The History of Popular Science

The History of Popular Science

** The Early 1900s The Roaring '20s| The War Years| The Be-bopping '50s| The Revolutionary '60s| The Green '70s| The Age of Computers| The Cyberspace Era| The New Millennium ** Founded in 1872, Popular Science, the "What's New, What's Next magazine," has witnessed, reported, and evaluated countless scientific and technological developments, from the dawn of electricity to today's information age -- advances that have shaped the way we live, work, play, travel, communicate and receive information. Indeed, the history of Popular Science is a true reflection of humankind's progress over the past 129+ years. Through the end of the 19th century, the Popular Science Monthly, as it was then known, documented the invention of the telephone, the phonograph, the electric light, and the rise of the automobile. As the last quarter of this century saw many previous modes of thought becoming obsolete, the magazine devoted much attention to evolutionary science, particularly that of Englishman Herbert Spencer. Passionate luminaries like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, T.H. Huxley, and Louis Pasteur wrote articles for the magazine. Back to Top The Early 1900s By 1916, POPULAR SCIENCE shifted with the times and added full-color pictorial covers. The editorial content also shifted its focus from pure science edit to features on automotive, aviation, home and shop, photographic and radio technologies, and new products. Advertising was solicted for the first time. The first rate card showed a rate base of 150,000 (copies of the magazine in distribution either by subscription or via the newsstand) and a black & white page rate of $200. As the momentous inventions of the era appeared, Popular Science was there: the beginnings of manned flight, the Audion tube (which launched modern electronics), the neon lamp, cellophane, the electric drill from Black & Decker, air conditioning from Carrier, and the outboard motor from Evinrude. America's love affair with the automobile became increasingly evident, and Popular Science came along for the ride! From 8,000 cars on the road in 1900, the number grew to 6 million by 1919. In 1918, the magazine ran a contest for readers to invent devices to improve automobile operation. The winner, a Massachusetts man, submitted plans for a push-button gearshift based on solenoids. It was years ahead of its time. Back to Top The Roaring '20s Through the '20s, Popular Science devoted much space to that decade's explosion of inventions. Interviews with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and George Eastman appeared. Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, the world-famous magician Harry Houdini, and Robert Goddard, America's first practical rocket scientist, wrote articles in Popular Science's pages. Engineering articles proved very popular with readers, and the magazine covered the construction of the Empire State Building, the George Washington and Golden Gate Bridges, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the super ocean liners, the Normandie and the Queen Mary. To further keep up with readers' interests, Popular Science ran its first subscriber study in 1928. It was mailed to every one of the magazine's 350,000 subscribers, and almost 10% replied. This was also the year the magazine opened its first advertising sales office in Detroit. With the onset of the Great Depression, Popular Science reduced its cover price to 15 cents to keep it more affordable for readers. By 1938, circulation had grown to 450,000. Back to Top The War Years Through the years of World War II, the magazine brought tales of the latest battlefront technologies, such as jet airplanes and the atom bomb (an editor witnessed the test). In 1945, circulation had grown to 550,000. On the advertising side, the magazine became famous for its mail-order section. Much of the war surplus merchandise; the pages also contained a great deal of correspondence school advertising, with the G.I. Bill available for war veterans. As auto companies shifted back to peacetime production, Popular Science returned to its comprehensive auto coverage. The magazine even polled readers to find out what features they wanted in their new cars. Back to Top The Be-bopping '50s Innovations in the '50s included hi-fi music, the first orbiting satellites, and transistor radios. Popular Science not only told readers about these inventions, but also gave them plans for how to create them. Typical was one feature titled "PS Builds a Laser... and So Can You." Back to Top The Revolutionary '60s Through the raging '60s, Popular Science remained a voice of its time. The magazine took reader suggestions for our "go-anywhere, do-anything reporter," Rob Gannon. At readers' request, Gannon delved into the scientific truths behind the drug LSD; under the watchful gaze of researchers, he tried it -- and wrote about it. Other contributors to the magazine's editorial came from celebrities and well-reknowned people in many fields of science and technology, such as Jacques Cousteau, Scott Carpenter (one of the original astronauts), John Steinbeck, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, Walter Cronkite, Senator Robert Kennedy, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and the inventive genius Buckminster Fuller. Throughout the '60s, Popular Science also tracked the evolution of space flight, leading up to and including Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's historic landing on the moon in July 1969. Back to Top The Green '70s In 1970, as circulation topped 1.6 million, the magazine abandoned its 6.5- by 9-inch trim size in favor of a larger format, a decision made to accommodate new printing presses and four-color advertising. In May 1972, the magazine reached an important milestone: its 100 anniversary. The editors commemorated the event with a 240-page (including 111 pages of advertising) special issue that celebrated the magazine's past achievements as well as looked ahead to its next 100 years. With the energy crisis of the '70s, the magazine published a number of stories about solar power and energy conservation. In fact, Popular Science produced a special issue titled Solar Energy Handbook in the late 1970s. In 1978, then Science and