chunk, ker-chunk, advancing one-at-a-time in between samples. It was donated by industry, so came with no manuals or peripheral doodads (no ferrules, tools, columns, septa, supplies, gas lines). Output was to a thermal printer with toilet-paper sized rolls printed in a lovely shade of blue, which faded if you left them next to the oven for a couple of days. Overall a pretty solid machine if you can just throw a grad' student at it, and say "figure out how this works". I got to be very good friends with the Supelco rep' that first year.

    My other favorite was the Gilford Response Spectrophotometer ("big blue" as it was known). We actually had 4 of these but only one was ever in working order, and the others served as spare parts donors. This was the late '90s, but the only data output was dot-matrix (the floppy drives were shot) I had a pretty slick system for scanning in the printed pages and getting the data out via OCR to a word doc' then parsed into an XL spreadsheet. Good times!

  2. I've only ever really loved two instruments.

    1. The original Symphony Peptide synthesizer. Recruited for use in solid-phase organic synthesis in the 90s. The thing was robust, easy to understand,and would actually complete a synthesis regimen without incident. If something did go wrong, it was easy to trouble shoot and repair. The original designer went onto create the Argonaut Nautilus - which was a commerically short lived Frankenreactor. The Symphony lives on though.

    2. My old Sharp EL5100 calcualtor. I bought it in college in the 80s. You could type out a complex formula on it's elongated screen, check it then hit go. Perfect for physics class, chemical formulas, and statistics. Had that thing for over a decade and eventually held together with tape until it had an unfortunate run in with an acetone bottle.

    1. Hey, that HP 5890/5970 was pretty good. You can't fault it for choking on raw total synthesis reaction sludge from the group on the right, and high MW romped polymer from the group on the left. No instrument is user-proof.

  3. Ahhhh big blue..I used to watch microtubules assemble using one of those and watch colchicine have it's effect...those were the days!!

  4. My favorite "instrument" was the Kipps's apparatus for H2S generation. Nearly killed me with the fumes and smell but I still loved it.

  5. Are you still cataloguing instruments with pictures? I miss the old shim-knob from the 60 MHz "basement closet" Varian NMR we had in undergrad. Looked like a sci-fi doo-dad from the movies. Shimming was accomplished on a neon green LCD window in the corner of the screen.

    1. I'm having difficulties finding old NMR pictures. Derek Lowe found one of an old IBM 80MHz, but beyond that I'm at a loss. Let me know if you know of a good picture of what you're talking about.

  6. For what it's worth, HP split off its measurement division as Agilent in the late 90s.

  7. it is sad to see that the only GC-MS I was allowed to touch during my postdoc in UK in 2012 (HP 5890) is regarded as an artifact from past almost forgotten

  8. Well, I still have two 5890's series I and one Series II, still working. Initially with 3392 integrators ( still have them, but rubber drive belts now goo) later with Chemstation 3365? on Windows /386.

    First GC was a Pye 104, then HP 5830, 5880, then 5790, which was my favourite - as column was around the fan, and very temperature stable, but apparently to expensive to manufacture, so replaced by plastic bodied 5890. The 5880, 5830, and 5790 went to rubbish dump earlier this year, as storage space was needed.

    First AAS I used, and liked, was a Varian-Techtron AA4, then graduated to PE703 with flame and graphite furnace which was very robust and lasted 25 years. Couldn't give it away, so also went to dump, along with Kjeldahl digestors and automatic analyser, Metrohm Karl Fischer systems, Combustion tube oven and analyser, and Cary UV/Vis 18.

    First IR was a Perkin Elmer ( already old in late 1970s ) with vertical metal drum with special chart paper for which allowed red pen ink to run down chart during runs creating extra peaks.

  9. Anon ElectrochemistJuly 27, 2013 at 1:02 AM

    If you guys ever need to find the oldest of old equipment, seek out an electrochemistry lab. It's arcane even by chemistry standards. Building your own potentiostat was considered a grad school rite of passage until microchips took over somewhat recently.

    They don't exactly sell a lot of mercury drop polarography equipment these days. Unlike most other instrumental fields, the late 70's-early 80's electrochem gear often works better than the new stuff.

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