August 5 was the birthday of David Weininger, born in Brooklyn, New York (1952), and raised in Schenectady. He was considered a visionary and pioneer in the field of chemical informatics and he’s known for inventing a chemical nomenclature system called SMILES (simplified molecular-input line-entry system).
He got his start in science as a 16-year-old at the Huyck Preserve in 1968. He was part of a group we called the Mill House Boys because they lived in the Mill House on Main Street in Rensselaerville. The seven boys were gifted and talented high-school students who were taking part in the Natural Sciences Institute (NSI), founded by cloud-seeding inventor Vincent Schaefer. The Huyck Preserve was one of several NSI campuses in the country.
In the mornings, the Mill House boys attended lectures, hosted by the Institute on Man and Science, and in the afternoons, they worked on their research projects. I was employed by the Institute that summer and staying with my grandparents (Lee and Katharine Huyck Elmore). One of my jobs was selling books outside Conkling Hall, where the Institute lectures—featuring prominent scientists, educators, economists, and other leaders—were held. The boys and I attended the lectures and we sat at a long table in front of the stage. We all had nameplates so the speakers could see who we were in case we asked questions. Dave gave me his nameplate at the end of the summer and I still have it. I must have given him mine.
Dave’s Research Projects at the Preserve
Dave had two research projects—one involved studying the sediments of Lake Myosotis and the other was tracking the currents in the lake. For the sediments project, he constructed a simple coring device out of long lengths of 1.25-inch-wide iron pipe and lined them with plastic sleeves. He would row to different parts of the lake, drop the device into the water, push it deep into the lake bottom until the pipe was filled with sediment, and pull it back up. He’d extract the plastic sleeve, insert another one, and row to another spot to take another core sample. Later, he took the plastic sleeves back to the dry lab to analyze the sediments inside.
For the lake-currents project, Dave worked with Ken Colby to develop a photographic technique for tracing the currents on the lake’s surface. Dave had engineered tiny wooden rafts with masts topped by light bulbs that were powered by motorcycle batteries. On the shore, near the Ordway House, he and Ken had built a 50-foot tower and placed a camera on top. Each night, around 11:00 p.m., they opened the camera’s shutter, and released the rafts from the marsh on the north end of the lake. The shutter was open all night so by morning the exposed film would show a tracing of the light as the rafts moved south along the subsurface current from the marsh all the way to the dam. Before daybreak each day, the boys hiked up Pond Hill Road from the village to retrieve the camera and the rafts. Then, they’d ride back down the hill on their bikes. One morning, however, only one bike was operational. Ken and Dave decided to ride down the steep hill together on the bike that worked. Big mistake. The bike was going so fast by the time it got to the bottom of the hill that it sailed through the stop sign and crashed into the picket fence across the street. Dave was knocked unconscious. Ken managed to crawl back to the Mill House for help.
I actually met Dave for the first time a few days after the accident. I remember knocking on the Mill House door one afternoon when he appeared. He was home alone because he had just returned from the hospital and everyone else was out working on projects. His eyes sparkled mischievously as he regaled me with stories of the accident and his other escapades. We became good friends and stayed in touch off and on over the years.
Dave dropped out of high school after that summer. He traveled around the country and the world trying to figure out what he wanted to do. Eventually he landed back in New York State and, even though he didn’t have a high school diploma, he was accepted at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (he played guitar). But after a couple of years, he realized that as much as he loved music, chemistry was his true passion. He attended the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol (England) for a while, but soon grew tired of that. He returned to Schenectady and took at job as an assistant chemist in General Electric’s research and development lab. But he was still restless. He left again, this time to enter a Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1978, he earned a Ph.D.—his only academic degree—in civil and environmental engineering, with a specialty in water chemistry.
Inventing a Chemical Language
Next he took a position with the Environmental Protection Agency at the National Water Quality Laboratory in Duluth, Minnesota. He was in charge of cataloging all the toxic substances found in various bodies of water. There were hundreds of toxic chemicals and it was impossible to keep track of them all by using traditional chemical-nomenclature methods. So, in 1983, Dave invented a universal computer-friendly language in which the names and structures of all chemical compounds could be expressed and the records kept in a computerized database.
His new simplified molecular-input line-entry system, called SMILES—enabled chemists to perform most of their experiments on a computer rather than in a lab. Drug developers could use the system, too, to create medical compounds faster than before. Dave went on to become co-founder, president, and chief scientific officer of Daylight Chemical Information Systems, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The company does rapid analysis of massive chemical databases and also produces other specialized software packages for chemists, including Rubicon, a geometry program for creating 3-D forms, and Thor, a client-server database for chemical information.
More than a Chemist
Dave’s energy was boundless and he pursued many other interests, too. He was an accomplished musician who played the banjo and guitar and had his own recording studio. He was an amateur astronomer who designed and built an observatory—complete with two telescopes—on his property in Santa Fe. He was a licensed pilot, owned three aircraft including a decommissioned British military fighter jet, and was a stunt flyer. He was a licensed chef and built a kitchen sink inside a grand piano (and the piano still worked). He bought a surplus mass spectrometer from Los Alamos National Laboratory and used it to figure out how to decaffeinate chocolate. He sold his “caffeine-free chocolate” process to Cadbury. He took a course in film directing so he could create a chemistry educational film series called CHILE (Chemical Information Lectures and Exercises). And, for a doctor friend who wanted to take medical care to people living in the New Mexico desert, Dave purchased a surplus Swiss Army six-wheel, six-axle truck and converted it to a mobile medical clinic that could go anywhere—even up steep inclines, across streams, and over mountain ranges.
Farewell to Dave
He lived life to the fullest, accomplished many things, and always had fun. Sadly, Dave died on November 2, 2016. I will never forget Dave—neither will his many other friends—and will cherish my memories of him forever.
Read more about the Mill House Boys and their antics at https://lscnews.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/the-mill-house-gang/