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Anecdotes from the Archive

Anecdotes from the Archive


Intriguing finds from Scientific American's past
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From Patents to Poetry: A Breakdown of Scientific American‘s Very First Issue

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Earlier this month, Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American proudly launched the completion of Scientific American‘s archives, dating back to the first issue from August 28, 1845. As America’s longest-running consecutively published magazine, it’s no surprise the content of the publication underwent several changes since its debut. What appeared in 1845 shows a periodical aimed not only toward science enthusiasts, inventors and engineers, but also to citizens from all walks of life—farmers, housekeepers, artists and gossip-mongers. In honor of the archive launch, I’ve aimed to give readers some of the magazine’s history and original objectives, as well as highlight some of the stories that appeared at the very beginning of it all.


The founder and original editor in chief, Rufus Porter, declared the magazine’s purpose as showcasing “interesting news of passing events, general notices of the progress of Mechanical and other Scientific Improvements; American and Foreign Improvements and Patents; Scientific Essays, illustrative of the principles of the sciences of Mechanics, Chemistry, and Architecture; useful information and instruction in various Arts and Trades; Curious Philosophical Experiments; Miscellaneous Intelligence, Music, and Poetry.” Porter was a successful painter, wrote poetry, played music and constantly worked on creating new new inventions or improving old ones. If the early content of this now well-known science magazine seems a little hodgepodge, perhaps it is because, as suggested by The Rufus Porter Museum, it was “really a four page newspaper devoted to everything [Porter] was involved in.” Mr. Porter had an ambitious agenda for his magazine, wanting to keep topics specific enough to benefit those in the field of science and engineering but general enough to make it accessible and helpful to the common reader.

Scientific American, according to Porter, grew out of a void left by the discontinuance of publications like the “American Mechanic” (also edited and published by Porter) of Boston, the “Elevator” of Cincinnati, the “American Protector” of Hartford, and the “NY State Mechanic” of Albany. Porter believed in the need for a magazine that would provide an “advancement of more extensive intelligence in Arts and Trades in general, but more particularly in the several new, curious and useful arts, which have but recently been discovered and introduced.” The want was especially strong from people in the South and West of the U.S., as they promised patronage if such a publication were created. Porter stated that his new magazine would “present no gloomy catalogues of crime and depravity, believing that the cause of neither happiness nor morality will be thereby promoted;–our object being to please and enlighten. We shall advocate the pure Christian religion, without favoring any particular sect; and shall make it a point to adhere to reason and common sense, independently of the opinion of those, whose interests and popularity depend on their rigid adherence to traditional doctrines, and church creeds.” Here we see science and religion commingling which may come as a surprise to many contemporary readers. While reading through the early Scientific American issues, one does notice a virtuous and moral tone, but it is clear the articles aim to uphold the Christian values of the time rather than Christian doctrine.

The very first cover story (or in this case, the article at the top center of the front page) featured in Scientific American was dedicated to the topic of transportation. The railroad passenger car first became a form of popular form of transportation in the late 1830s. ”There is perhaps no mechanical subject, in which improvement has advanced to rapidly, within the last 10 years, as that of railroad passenger cars.” As they progressed, the cars became longer, more comfortable and safer, holding 60-80 passengers each and traveling at a speed of 30-40 mph. The improved car featured here was manufactured by Davenport & Bridges from Cambridgeport, Mass.

The front page also featured a number of smaller articles (some from other publications) without accompanying images, though in many cases the topics were so amusing that no images were needed. Here are two examples of stories that fell into the “interesting news of passing events” category:


No matter how incredible the content, each article in the early years of the archive helps paint a picture of life in industrial 19th century America. In a book review (did I mention there were book reviews?) of Rev. Henry A. Miles’ Lowell as it Was and as it Is, we get a sense of the experience of laborers in a major manufacturing city. The book focused on a factory called the Merrimac Company, who employed 1,250 women at the time. The women at this factory reportedly earned an average of $2 per week, which was slightly more than the $1.93 average earned by other female factory workers in Lowell in 1845. Apparently, factory work paid better than being a schoolteacher, as the review notes many teachers left the classroom for lighter work and better salary, though the hours were much longer.

The first issue proved magazine’s eagerness to be a first stop for science’s most important and groundbreaking stories. An article appeared announcing the implementation of Samuel Morse’s telegraph for general citizen use all over the country, starting in larger Northeastern cities. It had already been in use between Washington and Baltimore. While the Scientific American article regretfully offers little other information “in consequence of the press and the variety of matter which presses on this our first number,” it is exciting to see Morse’s invention reported on just before it would forever change the way news would be shared in the future.

I’ll end this look at Scientific American’s first issue with two of my favorite sections from the magazine’s early years: Poetry and Variety. The featured poems ranged from moral and patriotic to scientific, instructive, and sentimental. They appeared on the front page of the magazine until September 1849, when a column called “Rail Road News” replaced them.

The “Variety” section, later called “Miscellaneous,” is the closest Scientific American would come to having a gossip column. These short entries often had a humorous, larger than life feel to them and were often collected from other newspapers…perhaps we can think of them as the 19th century equivalent of tweets and retweets? Here are some of my favorites from this issue:

A correspondent of the St. Louis Republican having been bitten by a mad dog, was cured by drinking a decoction of the bark of the common black ash.

It is stated in one of the fashionable city papers, that “there are 190 doctors in Boston, more than there are patients.” It must be a healthy place.

It is decided by the logical schools that Puseyism is derived from catechism, while puppyism comes from dogmatism;–that makes the difference.

The Picayune has a story of a rattlesnake that swallowed a mole; but the mole would not stay swallowed, but gnawed his way out, thus killing the snake, and was off.

In the town of Eden, Me., there is owned a schooner called the ‘Garden,’ and which is commanded by Capt. Adam Wilkins. Thus Adam yet holds command over the Garden of Eden.

Several springs have been recently discovered in Genesee county, the waters of which are acidulated nearly to the degree of lemonade. The acid is the sulphuric.

Have the courage to pay a debt, while you have the money at command. Have the courage to wear your old coat till you can pay for a new one.

As time went on and the fields of science and engineering expanded and magazines became more specialized, Scientific American grew into the award-winning publication we are more familiar with today. However, if you’re like me and find nothing more enjoyable than leafing through volumes of the past, I encourage you to do just that—except digitally. Until the end of the month, Scientific American’s archive ranging from 1845-1909 is available for a free look.

About the Author: Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American are working to digitize all past issues of the magazine. Mary Karmelek is in charge of checking over each issue, and in the process she uncovers fascinating, captivating and humorous material buried in the yellowed pages of our past.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Catherine85 1:30 am 01/19/2012

    It’s fantastic article! Especially I want to thank you for the facsimile..and the beautiful old flower
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    Link to this

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