The reliable and readable scientific writing published in the Scientific American has instructed and entertained readers since its foundation in 1845, and the magazine occupies a unique position in the culture of science. Early readers felt an affinity for the magazine because of its personal contact with inventors. Clarifying patent procedures, the magazine's editors answered readers' questions, stimulated their creativity, and encouraged their ambitions. By being accessible to, and interactive with, its readers, whether nineteenth-century tinkerers or twentieth-century rocket scientists, the magazine had a significant impact on the development, understanding, and acceptance of science in America. Throughout the twentieth century, it remained at the forefront in providing informative articles about current and emerging technology, covering the space age, the development of modern pharmaceuticals, and philosophical debates about science. The Scientific American, indeed, has chronicled the inventive spirit of America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The first issue of Scientific American was dated August 28, 1845, and appeared weekly until monthly editions began in November 1921. Inventor Rufus Porter created Scientific American in New York City. Experimenting with electrotyping, Porter produced a four-page periodical focusing on new inventions. The early Scientific American sold for two dollars per copy and had the subtitle "The Advocate of Industry and Enterprise, and Journal of Mechanical and Other Improvements." At that time, unique technological achievements were forming American industry, and several magazines, such as the monthly Journal of the Franklin Institute, addressed the topics of patents and mechanics as applied to mining, transportation, and manufacturing.
Porter served as Scientific American's first editor until Munn & Company purchased the magazine in 1846. Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach, the son of New York Sun publisher and inventor Moses Y. Beach, jointly invested money in printing their first edition of Scientific American on July 23, 1846. They focused on providing information about patented inventions, including the official list of patents approved by the United States Patent Office. Because so many hopeful inventors asked for help with the patenting process and laws, the partners created a patent agency. Scientific American described the models of inventions their clients brought them, among them Thomas Edison's 1877 phonograph. The thriving agency attracted such major inventors as Samuel F.B. Morse, Captain John Ericsson, and Elias Howe. The pages of Scientific American published a few lines about every invention the agency promoted, even obscure and unsuccessful ideas, thus revealing insights into the history of invention in the United States.
Expanding to eight pages, the September 26, 1846, Scientific American remarked that the editors strived to "furnish an acceptable family newspaper" and "give in brief and condensed form the most useful and interesting intelligence of passing events" while "avoiding the disgusting and pernicious details of crime." Although inventions dominated the news, information about other aspects of science were included. Circulation reached 10,000 subscribers by 1848, doubling to 20,000 in 1852 and hit 30,000 the next year. While other scientific periodicals struggled for survival, Scientific American succeeded, merging with The People's Journal in 1854 to boost readership. Readers especially liked such features as Salem Howe Wales's letters from the 1855 Paris Exposition.
In July 1859, Scientific American began producing a new series of semi-annual volumes. A Washington D.C. bureau of Munn & Company opened with Judge Charles Mason, a former commissioner of patents, acting as a legal advisor to inventors. During the Civil War, the journal commented primarily on military inventions, and after the war improved its appearance with engraved illustrations and larger pages, increasing the price per issue to three dollars. Also, their editorial and financial support for construction of an underground pneumatic tube 21 feet below Broadway in 1870 increased public curiosity both about inventions and Scientific American.
In 1885 Munn & Company founded the monthly Scientific American: Architects' and Builders' Edition, later known as Scientific American Building Monthly. Demand for specialized periodicals and the incentive to profit from increased advertising resulted in Munn & Company catering to business construction, and they hired architects to provide building plans featured in the magazines. By January 1905, the company was publishing the monthly American Homes and Gardens with the subtitle "New Series of Scientific American Building Monthly "; this magazine was absorbed by House and Gardens in September 1915. The Scientific American house also published export and Spanish editions.
Scientific American featured many inventions and their applications years before the American public was familiar with those ideas—for example, horseless carriages were pictured, with plans for construction, for half a century prior to the popularization of automobiles in America. Such major events as the Chicago World's Fair were also covered and Scientific American was the primary source of information for many industries. Promoting aviation, they chronicled the efforts of the Wright Brothers and sponsored monetary prizes for aerospace achievements. The editors were, however, critical of unscientific efforts and designs.
In 1911 the Scientific American, for which government, industrial, and university professionals penned articles, began publishing a "mid-month number" focusing on a specific topic such as agricultural science or reviews of automobiles. The special issue bore a colored cover, which the main magazine also adopted. The June 5, 1915, issue celebrated the publication's seventieth anniversary, and two years later the price rose to four dollars an issue, with the format by then resembling popular magazines of the era in size and print. The 1919 printers' strike, however, resulted in the suspension of the weekly supplement. Declining circulation due to competitive specialist magazines caused Scientific American to become a monthly magazine in 1921 to save costs. Munn & Company changed its name to Scientific American Publishing Company, and the magazine stopped printing lists of patents. No longer primarily an inventor's magazine, it attempted to transmit scientific information to the American public as a popular science magazine. "It has been the constant aim of this journal to impress the fact that science is not inherently dull, heavy or abstruse," an editorial stated, "but that it is essentially fascinating, understandable, and full of undeniable charm." In the post-World War II era, a revised Scientific American reached out to the segment of the community that was already scientifically literate and yearned to learn more. The modern Scientific American expanded in size and cost, had glossy covers and illustrations, and increased circulation to hundreds of thousands of readers.
—Elizabeth D. Schafer
Borut, Michael. "The Scientific American in Nineteenth Century America." Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1977.
Burnham, John C. How Superstition Won and Science Lost: Popularization of Science and Health in the United States. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines 1850-1865. Vol. 2. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1938.
"Scientific American." http://www.sciam.com. April 1999.