Technology Editor Arthur Fisher visited several Soviet nuclear power plants and -- in a May 1979 article -- warned about serious safety issues at these plants. Nine years later, the accident at the Chernobyl reactor changed the nuclear power industry forever. Back to Top The Age of Computers The '80s was a decade of computers. Though the magazine first covered personal computing in 1967 -- nine years before even primitive models hit the market -- the '80s brought computer coverage in earnest. In 1981, after using the first IBM personal computer, our editor gave the following report: "This could be the beginning of the long-forecast personal-computer explosion." And how. From the introduction of the Macintosh -- to which the magazine devoted its March 1984 cover -- to Intel's line of microprocessors, Popular Science was on hand to report it all. In December 1988, the magazine published its first annual "Best of What's New" section. Each year, the magazine's editors see thousands of new products and scientific and technological achievements. Out of these, they bestow the coveted Best of What's New Award on the 100 greatest. Along with the award, winners are invited to showcase their new product or technology at a reception. The one-day affair has garnered media coverage from around the world, including all major U.S. networks. The multiple-page section has been featured as the cover story in every December issue since 1988, and it's by far the best-selling issue of the year. Back to Top The Cyberspace Era In the '90s, many of Popular Science's pages were dedicated to cyberspace -- indeed, the Internet had arrived. The magazine first covered the Internet (then called Arpanet) in 1969, but it wasn't until the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1991 that the Net went mainstream. Since then, the magazine has profiled its development -- from early growing pains to the advent of electronic commerce. In 1995, in response to reader demand, the magazine introduced a column titled Web Watch that profiles the newest and best sites on the Web. And in September 1998, the magazine unveiled "The Popular Science 50 Best of the Web," an annual feature that recognizes the best science and technology sites on the Internet. Along with the mention in the magazine, winners receive a specially designed logo to display on their site. No one understood the new medium like Popular Science so, in November 1996, it launched its own Web site at www.popsci.com. From rudimentary beginnings, the site has grown into a dynamic resource that includes past issues, live chats, and daily science and technology news feeds. The magazine's editors also use the site to keep in touch with readers. Not only can readers contact the magazine with questions about subscriptions, they can also submit write-ups for the magazine's Letters and FYI sections and vote on what they think is the Best of What's New. They were also asked to participate in selecting which cover they liked best and provide their opinion on several futurist topics the magazine was destined to cover. In 1998 Popular Science used the Web site to survey readers -- more than 2,000 people completed a questionnaire about the International Space Station. Survey results were published in the May 1998 issue of the magazine. In 1997, the magazine reached another milestone: its 125-year anniversary. To celebrate, two pages in every issue were devoted to the greatest technological achievements ever covered in Popular Science. From the Wright Brothers to the invention of Velcro, the magazine revisited its past. But it did so with an eye to the future. The 125-year-old magazine no doubt understood its readership, but the editors nonetheless embarked on two ambitious projects to get to know them even better. First, Popular Science began surveying 1,000 reachers each month. These readers were asked specific questions about particular issues of the magazine, along with questions designed to gauge their interest in particular editorial subjects. Ideas rated highly were then explored in depth in future issues of the magazine. In conjunction, Popular Science began a large-scale subscriber study. The resulting 450-page report, reveals that not only are its readers fascinated by what the newest technology offers, but that their lifestyles and purchasing habits epitomize what it means to be techno-savvy. In fact, they're twice as likely as the general population to embrace technological changes in their personal and professional lives. The survey also revealed that readers depend on Popular Science to introduce them to the latest in technology across all disciplines -- from science and aviation to automobiles and electronics. Back to Top The New Millennium (Again) As we said goodbye to the 20th Century, Popular Science embraced this new millennium with several special sections designed to look forward into our future with special insight and words of wisdom from futurists in several fields. We investigated anti-aging, life from other worlds, new modes of transportation, what homes of the future will look like and more importantly, what they'll do. The close of the 20th century ushered in new diseases as well as new medical advances in keeping them at bay. Popular Science reported on the latest techniques that are being used to battle cancers and infectious diseases... some techniques borne from experiments performed in space on the International Space Station. Digital photography, part of the computer/consumer electronic convergence explosion, has enhanced our communication with our family and friends - across the Internet - but Popular Science has utilized this new technology in developing the magazine as well as sending live pictures to our Web site. Digital photography has helped to speed up, considerably, the time it takes to put a magazine together. So, not only does Popular Science report on innovations, it puts them into everyday practice. So as Popular Science, the fifth-oldest continually published monthly magazine in existence, prepared to enter the 21st century, communication with its readers helped editors prepare the magazine for the changes that await. It's a formula that has worked for more than a century and one that has editors believing that despite 129+ years of success, the best is yet to come. |