William Elmer Forsythe was born August 22, 1881 in Muskingham County, Ohio. He attended Denison University as an undergraduate and earned a Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin. After graduation, Forsythe went to work at Nela Research Laboratory at Nela Park in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked as a physicist until Jul 11, 1924, when he became Director of the Research Laboratory.
During his career Forsythe worked in several fields, including optics and radiant energy. Forsythe did much of the work needed to determine the physical characteristics of tungsten wire as used in incandescent lamps. Along with E. Q. Adams, Forsythe published the definitive book on the fluorescent lamp. He also published a book on radiant energy. His work, chronicled in his publications was invaluable to lamp designers.
Forsythe’s war work dealt with illumination. During World War I he worked on light-signaling units for use in the daytime, helped to develop the original sample of an illuminated bead-sight, and was a member of the Committee on Pyrometry. During World War II he was associated with the Office of Scientific Research for Defense as well as the National Defense Research Council.
When Forsythe retired in 1946 he was the first person to be elected simultaneously to Member Emeritus and Fellow Grade in the Illuminating Engineering Society. Forsythe was awarded the honorary degree by Kenyon College.
After retirement Forsythe spent several years as compiler and editor of the Smithsonian Physical Tables. He died in 1969.