Popular Science — 1873 to Now

This story begins with the August 1873 edition of The Popular Science Monthly, a journal that eventually became the modern Popular Science magazine. In 1873 the top science reflected in the journal was telegraphy, the new field of sociology, and the newest breakthrough in nutrition: evaporated milk.

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The cover of the August 1873 issue of The Popular Science Monthly

The telegraphy article contains some great illustrations of telegraph and printing mechanisms. This article is actually why the August 1873 edition is included in MIT’s special collections, since it is part of a subcollection focused on telegraphy.

Though telegraphy got the journal into MIT’s special collections, I found other aspects of the journal to be even more interesting. First was that, despite its intended popular audience, most of the articles were entirely text with no pictures or illustrations. Second was the format and paper type of the journal, which was more like an academic journal (smaller, and with thicker, matte paper) than a modern popular magazine.

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An illustration from another article in the August 1873 issue, “Footprints on the Rocks”

I began to wonder how this bare-bones journal became the colorful magazine it is today, and learned that the publication was sold in 1915. So I looked for the first copy from 1916, but MIT did not have it. There was a gap in MIT’s collection from 1916-1933, and I was determined to find out why. MIT does have two bound volumes from 1915, but one looked to be in poor shape so I only flipped through one, which gave me no clues.

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The cover of the January 1933 edition of Popular Science

I took my search to Harvard next, but they also did not have the 1916 volume. Michael Leach, Head of Collection Development at Harvard’s Science Library, helped me search Harvard’s catalog and WorldCat. Harvard did not have any copies of the magazine from 1916 to 1921, but more interestingly neither did any other university in New England. HathiTrust does have scans of the 1916 editions online, sourced from University of Michigan — a little too far from MIT to bike. Though we did not find anything concrete, Leach did advise me to look closer at the first magazine that MIT had after the gap, but there did not seem to be anything special about the 1933 issue, to MIT or otherwise.

These scans revealed an editorial in the January 1916 issue of The Popular Science Monthly, lauding the magazine founder’s E.L. Youman’s vision, but also issuing a new “first law: It must be interesting”. This editorial explains the 1916 volume’s short articles and abundance of illustrations and pictures.

The 1916 scan did not explain the libraries’ subscription gaps, but the explanation was actually in MIT’s library all along: in the second, degrading 1915 volume. An editorial there announced the upcoming change in The Popular Science Monthly, while the original magazine was to be carried on under the name The Scientific Monthly, which would continue to be sent to subscribers. MIT did continue to receive The Scientific Monthly from the magazine’s inception in 1916 to the end of its publication in 1957. The answer turned out not to be in the issue just after the gap, but the one just before it.

I had a fantastic time tracking down the history of this magazine, and learned a lot in the process: mainly, to look closer at what’s right in front of you. The answer might be right there.

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