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William J. Wiswesser and the Wiswesser Line-Notation Collection II

Identifier: SC MS 0119

Scope and Contents

The William J. Wiswesser Papers (1926-1989) document primarily the origin and evolution of the chemical notation system which came to be known as the Wiswesser Line-Notation or WLN. This collection includes his diagrams, drawings, charts, graphs, tables, and lists as well as his reports of research, his abstracts of papers to be presented, drafts and finished texts for talks, reprints of published articles, card indexes, samples of the machine readable punched cards, and two different sets of slides on the history of chemical notation. Correspondence accounts for a very large part of the collection, and it is often accompanied by diagrams, tables, texts of papers, offprints of articles, etc. The collection is housed in 26 cartons and is arranged in 14 Series, and each Series and Subseries has been given its own introduction. The earliest item in the collection appears to be a 1926 photograph (Series XIII, Carton 16 folder 15) showing WJW in the cast of a school play titled “The Lost Prince”. The latest items are those recording his death, such as the memorial book from his funeral, December 20, 1989 (Series VIII, Carton 16 folder 56). Supplementing the papers which derive from WJW’s own files are the papers presented by Elbert G. Smith. While the papers of WJW contain some personal and family memorabilia, mostly to be found in Series VIII, the E.G. Smith files focus exclusively on WLN. Of these the largest component is the correspondence with fellow CNA members. There are also numerous offprints of published articles by EGS and others, duplicated materials for WLN tutorials, and drafts for his revisions of the formula.


  • Creation: 1926-1989


Conditions Governing Access

Collection housed remotely. Users need to contact 24 hours in advance.

Conditions Governing Use

Collection is open for research.

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Biographical / Historical

1914. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Lehigh University in 1936. He took graduate courses at Columbia University (1942-1944) and in 1945 was hired as Director of Chemical Research and Industrial Hygiene for Willson Products in Reading, Pennsylvania. From Willson he moved in 1963 to Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, serving as Research Chemist with the Department of Defense, and he retired in 1987. Afflicted intermittently with heart attacks and related health problems, William Wiswesser continued to conduct research, speak, and publish until his death on December 17, 1989, in Reading, Pennsylvania. During his lifetime Wiswesser was elected an alumnus member of Phi Beta Kappa at Lehigh University, earned the Exceptional Civilian Service Award (the highest honor a civilian can receive from the Army), was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from Lehigh, and received multiple recognitions from the American Chemical Society. To promote understanding of the Wiswesser Line-Formula Notation, or WLN as it came to be called, he established in 1958 a business called “CWIK List or Chemical World Index Key” (Carton 4 folder 16), and began publication of the CWIK List News, which he continued for over 40 years. In 1965 he and nine other chemists founded the Chemical Notation Association, which took on the responsibility of improving and promoting WLN, until the dissolution of the CNA in 1984.


1914 Dec. 3: William Joseph Wiswesser is born in Reading, Pennsylvania to Louis and Hattie (Flatt) Wiswesser 1931 June 11: WJW graduates from Reading Senior High School 1936 June 9: WJW graduates from Lehigh University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry 1936-1939: WJW is a Research Chemist with the Hercules Experiment Station in Wilmington, Delaware 1939-1942: WJW is a Research Chemist with the Trojan Powder Company in Allentown, Pennsylvania 1940[?]: WJW marries Katherine C. “Kitty” Connell 1939: WJW invents for patenting a Portable Pneumatic Loading Demonstrator 1939: Daughter Betty Jean is born 1939: WJW is a Chemist Assistant at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey 1942-1945: WJW teaches in the Chemical Engineering Department at Cooper Union in New York City 1942-1944: WJW takes graduate courses at Columbia University 1939: WJW learns of G.K. Zipf and his Law of Least Effort 1939: Son John Michael is born 1945-1963: WJW is Director of Chemical Research and Industrial Hygiene with Willson Products in Reading, Pennsylvania 1945-1948: Five articles by WJW on the teaching of atomic structure are published in the Journal of Chemical Education 1945: WJW invents for patenting the Willson Atomic Models 1949: WJW establishes the basic principles of his line-formula chemical notation 1950 Sept.: WJW presents a paper on the “Origin and Development of Line-Formula Notations” at the meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago 1954: WJW’s book A Line-Formula Chemical Notation is published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company 1954: The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), through its Commission on Certification, confirms its approval of a notation system developed by G. Malcolm Dyson. WJW organizes a petition drive to have the decision reconsidered 1958: WJW formally establishes a business called “CWIK List or Chemical World Index Key” and begins publication of the CWIK List News, which he continues to 1989. 1960: The National Science Foundation awards to the Reading Chemists’ Club a grant for “A Study of the Line-Formula Notation”. The Final Report is completed in 1965 1963-1987: WJW is Research Chemist in charge of herbicidal information management for the Department of Defense at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland until 1974, when the Vegetation Control Division in which he worked was transferred to the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture and renamed Weed Physiology and Growth Regulator Research. 1965: WJW and nine other chemists found the Chemical Notation Association, active until its dissolution in 1984 1965: WJW accepts election as alumnus member of Phi Beta Kappa at Lehigh University 1968: The Wiswesser Line-Formula Chemical Notation, revised by Elbert G. Smith from WJW’s 1954 book, is published by McGraw-Hill Book Company 1968: CWIK publishes a “Tutorial Catalog of 10,000 Short-Named Chemicals” on punched IBM cards 1968: WJW receives from the U.S. Army its Exceptional Civilian Service award, the highest honor a civilian can receive from the Army 1970: The first Reading Chemist of the Year award is presented to WJW 1971: WJW delivers talks on WLN at several meetings of chemists in Europe 1974 May 26: Lehigh University confers on WJW the honorary degree of Doctor of Science 1975: The Wiswesser Line-Formula Chemical Notation, revised a second Time by Elbert G. Smith, is published by CIMI 1975 June 7: The American Chemical Society presents to WJW the Austin M. Patterson Award for Documentation of Chemistry 1975 Sept. 28 : WJW suffers a heart attack 1977: WJW serves a President of CNA 1978: WJW has six coronary hospitalizations in six months 1978: Elbert G. Smith retires from Mills College 1979: WJW and E.G. Smith receive the first CNA award 1980 March 26: The American Chemical Society honors WJW with the Herman J. Skolnik Award 1987: WJW retires from his position at Fort Detrick 1989 Dec. 17: WJW dies in Reading, Pennsylvania


32 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



This collection contains material regarding the life of William J. Wiswesser, with special focus on his Line Notation Formula including correspondence with other chemists and printed materials about the system.

Immediate Source of Acquisition


Physical Description

Correspondence Diagrams Photographs Drawings (visual works) Charts (graphic documents) Articles Slides (photographs) Card indexes Abstracts (summaries)


William J. Wiswesser and the Wiswesser Line-Notation Collection II
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Revision Statements

  • 2013-03-21: Finding aid information revised March 21, 2013- revised by Arielle Willett

Repository Details

Part of the Lehigh University Special Collections Repository

Lehigh University
Linderman Library
30 Library Drive
Bethlehem PA 18045 USA
610-758-6091 (Fax)