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Graduate School

ChemDraw Days

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.

37 comments on “ChemDraw Days”

  1. Boghog says:

    Oh the memories. ChemDraw was released a year after I wrote my thesis. The first time I saw ChemDraw, my jaw dropped.
    I can relate to Dave Evans’ wife. Drawing structures the old fashioned coupled with the rest of the pressures of writing a thesis very nearly destroyed the relationship I was in at the time.

  2. petros says:

    the evolving process. I used stencils on compound registration cards but used chemical Letraset (from Aldrich) in my thesis.
    Using PCs my first computer drawn structures used WIMP, which only worked on a plotter. But MDL’s CPSS software provided a DOS-based method of incorporating structures into reports and manuscripts. This was superceded by Isisdraw.

  3. CMCguy says:

    I am from the same grad school vintage and likewise had the 5 back-ups disks as well although since had a motorcycle instead of a glove compartment I stashed an extra copy in my backpack. Even so at least once, and maybe twice, I dragged my files the wrong direction and lost a huge chunk of daily work when overwrote the working copy (in the wee hours of the morning when mind was spent). ChemDraw came along and was a savior as had written a couple papers using the templates and element stickers where found the activity mostly soothing diversion from lab work however could not have imagined having the same amount of structures and schemes done in my thesis that was able to generate with ChemDraw.

  4. Boghog says:

    Another interesting byline of this story was the rapid adoption of Macintosh computers in academia and the pharmaceutical industry driven by ChemDraw.

  5. Sleepless in SSF says:

    Earlier this year I ran across and finally threw out all the paper drafts and notes from my dissertation (circa 1988), but I’m almost sure that I still have a large collection of floppies with multiple versions/copies of it that I squirreled away in the same places Derek did (including my car), and for the same reasons.
    I was also the first student in our lab to use a word processor and graphics software for his PhD, and I also had a professor who was a little too, ahem, experienced, to have much to do with computers. In my field (mass spec), however, the lack of computers meant that we recorded all our data on XY plotters and light sensitive strip chart recorders and had to measure intensities with rulers.

  6. Toad says:

    It should also be noted that the Switcher program in the Macintosh (and earlier Apple products) was integral to the efficiency of writing up at that time. It was the small program that allowed you to “switch” between two programs that were open at the same time. Previously, computers did not have (and it was expensive) enough RAM to have more than one program running at any one time.
    Going back and forth between ChemDraw and MS Word embedding the schemes and figures into your dissertation was heaven compared to typewriters and rub-on stencils. And yes, many of us learned the hard way to keep multiple backups.

  7. Nodz says:

    Its funny how history repeats – or amplifies – itself. I find myself “frankensteining” a lot of stuff these days via computer. I love ChemDraw – its one of the easiest and most intuitive programs that I have ever used, but how how I put that HPLC trace from that old-ass Waters instrument (worst software ever btw) into Illustrator? Ok, Ill just save it as a .pdf. then take a “picture” with the photo tool, then go into illustrator and put a clear rectangle over the numbers and replace them with ones I wrote myself etc etc etc… It doesn’t seem much different, or better, than tape, an paper spectrum, and a glue stick. At least you have rational reasons why the tape is sticking, the glue is runny, and the scissors are blunt. Can’t say the same as to why I cant open this file in this program with this format… Some days I would love to not spend 2-3 hours trying to import a file to another program – just pass the scissors and glue!

  8. A Nonny Mouse says:

    At Wellcome we had PCs rather than Macs and people were upset about having to get a graphics department to do their structures so Paul Wallace (Stuart Warren PhD) wrote MoleDraw for the PCs and later adapted this for Windows 2 and 3. This allowed the cut and paste into documents which was invaluable (otherwise it was still cut and paste).
    Several companies were interested in getting a license to commercialise but, as some development had been done on company time, this was not allowed.
    Versions are still floating around on the web for other operating systems and I believe that I still have a floppy with the Win 3.1 version somewhere at home.

  9. MTK says:

    The floppy disk icon is my favorite.
    It actually used to mean something literal as in “save to the floppy disk”. Now it just means “save”. To somewhere, but certainly not a floppy disk.
    I’m sure that there is a whole slew of young folks who have no clue why the save icon is that shape or what it means.
    The telephone handset icon may not be too far behind.

  10. Derek Lowe says:

    #6 Toad – That’s absolutely right! I started before I had Switcher, and I remember that it felt like having magic powers to see that screen slide over and suddenly find myself transported between Word and ChemDraw. After that there was MultiFinder, which also seemed like voodoo. More on these here:

  11. SP says:

    What’s the most recent piece of software that has that “sells itself” property that people can’t live without it? Or is all the low hanging software fruit picked? Is all the must-have functionality web-based now? Search engines?

