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One-hundred and thirty-seven years of back issues of the monthly magazine Popular Science are now available on-line free.

Popular Science cover, October 1977. (Source: Google books)

Popular Science cover, October 1977. (Source: Google books)

You can either search the Popular Science archives, or access issues via Google books. It does not appear to be possible to download copies to read them locally, as some might prefer.

Popular Science was first published in May 1872 with quite substantial editions, over 100 pages in length.

With it’s long history, it will appeal to many different readers.

Those on a short budget will like the free access last year’s editions. Some will enjoy exploring the historic ’science’–not all of it would be considered science today–of the editions from the late 1800s. Others might prefer the early colour illustrations. Fans of old advertising will be in for a treat, too.

Popular Science was intended to address the non-scientific public, as explained in the Editor’s Table of the first edition, to ’contain papers, original and selected, on a wide range of subjects, from the ablest scientific men of different countries, explaining their views to non-scientific people.’

Before I continue I should confess I’ve never read Popular Science. My own science reading tends more to the research literature, books or blogs.

I’m going to limit this article to mainly the first edition, partly in the interest of time, and partly as what drew my attention to this resource being made available was access to early attempts to bring science to the wider public.

Early issues often open with a portrait with little explanation as to why they are being presented. Initially I took these to represent leading figures of the day, a sort 0f hero worship, but their biographies suggest they commemorated their recent passing. (Later I realised that the obituaries are within the Editor’s Table section.) Featured in the first edition is a portrait of Samuel Finley Breese Morse bedecked with medals, best known for the Morse code and development of the telegraph in the USA. (An article on the telegraph features in the November 1873 edition.)

The first edition opens with The Study of Sociology (by Herbert Spencer): the first subsection of this subtitled ‘Our Need of It’. While this article starts well be becomes so wide ranging and rambling that I quickly moved on to the second, The Recent Eclipse of The Sun (by R. A. Proctor, B.A., F.R.A.S.), which I found more compelling. It notes, for example, that ’flames’ on the solar surface  ’are not, properly speaking, flames at all, but masses of gas glowing with intensity of heat.’ Like Spencer’s piece it is in longhand style but more interesting for discussing all views on the issue what the corona consisted of, both from competitors and colleagues. In it is illustrated an early photograph of the corona (below).

Early photograph of solar corona. (Popular Science archive and Google Books.)

(Popular Science archive and Google Books.)

Following this, the Reverend T. W. Fowle (the name seems ripe for terrible jokes) follows with Science and Immortality referring to the immortality of the soul, as a religious person might. This was a period when religious leaders directly offered their thoughts on religion in popular science publications, some offering science, others objecting and some offering compromises.

Other articles in the first issue look at the measurement of man, disinfectants, the natural history of man,  dyspepsia (indigestion), women and political power (presented by a male promoting equality: ’The most vital point in my present argument is that woman must be regarded as woman, not as a nondescript animal, with a greater or lesser capacity for assimilation to man.’), the early superstitions of medicine (we still seem to be stuck with some of them courtesy of some ‘natural remedy’ practitioners), prehistoric times (with some lovely illustrations; I’ve just learnt a celt refers to a kind of axe), literary notices (book reviews and the like) and a miscellany (in this first edition one refers to tips for house-building).

Popular Science, September 1917. (Google books.)

Popular Science, September 1917. (Google books.)

Don’t miss the Notes at the end of the early issues, some are delightful titbits of history. For example, the final note of the November 1873 edition records that ’MR. BENJAMIN SMITH, of London, has sailed for the North Pole in the yacht Diana.’ Or, a few notes above: ’The Russian Government is about to construct a railroad from Njini-Novgorod on the Volga, to the Japan Sea, about 4,200 miles.’ I would need to do further to research, but it is possible that this is the beginnings of construction of the Trans-Siberian Highway (not to be confused with the better-known railway of the same name), which was officially completed in 2004. Sections of it remain unpaved. (For fans of long-haul travel, there is 15-page travelogue in National Geographic Adventure.)

Articles in the early issues frequently take the form of long-hand lecture notes, a style that seems quite odd today, although it has the advantage that you can imagine the lecture.

Many of the earlier colour cover illustrations look more science fiction than science and are very war-like during the period of the world wars. The 1950s covers seem obsessed with automobiles, with a brief respite for ‘U.S. Scientist sets timetable to the Moon’ featuring a scientist and the Moon. October 1977 features the PET computer, for $US595 (Shown above).

Whatever your interest in Popular Science, the back issues are there for the reading. Enjoy them!

HT: @jswiatek via @BoraZ via twitter.


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