OpenSciLogs: The History of Popular Science – First Thoughts

25 April 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in Uncategorized

Owing to my recent absence (excuse? I've been in the library...) this post is a two parter, outlining my research to date for my OpenSciLogs project looking at the history of popular science.


Part 1: A Few Lectures in London

"To the thoughtful and enquiring mind there are two subjects of frequent contemplation and of absorbing interest - the future, and the past". Those were the words of Thomas Dunman, a lecturer in physiology at London's Birkbeck Institution, during one of a series of "Popular Science Lectures" that he gave in the city, in 1881.

He backed up his point with a metaphor: "Standing, as it were, upon a narrow islet between two boundless oceans, man is ever striving to pierce the veil which hangs on either hand" ... yes, ok, the language of science communication was a bit more - shall we say? - "lofty" back then. Still, I think the guy had a point.

The transcript of these lectures - contained in a slim blue hardback, fetched for me from somewhere in the bowels of the British Library - was my introduction to late-19th century popular science, and the first step in my OpenSciLogs journalism project, in which I’ll trace the evolution of that genre, from the fin de siècle to the present day.

The portion of the populace to whom Mr Dunman gave these lectures were mainly students at London's Working Men's College - or anyone who could afford sixpence for one of the printed copies (that's about £20, or $35 adjusted for today's wages - quite a paywall, don't you think?). But anyway, what brand of science was popular in Victorian London?

Dunman certainly ticked all his boxes for "absorbing interest". One of the talks, "Prehistoric Man", covers the past. Another, "The Starlit Sky", adds to that the present and future (the eternal heavens - as a science writer might, in those days, have gotten away with calling them - have never needed much selling). His finale, on "Volcanoes and Coral Reefs”, is a bit more incongruous - but who cares, both those things are cool.

Now ask yourself if any of those titles would seem out of place in a popular science publication today. The night sky. Our ancient ancestors. Volcanoes. A scan through the science rack of any news stand outside will almost certainly turn out at least one similar article, and probably lots more. (News stands have science racks, right?)

One of my key goals in this project is to discover differences between the science communication of the past and present. But Dunman's few lectures, narrow introduction as they were, reminded me not to forget the similarities. Just as I hope to draw conclusions from how popular science has changed, the areas where it hasn't might reveal, or remind us of, some universal truths.

But that was a handful of lectures from one guy. Onto the meat, then. (But still mostly from guys, I’m afraid) …


Part 2: The first 30 years – 1870-1900

Honestly, I wanted it to be a bit harder than this. When I came up with the concept for the project, I’d always imagined myself trawling through back-editions of The Popular Science Monthly - the antique American magazine first published in 1872, which eventually morphed into today's Popular Science magazine. 1872. Surely I'd have to really roll up my sleeves to go back that far?

No. To PopSci's great credit, every edition is available to view for free online. (You can do it now). There are thousands of issues. Tens of thousands of articles. Well, you can't say I didn't ask for it... Still, I thought I should get a few more, just to be safe.

Even at this prenatal stage of my research, it doesn’t feel right to stick to a single source. So I looked for another, comparable publication of the period. That took a bit more work (well, a quick scan of the British Library's electronic database actually, but never mind - my journalistic pretentions were satisfied). It brought me back home to London, and The Popular Science Review (which charmingly describes itself as "a quarterly miscellany of entertaining and instructive articles on scientific subjects"). The BL had a decent archive of the Review, covering the years 1861-1881. Ok, here goes: the work.

What were we reading?

Choosing a thirty year period narrowed things down, but only a bit (we’re still talking thousands of articles). That’s a fairly big shoal, so I’m using a wide net. So far I’ve looked at one issue every five years, covering the years 1872-1898 for the US magazine, and 1871-1881 for the British one (after which it appears to have gone out of print) and classifying each article by type (Physics, Biology, Psychology etc.).

Here's what I've found so far:

1. Biology was big

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was still fresh. This was a time when one author - in The Popular Science Monthly (June 1872) - could refer to the theory of evolution by natural selection as "Mr Darwin's Speculations"! (Try reading that for a history high, by the way). It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the majority of the articles - 23% in the US publication; 29% in the British one - focused on biological matters. This is the strongest piece of evidence I have found so far: Nature was news.