  12. Mark says:

    My grad student paranoia was fuelled almost exclusively *by* ChemDraw. While writing up (in the late nineties), I was working on a number of large and complicated diagrams for the thesis which involved Chem3D diagrams copied and pasted and then annotated in ChemDraw.
    Unfortunately, that version of ChemDraw had a bug. The application would behave fine, but after a while it would start to save corrupt files. So, I’d work on a diagram for an hour or three, save and exit. Next time, I’d reopen the file and ChemDraw would crash. Hard. Every time.
    So, my avoiding-data-loss paranoia involved editing in ChemDraw for five minutes, saving to a new file, closing ChemDraw, reopening the file. Rinse and repeat, and remember that ChemDraw took a solid minute to start up properly, and that every third try would end up with a crashing ChemDraw and the last set of changes needing to be redone. Grrr. I still have a disk around somewhere with files from “Figure_14_number1.cdx” through “Figure_14_number138.cdx” on it.

  13. I loved ChemDraw, and I’ve always been an Apple user/evangelist. However, years ago I started using the free version of ChemSketch, and although it only runs on Windows, I already had Parallels up and running on my Mac to be compatible with everyone else at my college. Most of my students already run Windows so they can run ChemSketch for FREE, so it is worth some time in the classroom to review how to use it. I’ve also done some really cool work with ChemSketch, which you can see by clicking on my URL.

  14. Sick of ChemDraw says:

    Yeah, it was great in the 80’s when we still drew molecules by hand.
    But now its a shame that who owns Chemdraw (Perkin Elmer) now has priced it way too high. You cant even get them on the phone to argue with them these days. Someday it will go away to be replaced by other and better products-who take the low road when it comes to price.
    And I will laugh.

  15. cookingwithsolvents says:

    I wrote my thesis..ahem…well into the ChemDraw age. However, you couldn’t take MS word written on PC and take it to mac without the chemdraws being converted to low-res images. SOOO lots of writing on PC, drawing on PC, pasting in on macs. The legacy of macs in chemistry is really, really due to chemdraw, I have no doubt.
    I had a similar “woahhhh” reaction to scifinder and endnote. Things that instantly made your world easier. And harder…endnote still seems to like to corrupt word docs.
    Google chemdraw tricks and most everyone will learn a few things. The program really has evolved to something stunningly powerful.

  16. dearieme says:

    I remember a lecturer who had made a molecular model entirely of black plastic, and wore a navy blue sweater against which he held it, so that it was invisible to the class.
    On the occasions he waved it about, it was in front of a blackboard, so it was still invisible.

  17. darwinsdog says:

    Yes my thesis started on a IBM DOS too, I think running volkswriter(?) and hand drawn structures (or in some cases entered by using a 3-D ‘touch-to-the-atom’ Thomas Jefferson style tool… then came Chemdraw on a Mac. But what about Pre-Powerpoint!!! Remember shooting your slides with a camera, using an orange filter so the negatives were blue background (only to find they were blurry or had too thin lined etc), cutting and snapping them into frames and the 50% of the time the slides were loaded wrong-ways – seems like only yesterday. And before all that there was email – I sent one email during my entire undergrad years as a homework assignment through the massive campus supercomputer of the day…hey kids the internet really did used to be a bunch of tubes.

  18. CAprof says:

    I started grad school at Harvard in the fall of 1988, and ChemDraw had been invented there as Derek correctly notes. Stu Rubenstein was a Corey PhD student working on his computational synthesis project – called LASSA or something like that. Anyway, because CD was a Harvard project we all got the program for free. So, for years, generations of Harvard grad students got their hands on the software gratis, which undoubtedly helped ensure adoption! “Hey Kid, the first one’s free!!!”

  19. Canageek says:

    Am I the only one who prefers other softwares interface to ChemDraw? I like Chemsketch by ACD a lot better, but sadly it doesn’t produce nearly as nice looking figures, so you can’t use it for publications….

  20. Chemdraw vs WIMP says:

    My advisor, a well-funded faculty member at Purdue, was obsessive (despite his Harvard graduate years interacting with Dave Evans) about a chemical drawing program called Wisconsin Interactive Molecular Processor (with the UNFORTUNATE acronym – WIMP – see Petros’ reference in reply#2), which was PC based. He was on the other side of the PC vs MacIntosh war…to our dismay. I believe that some of us were able to win him over to Chemdraw (limited use) by the time I graduated. But during my graduate years, I ran the gamut from green & clear plastic templates (my advisor was fanatically meticulous about his/our drawing in the fashion), WIMP, and then ChemDraw, which I believe is what I did my thesis on. I do have to hand it to him, however…I dont know many PhD advisors in 1985 who had a bank of computers for their grad students to use as their personal computers, on which to do their (WIMP) drawings for weekly updates in his office (for me, on SATURDAY MORNINGs!!! often with a hangover).

  21. exGlaxoid says:

    I had the joy of learning MDL’s ChemBase (precursor to ISISBase) and ChemText for a part time job, but the good part was that I was able to write my thesis on a PC, using ChemText, which allowed the use of ChemBase structures in a text document. If MDL had written ChemText as well as ChemBase, it might have hurt ChemDraw, since it worked on a PC, but that was not much of a fear.
    MDL did not take ChemDraw or presentation graphics seriously for many years and it grew to haunt them, as many people picked ChemDraw over ISIS Draw, and lead many companies away from the MDL software, which was very good for database searching, but horrible for chemical structure publications.

  22. anon says:

    The cost of ChemBioDraw is getting eye-wateringly expensive. Worth having a look at ChemDoodle.

  23. Ann O'Nymous says:

    @4/BogHog, I did wonder why Macs were so prevalent. When I was a lowly bioinformatics grunt at Wellcome I joined expecting to crunch numbers on UNIX only to find that the lab people all had Macs…because that was what their electrophoresis runs were controlled by. Given that this was on the old Mac OS it never made much sense to me.
    Nowadays I see the kids with their mac book pros and they have no idea that there’s an industrial strength operating system underneath whose birth almost destroyed Apple.

  24. DJN says:

    I date from well pre-PC computer days for my thesis (1968) and well remember stencils and scotch tape. However, being a dyed in the wool PC guy, I used CPSS in its earliest iteration and then ChemDraw when it moved to a “PC or Proper Computer”.

  25. Scott Sieburth says:

    ChemDraw was truly groundbreaking. My thesis was the first in my research group written on a computer, a serious upgrade from hiring a typist, but my structures were all hand drawn. But I concur with “anon”, the program became so expensive, and so PC oriented and anti-Mac that I migrated to ChemDoodle. Very pleased with it!

  26. newnickname says:

    I’ve got ChemDraw stories, too!
    But first, I want to say, once again, that the problems with the website are back. Intermittently, I get blank pages; I get partial pages of comments (and no Post a Comment box at the bottom, of course); pages with no comments; etc..
    I used to report bugs to ChemDraw, too!

  27. Derek Lowe says:

    #26 newnickname
    Unfortunately for both of us, no fix seems likely. Corante has no resources left to do anything for the site, so the move is the only solution that’s guaranteed. And this is still in the works, although more slowly than originally planned. It’ll happen, though!

  28. mg says:

    such a shame that chem draw is so expensive now. We (a very large chemical company) have to use the much inferior accelyrs allegedly due to the exorbitant costs of chemdraw.

  29. Anonymouse says:

    Does “Dale Evans’ wife” have a name? An independent identity? Just curious.

  30. Derek Lowe says:

    #29: Fair enough. Her name is Sally, as anyone who clicks on the C&E News link will learn. Most readers here will certainly have heard of Dave Evans (not Dale, unfortunately, which cuts down on the possibilities for rope tricks), so I used him as a hook. You have my word that if this were the husband of a well-known female chemist that he would have gotten the same reference.

  31. newnickname says:

    Schreiber was also a very early user of the DEC Rainbow PC (BEFORE ChemDraw) which had been released and had chemistry related software offerings. I vaguely remember 3D visualization / rotation stuff (Chem3D anyone?) but I don’t remember the names of the programs.
    (Thanks for the website info update.)

  32. newnickname says:

    Schreiber was also a very early user of the DEC Rainbow PC (BEFORE ChemDraw) which had been released and had chemistry related software offerings. I vaguely remember 3D visualization / rotation stuff (Chem3D anyone?) but I don’t remember the names of the programs.
    (Thanks for the website info update.)

  33. Hap says:

    The list of things one can’t say to one’s advisor without needing to buy blue shirts and dress pants and practice saying “Hello. Welcome to Wal-Mart. How may I help you?” is pretty long. Apparently it does include exhorting your advisor to get off his…behind and review your paper. (Maybe it’s a measure of the less than normal atmosphere of grad school that the person who said that did not instantaneously realize the career-limiting potential of the request – I can’t imagine that going over well at work, for example.)

  34. K the Knight says:

    And the hairdresser in Cambridge had a lot to do, before S. Rubenstein went to present ChemDraw at the ACS meeting in these early days. After the haircut, even Corey group members did not recognize him immediately when he walked along the labs.

  35. Deep Lurker says:

    In grad school, our group had a Vax, and a structure-drawing program that one of the older grad students had written. IIRC the creation of that program was part of his dissertation. There was also a program to keep track of the group’s common chemicals. That one I rewrote (the original version was a mess) and kept going while I was there.
    When I started at my most recent employer in 1990, there was a Mac for each PhD plus one mac for all of us associates in the group (half a dozen or so). We had to do monthly progress reports, so I did mine on the Mac, with Chemdraw and Word. A month or two later there was a line to use the Mac each month – and shortly after that, a purchase order went through to get Macs for all the associates as well.
    I was also one of the unofficial go-to guys for computer problems (or just help) in the early days, until they hired a full-time computer type to be the computer “medic.”

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