In the first issue of Scientific American: Centrifuges and levitating haystacks

Scientific American, the oldest continuously published magazine in America, began life on August 28, 1845 as a 4-page, black and white newsletter. There were only a couple of illustrations. The cover model was one of the vastly improved railroad cars of the age, which could seat 60-80 passengers, "run with a steadiness hardly equalled by a steamboat," and (perhaps best of all) was capable of "flying at the rate of 30 to 40 miles per hour."

In this early incarnation, Scientific American was published weekly—"Every Thursday Morning" in New York and Philadelphia, promised a sidebar. Articles were packed together in that great "NO WHITESPACE!" style common to 19th-century newspapers. Besides that brief on modern train cars, the front page featured curated clippings from other newspapers and publications, ranging from an explanation of where the sound of thunder comes from, to a report from the "village of Moulton" about a levitating haystack.

There was poetry. There was a column all about new inventions—which includes, if I'm reading correctly, an announcement about the invention of the centrifuge. There was a long list of recently issued patents. There were descriptions of basic scientific principles and some gadget-hound fawning over Morse's telegraph.

If that makes good ol' Sci Am sound frightfully blog-like ... well, yes. That's sort of an interesting point, isn't it? Meet the New Media, same as the Old Media.

During the month of November, you can acquaint yourself better with media and scientific history by browsing through online archives of Scientific American issues from 1849 to 1909. They're free to access, for this month only.


  1. Apparently it’s not the entire archive, just the 1845-1909 portion of it.

    Now available: 1845-1909 archive collection

    Complimentary access through November 30, 2011

    Now through November 30, 2011, you and your patrons will enjoy complimentary access to more than 75,000 articles from classic issues featured in the Scientific American 1845-1909 archive collection. This collection is a treasure trove that includes 65 years of scientific history, breakthroughs, inventions, and triumphs.

    Still pretty damned cool, though.

  2. Goodness, Scientific American is one of the best damn magazines I’ve ever had the joy of reading.

    I used to have a subscription to Popular Science, which is by no means a bad magazine, but after reading a few issues of Scientific American I felt almost ashamed to have been reading PopSci all that time instead.

    Where most popular science (the genre, not the specific magazine) periodicals mostly just inform the public what’s going on in the world of science and why it matters, Scientific American reaches out and teaches you about the very same developments. It feels like the difference between reading a table of contents and actually reading the textbook.

  3. Yep I was trying to guess how to download issues from the 50s, but anyway just clicking at random and checking the patents and articles can give great jewels. On the July 31, 1909 issue there’s a great note on a debate about which part of the intestine is worse for the overall health. Dr. Distaso proposes the systematic removal of the large intestine during childhood in order to ward off illnesses and prolong life.

    Here’s a paper at the New York Times about this theory:

  4. I read through dozens and dozens of issues of SciAm, from this one through about 1950, for a college project.

    It started as a newspaper, became a bland magazine after the turn of the century, then went through a radical redesign after WWII, becoming a modern, stylish journal that was recognizably related to the mag we have today.

    There is some FASCINATING stuff, both technology-wise and socio-historically.

    Like, letters to the editor during and after the Civil War. The magazine was progressive and modern and pro-Union; this rubbed some loyal readers the wrong way. After the war there was a call for mutual respect.

    There were two eruptions of the Water Engine scam. Not, in these cases, gasoline-to-water pills, but charlatans trying to get suckers to invest in a steam engine that ran on “cold” water vapor. (Paraphrasing: “Imagine the savings in fuel if locomotives ran on cold steam! The coal trust doesn’t want us to know the truth!”) SciAm warned people not to fall for it.

    Notices of a government pamphlet on how to get cheap fats into your diet. Healthful, nutritious fat. Mmmm, fat!

    The “recent patents” page had one entry, mid-19th-century, that fascinated me: A remotely reporting thermometer. It sent out temperature readings by telegraph. It wouldn’t have been too hard to make a remotely reporting wind gauge and baometer. Imagine if those units were stuck in train depots across the country, with the feeds going to a room full of maps and chalkboards. Steampunk-age storm-system tracking!

  5. Scientific American was the best mag ever back in the 60’s – 80’s and I read it cover to cover every month. When they sold out to Holtsbrinck, it went downhill fast. It seemed that they ordered authors to pull back on the science in favor of gee-whiz, and shortened articles to the point that they always seemed to end right after the introductory material. I haven’t read it since.

    But to this day, the best thing anyone interested in science can do is obtain collected editions of the old Martin Gardner and Amateur Scientist columns. Those were golden.

  6. The SA claims that the moustache came from Mexico:

    Moustaches were apparently the mullets of the 1800s:
    Mouitacl1″ •• After  all  that  has been  said  against the moustache  we  would  not  condemn a man  8S a conth’med  villian because  he  wears  a  long black  or  red whisk  between  his  nose  and mouth.  It’s a  sorry  sigbt,  we know,  but we would  rather  pity  the  wearer  or  give  him a  passing  kick,  than go  so  far  as to  advise  a refusal  to  him  of  a trlftlng  loan  to  buy a glus of beer.  They  are very  useful  to sop  up  “ra­vy  or  bu tter  at  the  d inner  table.

  7. Aw.  I  immediately set out to find “Metamagical Themas”.  Apparently only the really old ones are free.

  8. The last time I levitated a haystack, some wise acres had to investigate and proved that I used mono-filament line and a winch.  Not very sporting of them.

  9. Dammit.  Why the arbitrary 1909 cutoff instead of the logical copyright-based 1922?

    I see that there’s an article that mentions an ancestor of mine (and it’s about “Super Zeppelins” too!) but it’s 1916.  Now I’m going to have to get off my ass and go to the library.  Thanks, Boing Boing!

  10. Speaking of Samuel Morse and his telegraph, did you know that Morse was a professor of painting at NYU who introduced teenage Mathew Brady to the cutting-edge daguerrotype, and Brady subsequently spent all his money photo-documenting in shocking detail the bloody battlefields of the Civil War, becoming the father of photojournalism?

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