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NLM Technical Bulletin

NLM Technical Bulletin. 1999 July-August; 309

In This Issue:

Technical Notes - e1

dotRemembering ELHILL - e2

NLM Home Page Redesigned - e3

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Remembering ELHILL

As we prepare for the end of the ELHILL retrieval system that has supported MEDLINE searchers for 28 years, we thought it fitting to ask some early ELHILL pioneers to send us their thoughts. Some of the first contributors have commented on the development of ELHILL and its impact on their careers. We are hoping that future contributors will enlighten us about other aspects of the ELHILL experience. ELHILL has significance for NLM and the millions of searchers who have used it throughout the world. We hope you enjoy this nostalgic look back as we get ready to move forward into the next millenium with the exciting new capabilities of PubMed, Internet Grateful Med, LocatorPlus, and TOXNET on the Web.

--submitted by Sheldon Kotzin
Chief, Bibliographic Services Division

NLM Computer Room Circa 1969

NLM Computer Room Circa 1969

ELHILL System Development at NLM
ELHILL was developed by the System Development Corporation (SDC), one of two pioneers in time-shared systems. ELHILL was based on a previous system developed by SDC that was modified to meet NLM requirements. The NLM R&D staff in the Lister Hill National Center managed the development for Biomedical Communications, (LHNCBC). The retrieval program was named for Lister Hill, L Hill. The creative thinkers behind ELHILL were Bob Katter, Bob Burket, Don Blankenship, Dave Kenton, and various NLM staff.

The success of ELHILL and MEDLINE was the result of the convergence of three factors:

  1. The creation of a retrieval program that was relatively easy to use and supported multiple simultaneous users.
  2. The availability of a database that was of great interest.
  3. The emergence of value added network service; TYMSHARE was the first provider of this service.

The three combined made the service an instant success, and the first nation-wide local access computer service.

It may also be that the fact that the SDC and the NLM Project Officers' visit to the Rheims Cathedral and the lighting of a candle there to the success of the project helped.

The success of the project also had something to do with the marriage of Grace Jenkins and Dave McCarn. [Editor's note: Grace McCarn went on to become the Chief of the Bibliographic Services Division during her tenure at the Library.]

--submitted by Davis B. McCarn, former NLM Project Officer and
Grace McCarn, former Head, MEDLARS Management Section

ELHILL System Development at SDC
I am one of the designers and authors of the ELHILL program, including the very first one ("ELHILL Alpha"), written in 1969, which searched a 9346-document database of articles about Parkinson's Disease. It worked well enough to prove the concept, and we went on to write "ELHILL Gamma", which was the AIM-TWX program that ran up until some time in 1971. You had to dial Santa Monica, California, and stick the telephone into your modem, and then pound away on your Teletype Model 33.

Building the original AIM-TWX database was a nightmare. We could only add 10,000 documents at a shot, and the addition took two hours and every single Tape Drive (ten) that System Development Corporation could muster. One stretched tape and we were set back two days. It's a good thing that ulcers have been shown not to come from stress; otherwise, all of us involved at the time would be dead.

I installed the program at the Biomedical Center at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, in January 1972. I was allowed to use the computer between midnight and 6:30 A.M., but had to operate it myself (which programmers in those days had no idea how to do!). Once the main files were loaded we spent three days trying unsuccessfully to connect with a remote terminal. Finally somebody guessed that when you typed the User Id (which was "T2741") you had to add some spaces to make it eight characters long:


....and presto! We were online in Scandinavia.

--submitted by Robert Burket
formerly of System Development Corporation

About 1968-1970 Davis McCarn and I were experimenting with online interactive search querying as applied to a database of Index Medicus. We were optimistic and zealous about the possibilities of what it could do for the rate of consumption of bibliographic citations provided by NLM services. Some of our glazed-eyed, hand-waving predictions at cocktail hours along Wisconsin Avenue produced amused and indulgent rolling of eyes by more experienced information workers of the period. When finally introduced, the initial consumer reactions to ELHILL-type querying (AIM-TWX) were positive, several times more voluminous, and grew several times as rapidly as had been predicted (or hallucinated) by us neophytes. We were soon transformed into sage old information scientists.

I provided protection, encouragement, requirements analysis, and command language design suggestions to the ELHILL team. The development work was conducted both at Santa Monica and at Bethesda.

--submitted by Robert Katter
formerly of System Development Corporation

In 1972, I was the junior member of a three-person team at the then-System Development Corporation in Santa Monica, California, which developed ELHILL as a replacement for the AIM-TWX system. When it came time to install ELHILL, the first relocatable Information Retrieval System, at the National Library of Medicine, I volunteered to do the work. Actually, I think the other two team members took a step backwards leaving me out front. The installation took two months and ELHILL II came into being and ran for three years.

The following is a poem I wrote when ELHILL II was replaced with ELHILL III in October 1975.

Friends, detractors, other involved NLM'ers,
Give us a few hours of your time,
We gather to bury ELHILL II, not to praise it,
The good that systems do shall live after them;
So let it be with ELHILL II
Let us eat, drink, and reminisce of times past
And wish ELHILL III God-Speed.

I think these same words apply now as we turn down ELHILL III's flame and wish PubMed the same success and longevity. So, let us wish PubMed God-Speed.

--submitted by Dave Kenton
current ELHILL System Manager and formerly of System Development Corporation

Testing the Prototype at UCLA
It was August 1970, and I had just graduated with my M.L.S. from the University of Michigan and arrived at the UCLA campus for a one-year internship in biomedical librarianship under Louise Darling's tutelage. Interns along with reference staff, compiled subject bibliographies from Index Medicus, at the request of the staff and physicians. This was an extremely labor intensive and time consuming task.

One year (or one month) at a time, I pored over the subject volumes of Index Medicus, copying accurately and legibly, one citation per index card, the references that I thought were relevant to the request. I felt like a medieval cleric, pulling these heavy volumes off the shelves, hoping they would yield their secrets to my inquiring gaze. When this task was completed, the cards were given to a secretary to type into a single alphabetic list. It was a chore. And for searches that required the correlation of two or more subjects, the bibliographies were neither comprehensive nor accurate.

Then, later that year, UCLA began its test of AIM-TWX, the new NLM automated retrieval system for a test database of citations from Abridged Index Medicus. I typed in the MeSH headings and a response showing only the number of citations containing the requested headings was generated. The instrument used to transmit the search was a teletype machine; it was in a special area with soundproofing around it, and I was almost deafened by the noise after keying in a search of any length. Transmission was slow (10 characters per second) and you waited for the printout containing the citations to be mailed back. Nonetheless, it was a quantum leap forward in information science technology. I could see that we wouldn't always be bound to the drudgery of manually produced bibliographies and the methods of the past. This was lifting the curtain for a peek into the future and I knew that I had found the right profession to take me there.

--submitted by Toby Port
MEDLARS Management Section

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Last updated: 14 February 2007