In the early 1970s Michael First's Philadelphia-area high school (Cheltenham High School in Wyncote) purchased some computer terminals and subscribed to a local time-sharing service. As a student there, he loved the challenge of trying to program on these early machines, and he hunted around for practical applications.
After taking chemistry, one came to him: The names of chemical compounds usually follow a protocol that relays a lot of information about their composition and structure. (For instance, 1,1-dichloroethene, or C2H2Cl2, consists of two carbon (C) atoms joined by a double bond, with one carbon connected by single bonds to two chlorine (Cl) atoms, and the other attached in the same way to two hydrogen (H) atoms.)
He wrote a computer program that would analyze the name of a given compound, and produce a picture of the structure from that name. He entered his program in the 1974 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist.