I suspect that the majority of my readers have no experience in drawing chemical structures by hand for publication purposes. That’s because of one software product: ChemDraw. I remember using the Fieser triangle (unfortunately no longer sold by Aldrich – click to see a pic and product description!), a plastic template that had standard-sized rings, like nice pentagons and hexagons, and chair and boat conformations of cyclohaxane, and you’d take your fancy ink pen and careful follow the template. Then you moved the template to draw say a bond off of the ring and hoped to god that the ink didn’t smudge. There were other templates for drawing letters and numbers – or you used scratch-off transfer decals. (By this point all of you under 40 are thinking “what the hell is he talking about?”)

Well all of that changed with three seminal events for organic chemists: the introduction of the original Macintosh computer, the introduction of the Apple LaserWriter and the introduction of ChemDraw. The Mac allowed one to sketch in a much more intuitive way – again for those less than 50, computers use to come without a mouse! Imagine trying to draw a chemical structure using a keyboard. That’s why there were no structure drawing tools prior to the Mac. The LaserWriter meant that you could print an output that looked as good as what you had on the screen, and could thus be submitted for publication. And ChemDraw – well this was just astonishing! I still remember the day during my post-doc when the Mac and LaserWriter arrived and we launched ChemDraw and were able to quickly draw molecules – steroid, and conformations, and stereoisomers and they all looked beautiful and we could get them done in a flash!

When I started my first academic position at Northern Illinois University in August 1987 I purchased a Mac and a LaserWriter and ChemDraw as part of my start-up – and I was the first in the department to have a Mac – but that changed rapidly!

So, why all of the teary reminiscences? Well David Evans has just published1 a nice romp through the mid-1980s recalling how Stewart Rubinstein, aided by Evans and his wife, developed ChemDraw and started CambridgeSoft, and as Stuart Schreiber says “ChemDraw changed the field in a way that has not been replicated since.”

Today, there are other chemical structure drawing tools available, and in fact I no longer use ChemDraw, but it is still a wonder to be able to create drawings so easily and so nicely. Maybe one day I’ll reminisce about the day I got EndNote and my life changed again!


1) Evans, D. A. “History of the Harvard ChemDraw Project,” Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2014, 53, 1521-3773, DOI 10.1002/anie.201405820.