Old papers on chemical structures often contained "3D" renderings of the molecule by using 2 2D images and requiring the reader to go cross-eyed to get the 3D image. A good example I recently found was figure 2 from Carter and Kraut, 1974, which I copied below: enter image description here

However, this paper is from 1974, which feels like ancient history for 3D graphics. Since I have unrelated interests in molecular biology and 3D graphics, I was wondering how they produced these images so long ago, and if the code to produce them is floating around somewhere. I know there are programs to do it for me because I have seen modern images of proteins that do this, I want the code because I might try to build it into my crappy 3D rendering project that I'm wasting too much time on.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm going to hold out for an answer for someone that knows for sure, but much of this kind of stuff was done with en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camera_lucida. You can see that there are some inconsistencies in the bond lengths and angles, so I don't think these were done automatically (!!) $\endgroup$
    – jonsca
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ I like your project, watched the video - it's cool, keep going with it. Don't know how these images were produced, sorry. Just driving by. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ UCSF Chimera is able to produce such images, though I have no idea how they do it or how it was done back then. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2016 at 9:32
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    $\begingroup$ IBM mainframes with Tektronix graphics screens could certainly do the needed calculations and terminal output back in the 1970s. As for printed output, the first HP pen plotter came on the market in 1968. (Although, as I recall from the early 1980s the then-common giant Tektronix screens also had a thermal printer option.) $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 15:43

1 Answer 1


Created in FORTRAN by Carroll K. Johnson, of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and first released in 1965, ORTEP (Oak Ridge Thermal-Ellipsoid Plot Program) rapidly became a favorite of crystallographers and protein crystallographers to produce illustrations of structures for conference presentations and publications. A key strength of ORTEP was its capacity to generate stereoscopic images automatically.

For source of above and more information see: History of Visualization of Biological Macromolecules

For the ORTEP program itself, check ONRL Report #3794: https://web.archive.org/web/20170210061629/http://web.ornl.gov/info/reports/1965/3445600599779.pdf (big file warning)

  • $\begingroup$ Wow. Looking at that FORTRAN code makes me appreciate C++. Did they sell magnetic tapes with the code, or would you have type the whole thing yourself if you wanted to install your own copy? $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Martin-マーチン This gives contact information at Oak Ridge for ORTEP's "guardian and developer" ccp14.ac.uk/ccp/ccp14/ftp-mirror/ornl-ortep/pub/ortep/aca97/… if anyone needs further information. $\endgroup$
    – DavePhD
    Commented Apr 12, 2017 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ @user137, yes type the code by hand onto punched cards, starting col 7 for fortran, one card to a line of code, put into a metal box hoping no typos , hand box over counter and wait for hours for job to be run. This was modern; the structure of insulin was determined by using programmes written on paper tape written in assembler. Editing was done by splicing tape and using sellotape to repair. $\endgroup$
    – porphyrin
    Commented Apr 15, 2017 at 21:52

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