In 1845 there was founded a curious publication called Scientific American. Volume 1, Number 1 described itself:

Each number will be furnished with from two to five original Engravings, many of them elegant, and illustrative of New Inventions, Scientific Principles, and Curious Works; and will contain, in addition to the most interesting news of passing events, general notices of progress of Mechanical and other Scientific Improvements; American and Foreign. Improvements and Inventions; Catalogues of American 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.

This paper is especially entitled to the patronage of Mechanics and Manufactures, being the only paper in America, devoted to the interest of those classes; but is particularly useful to farmers, as it will not only appraise them of improvements in agriculture implements, But instruct them in various mechanical trades, and guard them against impositions As a family newspaper, it will convey more useful intelligence to children and young people, than five times is cost in school instruction. Another important argument in favor of this paper, is that it will be worth two dollars at the end of the year when the volume is complete (old volumes of the New York Mechanic, being now worth double the original cost, in cash.)

There's a fascinating archive of early issues at the University of Rochester [1]. For its first century the magazine mainly offered news of invention and technology. But "science"? Not much. Long-term importance? Rather limited. Scientific American was quite a useful guide for inventors who sought new patents and for businessmen who wanted to market exciting gadgets. But it didn't change many lives.

In 1947, however, when Gerard Piel and friends bought Sci. Am. an amazing event happened. The magazine mutated into an extraordinary creature: a white-hot glowing focal point for ideas. Real working scientists wrote about their research, in language that was precise, detailed, yet accessible to a wide audience. The articles were heavy going in many cases. But along with their factual content they always conveyed the spirit of discovery, the thrill of learning something new, the joy of understanding Nature.

Back in the 1970s somebody joked that Scientific American had 700,000 subscribers and 700 readers. Maybe so. But among those 700 were young people who grew up to do incredible things on the frontiers of knowledge. Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" columns struck sparks in the darkness; so did countless other pieces. Some of those sparks started fires that still burn.

Scientific American is the oldest continuously-published magazine in the United States. It changed owners again in 1986 when it was sold to Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck. (I remember jesting at the time that it would soon be renamed Scientific German.) The 'zine has continued to evolve and nowadays has a far larger circulation plus editions in many languages, as well as an entertaining web site [2]. The articles are shorter and easier to read. The illustrations are bigger and more dramatic. A larger fraction of the material involves sci-gossip and techno-buzz. Profits are no doubt higher. But most of the magic is gone; perhaps it will return some day. Meanwhile, my subscription has lapsed.

Gerard Piel died last week. His academic training was in history, and he worked mainly as an editor and a publisher. He and his colleagues probably did more than anyone (with the possible exception of Isaac Asimov) to catalyze the increase and diffusion of human knowledge during the past 50 years.

Gerard Piel: Scientific Man
R.I.P. — 1915-2004

(see also MeetMind (19 Jul 1999), FanLetterFeedback (7 Mar 2001), JonMathews (25 Apr 1999), FractalFeynman (30 Jan 2003), MindChildren (17 Apr 2003), ThankYouBellLabs (26 May 2003), ClubScience (26 Oct 2003), ExplorersClub (12 Jun 2004), ... )

TopicScience - TopicLiterature - TopicProfiles - 2004-09-11

(correlates: PurposeOfScience, TripleThrills, PyramidBuilding, ...)