The rest of the articles are almost an even spread between various other subjects (physics, seemingly one of today’s go-to topics for science writers looking for an amazing angle, is still way down the list; after all, the ground-breaking discoveries of Einstein lay a generation in the future. I’m expecting seismic shifts when I get to the early 20th century). But one little curiosity caught my interest.

2. Fighting or flowers?

It’s far too early to draw anything like a conclusion. But I’m having fun, so I’d like to share an observation about one particular topic in these magazines - present in one; conspicuously absent in the other - which, I think, says more about the public than just their taste in science.

It’s war. Almost 10% of the articles in the British publication focused on methods of destruction - the physics of cannonball flight, or the workings of a large guns, for example. By contrast, the US magazine (the US, mind) featured exactly zero percent articles about killing, but expended their 10% percent of miscellany on … wild flowers.

I’m not sure this one needs much interpretation. In the 1870s, the British Empire was in full flow; while Americans were picking up the pieces from one of the bloodiest wars in history. Working theory number one: the history of popular science is sometimes just history. The flowers might not mean anything, but I like the symbolism too much to leave them out.

And lastly ... the writers!

One conclusion I do feel confident in drawing is about the writers themselves. They were - almost to a man - well … they were men. Of course, this will shock no one (if we haven’t reached gender equality now, consider the odds if you lived 140 years ago, and shudder). Instead, it's the exceptions to the rule - the three instances in the 115 articles I’ve covered so far that were penned by women (count them: three) - which might say something of note.

In this period, female participation in science was still negligible. So what set this trio apart? I can't be sure without more digging, but a common theme in their articles seems to give a clue: they had all travelled.

One of their number - Adele Fielde - wrote about Chinese superstitions, having spent decades in the Orient as a missionary. Another, Emma Cummings, shared her experiences of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas - while in the same issue one Helen Zimmerman summarised the state of criminology in Italy (it was apparently, at that time, rather good); the latter's inclusion as an author, I can only assume (with no intended condescention) was by virtue of her having visited the country.

It's a working theory, which may harden or dissipate under further scrutiny, but I think there’s something in it: did it take a lucky break at a foriegn trip to open a woman's literary - and scientific - horizons?


So what next?

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Next I'll cover more articles from these two publications, pre-1900, to see if the patterns I’ve identified from my cursory glance have any foundation. This being “open notebook” journalism, I’m presenting these working theories as they occur to me, and will gladly abandon them if the data decide.

And after that, there’s apparently another 114 years of science writing to look at - so I will. Can’t wait, actually.

4 Responses to “OpenSciLogs: The History of Popular Science – First Thoughts”

  1. Gary Riccio Reply | Permalink

    Interesting progress, Robin. It sounds like you are having fun. I especially like the data-hypothesis-more data approach you are taking in open view. Very cool!

    In particular, the notion of intellectually potency of physical travel seems to be pregnant with possibilities.

    The 19th Century might have been a special period with respect to the relatively widespread accessibility of international travel and strong differences in culture and (socio-technical) life across boarders. More broadly than science, but perhaps as context for it, international travel in the 19th Century had a powerful impact on social change beyond replication to innovation (see e.g.,

    The result of such physical travel would have been exposure to strikingly different if not vexing realities that present empirical challenges to one's own personal history and cultural realities (implicit hypotheses about the way the world works?). This conjecture suggests to me a very science-like experience to me even if it was not fundamentally about science. Thus it might have fostered scientific sensibilities and an interest in a formal confrontation between (extrapolation from the past) and the present (i.e., the hypothetico-deductive process of science).

  2. Stephen Reply | Permalink

    Interesting observations there, especially under the "fighting or flowers?" subheading, and pointing out the gender inequalities in science journalism as well. 3 out of 115 articles!? It would be interesting to see at what point that starts to change, and how rapidly.

  3. Troy McConaghy Reply | Permalink

    Don't forget to look for others who have done similar research on the history of popular science. They could save you a lot of trouble.

    Some other Victorian Era popular science writing that comes to mind:

    * The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, which were started by Michael Faraday in 1825. (These were also published.)

    * The Birds of America, by naturalist and painter John James Audubon, first published in 1827.

    (Technically the Victorian Era didn't begin until 1837. What ever shall we do?)

    * The National Geographic Magazine, first published in 1888.

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