Here’s a look back at the beginnings of ChemDraw, and you won’t be surprised to hear that its origins go back to someone (Dave Evans’ wife!) who’d had way too much of the old-fashioned style of structure drawing.
As I’ve mentioned here before, my grad school experience ended up being timed to experience both worlds. For my second-year continuation exam, I had to do the structures the classic way: green plastic template to make the chair and boat cyclohexanes all come out the same, rub-on letters for the atoms. If you wanted to copy a structure, well, you went down to the copier and you copied that structure. And you Frankensteined each scheme together with tape (matte, not shiny) or glue stick to make The Final Copy, rolling it into the typewriter to put in the captions and the text over the arrows. As I’ve always said, it was, in retrospect, not too far off from incising a buffalo-dung tablet with a sharpened stick and leaving it in the sun to dry.
It was a lot closer to that then it was to ChemDraw, that’s for sure. (The sharpened stick would have worked pretty well with those rub-on letter transfers). And this is exactly what happened every time an organic chemist saw it in action:
The program developed little by little in this manner, with Sally channeling the needs of chemists and Rubenstein doing the programming. In July of 1985, ChemDraw premiered at the Gordon Research Conference on Reactions & Processes in New Hampshire. Rubenstein and the Evanses demonstrated it during a break in the conference. Bad weather kept the conferees indoors, so attendance was high.
Stuart L. Schreiber, then a chemistry professor at Yale University, saw the demo and recalls “knowing instantly that my prized drafting board and my obsessive drafting of chemical formulas were over.”
Schreiber holds the distinction of being the first person to purchase ChemDraw. “The impact of seeing ChemDraw on a Macintosh computer was dramatic and immediate,” he says. “There was no doubt that this was going to change the way chemists interact with each other and the rest of the scientific community,” he says. At the time Schreiber was proudly using his Xerox Memorywriter electronic typewriter with two lines of editable text. “The combination of the Macintosh computer and ChemDraw clearly demanded next-day adoption.” He rushed home to New Haven and placed his order.
That’s just how it went. Every organic chemist who saw the program in action immediately wanted it; the superiority of the program to any of the manual methods was immediately and overwhelmingly obvious. You hear similar stories about people’s reactions to the first spreadsheet program (VisiCalc) in the late 1970s, and for exactly the same reasons. Advances like these need no sales pitch at all – you could demo such things in complete silence for five minutes and people would line up with their money. I can remember seeing ChemDraw for the first time when I was at Duke, and being stunned by the idea of copying and pasting structures, resizing them, rotating them, joining them together, and (especially) saving the damned things for later.
So for my dissertation, which I started writing in late 1987, it was Word (3.02!) and ChemDraw all the way, and I was the first person in Duke’s chemistry department to solo with those two for the PhD writeup. I did some of it on a Mac Plus and a lot of it on Mac SEs, switching floppy disks in and out. There was a Mac II down the hall, with a color screen and a 20 MB hard drive, and I really felt like I was on the cutting edge when I used that one. My lone disk with the manuscript in progress went unreadable and unrecoverable after two weeks of intermittent work, which taught me a lifelong lesson about making backups. Although it was a major pain to keep it up, I ended (with not-so-unusual grad student paranoia) by keeping five copies at all times: the current working copy, an extra one in the desk drawer in my lab, one back by my bench, one over in my apartment, and one in the glove compartment of my car.
My PhD advisor was not a computer user himself at the time, though, which led to an interesting scene when I did hand the manuscript over to him some months later (which process was an interesting story in itself, for another time). He got it back to me with a large number of hand-marked corrections, but as I flipped through the pages I realized that almost all of them were the same corrections, flagged every time that they appeared. I saw him that afternoon, and he asked if I’d seen his changes. I had, I told him, and I’d made al the corrections. He looked at me, puzzled, so I told him about the “Find and Replace” command, and he raised his eyebrows and said “That’s very. . .convenient, isn’t it?” “Sure is,” I badly wanted to say. “Welcome to the fun-filled late 20th century, boss. Let’s see, what else. . .we landed on the moon in ’69. Oh, the Beatles broke up. And. . .”
But I didn’t say any of that, of course. You don’t go around saying things like that to your professor, especially when you’re in the final stages of writing up, not unless you want to face the choice of going back to the lab for a couple more years or asking people if they’d like the Value Meal. No, facing your committee is preferable in every way.