Capturing Enthusiasms: Scientific American and the Shaping of Amateur Scientists

Johnston, S. F. (2015) Capturing Enthusiasms: Scientific American and the Shaping of Amateur Scientists. In: British Society for the History of Science Annual Meeting, 2015, Swansea, UK, 02-05 Jul 2015, (Unpublished)

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This paper traces the role of Scientific American magazine in the evolution of technical enthusiasms in America. Between the 1920s and 1970s, seminal editors Albert G. Ingalls and C. L. Stong shepherded generations of amateur scientists. Their columns and books popularised autonomous non-professional research and celebrated the frugal ingenuity and skills of inveterate tinkerers. Readership of Scientific American grew in a fertile economic and political context. Contributors’ technical enthusiasms and confidences were seeded by training in electronics, optics and mechanics during the two world wars. Postwar amateur activities flourished with the availability of war surplus stocks. Over the middle decades of the century, the Scientific American model challenged other, more hierarchical, templates of amateur practice. Science Service, a press organisation dedicated to promoting scientific literacy, notably promoted radio-building and telescope-making for adults, fostered science clubs and science fairs for adolescents, and enrolled the sponsorship of companies such as Westinghouse and CBS in seeking science talent. Wartime demands focused government attention, too, on marshalling the next generation of technical enthusiasts, and Cold War anxieties encouraged schools-based nurturing of scientific aptitudes in the national interest. Trading independence for mentored teamwork, these approaches had resonances with more recent ‘citizen science’. The paper argues that the Scientific American columnists produced a remarkably appealing and durable vision of amateur science, and explores how they championed curiosity-driven and self-directed research. Reasons for its apparent decline towards the end of the century will be discussed.

Item Type:Conference Proceedings
Keywords:Amateur, lay science, scientific American, science publishing.
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Johnston, Professor Sean
Authors: Johnston, S. F.
Subjects:C Auxiliary Sciences of History > C Auxiliary sciences of history (General)
E History America > E11 America (General)
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Q Science > Q Science (General)
T Technology > T Technology (General)
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Interdisciplinary Studies
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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
658511Holograms: A Cultural HistorySean JohnstonThe Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland (CARNEGIE)31542IS - INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES