Taking Science to the Marketplace
Examples of Science Service’s Presentation of Chemistry
during the 1930s
Marcel C. LaFollette*
Abstract: During the 1930s, Science
Service, a not-for-profit independent news organization, promulgated an
approach to popularizing science which favored audience preferences
over scientific agendas and attended to industry as well as academic
research interests. Stories about chemistry and chemists harmonized
well with Science Service’s emphasis on research utility and relevance.
This article describes examples from syndicated news reports, radio
broadcasts, a newspaper series called ‘Fabrics of the Future’, and a
department store exhibit on chemistry that traveled through the United
States in 1939-40.
Keywords: popularization of
chemistry, 20th century, Science Service.
In 1936, science journalist Frank Thone
declared to members of the American Association for Adult Education
that their fellow citizens were "as eager as St. Paul’s Athenians to
hear some new thing" about science but they preferred flexibility to
pontification. His explication foreshadowed
today’s world of ubiquitous, portable communications devices:
Their Agora is the daily newspaper. It may be
a less sociable institution than the Athenian market-place or the
Victorian lecture-hall, but it is a much more flexible one. You can
roll up a whole company of heralds, messengers, and gossips, stick them
in your pocket, select the ones you want to listen to, and hear their
stories whenever you please.
Thone’s employer, a not-for-profit news
organization called Science Service, had been delivering just such
‘company’ since 1921. Through newspaper articles, books, and radio
programs, it sought to promote discussion of science in ways that were
acceptable to scientists yet profitable to publishers. By the
mid-1930s, Science Service had helped to increase news coverage of
science, enlarged the worldwide network of science communicators, and
whetted the public’s interest in knowing what scientists were
accomplishing. As an organization, it had achieved respectability and
modest financial stability, even if its embrace of the values of
popular culture occasionally unnerved otherwise loyal supporters within
the research community.
With one foot in the scientific establishment
and the other in a commercially driven media marketplace, Science
Service played a cautious game. Organized as a sanctioned intermediary
between the scientists and the rest of the press, yet compelled to sell
its news products in order to survive financially, the group became
skilled at occupying the middle ground. Scientists complained about
inaccuracy and sensationalism. Editors shouted, ‘give me something my
subscribers will like!’ Science Service reacted by constantly assessing
the quality of its news stories and responding to all reasonable
criticism, while continually adjusting its products to fit the
The challenges that Science Service faced
during its early years are, in fact, representative of larger debates
at the time about whose interests popularization should serve. When the
first director, chemist E.E. Slosson, died in 1929, the organization
experienced a wrenching fight for control which emphasized the
competing ideals for popularization. Following three years of interim
management, the appointment of Watson Davis, an engineer and journalist
who had been working for the organization since its beginning, signaled
a compromise that placed public interest and marketplace appeal first
among the criteria for topic selection, increased attention to applied
science and technological innovation, yet attended to scientists’
concerns about accuracy and the timing of research announcements. The
organization became skilled in the art of compromise, at straddling the
middle ground. The images and ideas chosen by its writers during the
1930s thus reflect well what the marketplace – Thone’s ‘Agora’ – was
This article summarizes conclusions from my
on-going research on the news values promoted and adopted by Science
Service from the 1920s through the 1940s, and how negotiation of those
values influenced print and broadcast images of science.
After a brief summary of the organization’s founding, I discuss its
initial approach to how (and by whom) science news should be
constructed. With emphasis on images of chemistry, I then describe
three representative examples of content from the 1930s – Daily
Mail Report news stories, ‘Adventures in Science’ radio programs,
and a 1939-40 project called ‘Fabrics for the Future’ in which a
traveling department store window display was coordinated with local
newspaper publication of articles about synthetic textiles.
Research on the history of Science Service
has, to some extent, confirmed my previous conclusions about popular
science, although the editorial files have also revealed new aspects of
the cultural negotiations affecting it. The news stories and radio
broadcasts of Science Service during the 1930s echoed patterns of
assimilation, celebration, and pragmatic appraisal found in other
popularization venues (LaFollette 1990). Science Service defined
‘science news’ broadly to include medicine, engineering, economics, and
invention, an inclusiveness typical of the time. The messages promoted
science’s practicality and usefulness, or outlined how research was
contributing to economic recovery during the Great Depression; the
writers promised a brighter future through research and then borrowed
images of alchemy and magic from popular fiction and motion pictures.
Stories focused more on conveying factual information, with little
attention to controversy or conflict among scientists. Toward the
decade’s end, Science Service gave increased attention to textile and
pharmaceutical products and to chemistry’s contributions to national
self-sufficiency, and the editorial staff cooperated with the chemical
industry to portray chemistry as an essential and positive contributor
to American life. By agreeing to broadcasters’ demands for increased
attention to scientists’ personalities, the radio series also helped to
extend to science the ‘cult of celebrity’ emerging during the 1930s.
Science Service should not, however, be
assumed to have been either a tool of the scientific elite or a public
relations outfit for science and industry or a science education
organization. During its first two decades,
Science Service acted foremost as a news broker that sought to generate
a demand for science among mainstream newspapers, to facilitate
scientists’ cooperation in the popularization process, and to provide useful
scientific information to ‘the masses, not the classes’. The
organization played this role at a critical moment in history, when
both science and the mass media were changing dramatically. By the late
1930s, the scientific community was evolving into the complex and
large-scale international research system existing today; science had
earned front-page attention and would soon grab even more. Advertisers
and publishers were transforming consumer expectations for
communication style and content. Radio was becoming overwhelmingly
commercialized and dominated by drama and entertainment; the
telegraphic, visual approaches of Hollywood and magazines like Time,
Life, and Readers’ Digest were pushing the old
style of ‘literary’ popular science to the margins of public desire.
Science Service adjusted its own products to the changing context, and
gradually convinced its scientific supporters to participate in this
new marketplace for popular science.
2. Origins: a new institution for a changing market
Science Service’s financial structure as a
not-for-profit business corporation consistently influenced its content
selections. Its limited endowment helped to cushion tough economic
times and occasional project failures, but it was compelled to sell its
news products in order to survive. Established by a wealthy newspaper
publisher, and with advisors drawn from the nation’s scientific elite,
Science Service derived a substantial portion of its income from
syndicating news stories to newspapers and periodical publishers.
Organizational sustainability depended upon positive audience reaction
and thus continually shaped the decision-making.
This section outlines aspects of the
organization’s naissance and original direction which are relevant to
understanding how it operated during the 1930s. No comprehensive
history of Science Service yet exists; this discussion relies therefore
on new archival research as well as on work by David Rhees and other
historians whose research has focused on the group’s early years.
The idea for the organization developed during
an era when the scientific establishment had considerable concern about
its public image but few practical ideas for how to polish it. The
plans of various eminent scientists for establishing popular magazines
had been hindered by their lack of real-world experience in the
publishing business (see Burnham 1987, Kevles 1978, Tobey 1971). In
1903, millionaire newspaper publisher E.W. Scripps (1854-1926) became
intrigued with the holistic and humanistic approach to science embraced
by a University of California zoologist, William E. Ritter (1856-1944).
With his sister Ellen, Scripps endowed a new oceanographic institute,
and Ritter became its first director and a close friend of Scripps
(Thone & Bailey 1927). By 1919, the two men had begun to imagine a
new entity to foster public communication of science, discussing it
with scientists around the United States. Within a year, they were
actively designing what would eventually be called ‘Science Service’.
A paramount consideration in these discussions
was whose interests the organization should serve – science or society?
Scripps and Ritter took a liberal democratic approach that differed
from the patrician, elitist attitudes of most senior scientists.
Scripps saw that science had extraordinary power to affect modern life
and therefore citizens deserved better information about it. As his son
Robert P. Scripps later explained, the millionaire knew that "for the
masses as well as the classes, knowledge is power" (Scripps 1932, p.
156). The elder Scripps had, after all, made his fortune by delivering
news and entertainment to those very masses. First consideration in the
new group’s decision-making should be given, he believed, to the
potential audience’s practical needs and interests rather than the
scientific establishment’s agendas.
To implement this approach, Science Service
was incorporated independent from any single scientific organization or
discipline. To gain respect from skeptical newspaper editors, Scripps
argued, the organization must be perceived as an objective and reliable
presenter of facts. It should not be a publicity machine for science or
engage in advocacy or ‘propaganda’. It should
"tell the millions outside the laboratories and the lecture halls what
was going on inside" (Scripps 1932, p. 156) and do so accurately. Both
Scripps and Ritter were convinced that mediocre presentation fed public
‘indifference’ to science. The new organization’s products must be
readable, accessible, and interesting as well as accurate and timely.
Ritter reinforced this message when he wrote to Scripps in 1921:
"Unquestionably there are aspects of science that appeal strongly to
popular interest; there is much that is curiosity-satisfying, much that
is practically useful, much that is dramatic; and were Science Service
to ‘play up’ these aspects to the extent that it might, [then] it could
soon reach a self-supporting basis, and could go on and largely
increase its funds." Ritter served as first
president of the board of trustees and remained ‘honorary president’
and an influential advisor until his death in 1944.
Partial self-sufficiency – in both content and
finances – became a key to success. This model of popularization
differs from that advocated by many scientists, then and now, for it
emphasizes reactivity to audience preferences. Although incorporated as
a not-for-profit entity, the organization was never wholly funded by
Scripps. He espoused a liberal vision of the free flow of ideas but his
philanthropy was rooted firmly in capitalism. If Science Service
charged a fair price for its products, then the clients would value its
news more; and if forced to sell those products, the organization would
be more sensitive to the clients’ needs and professional standards. If
no newspaper or magazine wanted to buy the stories, then the
organization should not survive. Science Service, its first director
explained, "is sufficiently endowed to be independent and yet it is
intended to be self-supporting although prohibited by its charter from
making profits." Or, as one trustee wrote:
It is a non-profit-making institution, and if
it charges enough for the production of its service to keep going, then
assuredly the fact is patent that it is not subsidized; and, moreover,
enjoying a real income, it can afford to actually produce not only
well-written copy, but copy that has first been verified–that is
authentic and UP-TO-DATE. Constant improvement – or death – is
assured by the necessity to charge rates commensurate with the service
Only the news products ever really met these
financial goals during the first decades; most other projects were
subsidized by the news sales or endowment income.
Scripps donated $30,000 per year (supplemented
by other occasional gifts) from 1921 until his death in 1926. His
family trust continued the same annual payment for the next thirty
years. By late 1924, endowment income and product sales contributed
about equally to support operations, and the managing editor predicted
that they might "eventually increase the income from the sale of the
product to such an extent that the endowment income can be used to
exploit possibilities which are not on the face of them commercially
attractive." Within a relatively short time,
such risks were indeed possible, enabling them to experiment with
popular radio broadcasting, for example.
The board of trustees included ex officio such
prestigious scientists as the presidents of the National Academy of
Sciences and American Association for the Advancement of Science and
the head of the Smithsonian Institution. Prominent trustees during the
1920s and 1930s included psychologist James McKeen Cattell (editor of Science
and Scientific Monthly), astronomer Harlow Shapley, and such
notables as A.A. Noyes, Vernon Kellogg, and John C. Merriam. Science
Service advertised the location of its editorial offices within the new
National Academy of Sciences building to imply legitimacy and status
(Figure 1), even though the staff operated independent of it or any
other scientific association.
Figure 1. Cover of
Science Service promotion brochure, 1924, showing
the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C.
(Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 90-105, Box 20, Folder
19). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Trustees also included executives in the
Scripps-Howard newspaper empire and such well-known editors as William
Allen White and Marlen Pew, and the historian Mark Sullivan. These
latter advisors shared invaluable practical advice on how to compete in
the news business, and they proved to be the critical element in the
fight over appointment of a new director and in preserving what Scripps
and Ritter had envisioned.
3. Staffing, credentials, and a fight for control
During Science Service’s first forty years,
two men in particular – one trained as a chemist, the other as an
engineer – implemented the Scripps-Ritter vision of an all-inclusive,
market-oriented popular science. They shared many common perspectives,
not the least being a broad definition of ‘science news’ which included
attention to medicine, engineering and mining technologies,
transportation, and parapsychology, as well as such predictable topics
as relativity and evolution. The differences in the men reflected the
twin impulses of popularization in the twentieth century. The chemist
advocated an approach that was more academic and literary, that
emphasized science’s theoretical foundations and romanticized its
practical implementation. The engineer advocated journalistic
techniques and values, favored content tied to invention and
innovation, courted friendly relations with advertising and public
relations representatives, and frequently adopted the language and
images of stage and screen rather than the literary salon.
The first director, Edwin Emery Slosson
(1865-1929), possessed an unusual combination of skills and experience,
and had been handpicked by Scripps, Ritter, and their advisors (Rhees
1979). A native of Kansas with sturdy liberal
values and a distinctive flair to his writing, Slosson had completed a
Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Chicago in 1902 while teaching
at the University of Wyoming. The next year, he moved to New York to
become literary editor of The Independent, where he worked
until moving to Washington, D.C., in January 1921 to head Science
Service. With three degrees in chemistry, Slosson had respectable
credentials as a scientist, but, as he confessed to another chemist, he
much preferred writing to laboratory work:
I too like you am classed as a ‘renegade from
natural science’ since I have never done any research work in chemistry
after having taken my doctorate at the University of Chicago in that
science. But I have like you retained my interest in science and have
done what I could to spread a knowledge of scientific achievements
among the reading public.
In New York, Slosson built a reputation as one
of the premier science popularizers, combining a reverence for
technical accuracy with literary flourishes. He regarded dramatization
as essential in attracting readers, and so he immediately began
‘hunting’ for writers who could ‘sense the dramatic elements’ in basic
scientific principles. "Dehydrated potatoes are convenient for
conveyance but they have to be soaked up before they are palatable," he
wrote (Slosson 1922, p. 482).
Slosson’s interests and expertise lay more in
the creative than managerial side of the news business. His first
employees were a managing editor and a part-time news writer. When the
managing editor quit, Slosson took the title of Director, promoted the
part-time writer to full-time manager, and returned to making money by
writing books and articles and delivering lectures around the country.
That first writer hired by Slosson in 1921,
Watson Davis (1896-1967), effectively ran the organization for the next
45 years. A native of Washington, D.C., Davis had earned a civil
engineering degree at George Washington University and worked on the
research staff at the National Bureau of Standards from 1917-21. He
also began contributing science articles to a local newspaper. Although
his literary skills paled in comparison to Slosson’s, Davis had the
instincts of a journalist and an engineer’s ability to organize tasks.
He could ferret out news and glean the essence from dull research
reports, and proved to be a skilled manager.
When Slosson died in October 1929, he was not
replaced for over three and one-half years, even though Davis was the
logical successor. The struggle over that appointment emphasized
differences in how scientists and journalists were still perceiving
popularization. To scientists, the best popularizer was always another
scientist; no journalist or other professional could ever be an
adequate substitute. To those who embraced a vision of scientific
popularization as free expression in a free society, it was the quality
of the product that mattered rather than the writer’s academic
training. Was a story accurate? Did it serve the audience’s needs and
satisfy their curiosity? Was the information useful? Davis had been
running the organization since Slosson’s illness in January, had earned
the trustees’ respect, and had many powerful supporters. He lobbied
hard for the position. His allegiances had always leaned toward the
journalists, however. As chemist W.H. Howell, chairman of the trustees’
executive committee, wrote to Davis, "In spite of your protests I
reckon you as a newspaper person, because invariably you take that
point of view when debatable matters come up".
To the scientist-trustees, selection of an eminent researcher to
replace Slosson would enhance the organization’s reputation among the
scientific community. To the newspaper executives, a director who
understood the marketplace would assure survival.
Davis pointed out that being a scientist did
not guarantee access to newspaper offices. What mattered was whether
"editors are confident of the authoritativeness and the reliability of
our product." Nevertheless, the executive
committee offered the position to a well-known zoologist who had little
experience in publishing or popularization. When that scientist refused
the job, Davis was kept in limbo for another eleven months, while
trustees (led primarily by James McKeen Cattell) attempted to reorient
the organization away from the Scripps’s vision of democratic
expression and toward becoming a publicity machine for science. Finally, in 1933, in the depths of the Great
Depression, Davis was appointed director.
Davis was an energetic and ambitious man,
described as "exceptionally capable [...] enthusiastic, vigorous and
very likeable." He possessed a keen
understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between scientists
and popularization, tracing much of scientists’ uneasiness to their
discomfort with popular formats: "It is a distrust of ‘sensational
presentation’, so called; because of the form rather than the quality
of the presentation that lies behind the indefinite criticisms that are
sometimes directed to our work."
Avoiding the "careless and unintelligent
simplification" that can distort meaning is the first line of defense
against such criticism, Davis wrote, and so he routinely conducted
internal assessments of the organization’s performance, emphasizing
accuracy as the foremost news value. All
external complaints by either readers or sources were "conscientiously
recorded upon the filed copy of the [news] report."
The conclusion of one survey of Science Service’s daily news reports in
1929-30 reflects pride in such vigilance: "in only 36 instances out of
1707 stories issued were any criticisms recorded. Over half of these
were what might be called typographical errors and many of them were
caught by our own staff rather than outsiders."
During the 1920s, Davis had begun to shape the
organization toward a more relaxed relationship with industry,
corporate public relations sources, and advertising firms. As an
engineer, he was comfortable, perhaps even enamored, with the new
industrialists of science; he established cordial working relationships
with corporate executives at Du Pont, General Electric, and similar
companies. He became friends with public relations guru Edward L.
Bernays and advertising executive Ivy Lee. Once director, Davis thus
continued on a path he had already begun to blaze, accommodating
popularization to the social, cultural, and economic realities of the
time. This approach is evident in the content published in the 1930s.
Cooperation with publicists and corporate interests seemed the right
thing to do. After all, Davis and the rest of the staff perceived
themselves as engaged in their own public relations campaign – to
persuade both press and scientific community to join in a campaign to
educate the masses about what was happening inside the laboratories.
That staff included many pioneers in science
journalism, including some of the first female science journalists in
the United States. Many were among the founders
of the National Association of Science Writers in 1934. Almost all
Science Service writers had some type of technical training; a few,
like Thone, had graduate training but had abandoned full-time research
and teaching for a career in journalism. These
intermediaries were familiar with scientific organizations,
universities, and science-based industries. They understood scientists’
culture, respected the authority of their expertise, and were alert to
concerns about accuracy and credit. They were also convinced that
scientific knowledge was a social asset to be shared and that science’s
fortunes were irrevocably entwined with those of the ‘masses’.
4. Constructing the Daily News about Chemistry
If large numbers of readers (and the
newspapers serving them) did not express consistent interest in a
particular scientific topic, then Science Service gave it less
attention. Coverage of the disciplines was therefore quite uneven,
reflecting shifting public interest rather than necessarily the
intellectual vigor of a research area. Mathematicians complained
constantly about the lack of attention to their work, for example, but
theorems or proofs could rarely compete with the glamour of archeology
or physics. Special features and syndicated columns during the 1920s
concentrated more on astronomy (weekly ‘Star Maps’), meteorology (‘Why
the Weather’), or natural history and botany (‘Nature’s Notebook’);
news articles followed similar patterns. During the 1930s, chemistry
attracted more attention, thanks in part to consumer interest in the
development of new pharmaceuticals, fabrics, materials, fertilizers,
and insecticides. In effect, the public became more interested in what
chemists were producing, and journalists responded.
Between 1935 and 1939, coverage of chemistry
in Science Service’s main product – the 40-50 stories sold every week
through a syndicated service called Daily Mail Report –
increased steadily from approximately 2% of stories during sampled
weeks in September 1935 to 7% in March 1936, 11% in December 1938, 11%
in May 1939, and 17% in October 1939. Attention
probably increased because of the achievements of interdisciplinary
research with obvious relevance to consumers, such as work on
sulfanilamide, plant hormones, fabrics, and insecticides. In 1936,
stories discussed rayon and chemical production at Tennessee Valley
Authority plants; in 1939, they paid attention to liquid helium and
nylon parachutes. It was a view of chemistry as integrated smoothly
into – and essential contributor to – the scientific whole.
Analysis of content provides only one
historical indicator. It is also important to look behind the scenes at
how, why, and by whom content was constructed. Such analysis shows that
during the organization’s first decade, the challenge had been to gain
attention to any science, to convince newspaper editors that
the work of botanists, astronomers, and chemists had sufficient
relevance to compete on the front page with election campaigns,
business decisions, or murders. To do this, it was necessary to create
a ‘demand’ for science news. Scripps had advised Slosson: "Anything
that you could do in the way of attracting the attention of journalists
to the subject of science will naturally create a demand for your
product – and what is even more desirable, will create a demand by
editors for scientific matter generally."
Slosson responded that Scripps was, as usual, correct: "The indirect
effects of Science Service are as you surmise, proving to be as
important as the direct action. In many cases newspapers have gone
after articles for themselves, after having seen some of ours in
print". And as Slosson explained to a fellow
We are concentrating our efforts largely upon
the newspapers, since in this way we can reach the largest possible
public. The newspapers, however, demand ‘news’, that is, something
which has a definite event on which to hang the general information and
Once persuaded of science’s potential for news
value, editors then had to be convinced that science would sell. In one
of his first promotional letters to advertise what became the Daily
Mail Report, Davis promised that Science Service offered news of
importance, news their competitors were getting, and news that was
Off the beaten tracks real news is breaking.
What scientists and engineers are doing today will affect the world
tomorrow. Are you getting this news?
Science Service is covering this important
field for over forty newspapers from Bermuda to San Francisco. A news
report […] formerly mailed weekly but beginning today to be mailed
daily, brings them interesting, readable copy, scientifically accurate,
yet understandable by the non-technical person. It costs them only the
fraction of the pay of an office boy.
Such efforts soon had a noticeable impact. By
January 1924, Scripps executive H.L. Smithton wrote to Ritter about the
publicity received by a recent meeting of the American Association for
the Advancement of Science:
The leading headlines of the [local] papers
were given to the subjects of the convention and to interviews with the
scientists. Collisions of the atoms displaced automobile and railroad
collisions; slaying of bacteria and undesirable insects completely
overshadowed similar ‘activities’ among humankind; pictures of
scientists ornamented the pages hitherto decorated by pictures of
statesmen and criminals. Believe me: the scientist had his ‘day’ in the
way of publicity this time.
Journalists also had to convince scientists to
share information about their research, which sometimes meant
persuading them to release results before formal publication. Given the
competition in the news business, timeliness was essential. Editors
liked to know that results were ‘just announced’ or that a story might
‘scoop’ rival papers. Science Service could not wait for scientists to
release results according to their own timetable (which might give the
appearance of staleness). In science, rushing into print had not yet
become the norm. Davis tried to explain this situation to one newspaper
editor in 1936: "News of science does not develop like news of war,
politics, crime and sport. Practically all scientific news is the
result of months or even years of patient research, and it is produced
by men who would rather remain silent than make an announcement that
was not thoroughly authentic." To secure
researchers’ cooperation in the news process, Science Service had to
build their trust, had to convince them that while it valued accuracy
over haste, there were deadlines to be met.
The most persistent conflicts centered on who
should determine the quality of science news. Should scientists alone
be the judges of what was accurate and important? Many newspaper
editors thought that scientists gave little indication of understanding
that communicating successfully beyond their circle of experts required
some compromise. A.H. Kirchhofer, managing editor of the Buffalo
Evening News, complained in 1932 that scientists gave "little or no
credit to the newspapers" for recent progress in science reporting and
that their unwarranted criticism actually contributed to
"misunderstanding" between the two groups. Scientists need to "come out
of their shells" and take a "human as well as scientific view-point" if
they want more attention to their work, he argued (Kirchhofer 1932, pp.
154-155). Another editor observed that the articles "which sell best
are those which get down closest to the field of the ordinary,
unlettered Sunday newspaper readers."
Science Service’s solution to both increasing
the flow of news from the laboratories and insuring its accuracy
developed by accident. In his first year, with a limited budget and
tiny staff, Slosson wrote to several colleagues asking for suggestions
of graduate students or other young scientists who might submit short
reports about research on their campus. He placed notices in The
Scientific Monthly and similar publications. Applications began to
arrive and these part-time correspondents (or ‘stringers’) soon became
the organization’s extra eyes and ears, alerting staff to ongoing
projects as well as to impending announcements.
Frank Thone had first interacted with Slosson that way in 1921.
By the 1930s, the staff had become quite
skilled at identifying potential stringers (met at scientific meetings
or recommended by trustees and other prominent scientists). Every year,
they sifted through dozens of applications from graduate students,
young professors, underemployed writers, and various technically
trained people interested in trying popularization. No promises were
ever made for payment in advance; disbursements for accepted articles
or photographs ranged from $2.00 to $10.00. Because a stringer’s name
was rarely attached to the published story, popularization by these
young scientists (many of them women) did not attract unwanted
criticism from colleagues for ‘publicity-seeking’.
The existence and vitality of this worldwide
network of sources demonstrates that the flow of popular science
information may have been more complex than historians have previously
assumed. Only about one-tenth of Daily Mail Report stories in
the 1930s, regardless of discipline, appear to have been based on
interviews conducted by Science Service’s full-time staff. Instead,
they transformed other material into ‘news’ – editing stringers’
reports or sifting through page proofs for journals like Science
and the Journal of the American Medical Association (sometimes
writing scientists for additional material before writing a summary).
Through the years, the staff also became adept
at exploiting access to the research community. They routinely covered
the meetings of major scientific, medical, and engineering
associations, persuading organizers to send advance copies of programs,
and speakers to send copies of papers. Science Service did its part by
voluntarily embargoing news articles until after a researcher’s
presentation had been delivered, thereby adjusting the newspapers’
demand for timeliness to the scientists’ desire for credit. To speakers
reluctant to provide advance texts, Science Service explained that
having a written paper helped to insure accuracy and "intelligent
reporting" even if a journalist could be present at a session. As one staff writer explained, science reporting
required attention to detail: "All science stuff at meetings is written
from the papers; it is impossible to sit down at a convention session
and take notes for a story in the same fashion as you do anything else
on that order."
Sometimes local stringers were dispatched to
interview prominent scientists or obtain exclusive information. In
1938, Davis attended the annual British Association for the Advancement
of Science meeting in London and, like all good journalists, paid
attention to the scientific gossip. On September 6, he wired his
Washington office the news that: "EO LAWRENCE BUILDING TWO NEW MAGNETS
FOR FURTHER WORK RADIOSODIUM." Physics and
chemistry editor Robert D. Potter then telegraphed a stringer in
Berkeley, California (where physicist Ernest O. Lawrence had his
laboratory), asking "CAN YOU RUSH COLLECT WIRE DESCRIBING SETUP AND ITS
SIGNIFICANCE. TELL LAWRENCE THAT GUSTAV HERTZ BERLIN JUST ANNOUNCED 59
PERCENT PURE NEON MASS 22 BY DIFFUSION METHOD AND IS SENDING HIM
SAMPLE." The stringer, George Pettitt, responded immediately; Potter
folded the text into a Daily Mail Report datelined September 7
("California Cyclotron Apparatus Being Enlarged and Improved to Make
Possible Medical and Biological Research"); and the bookkeeper was
instructed to pay Pettitt $5.00. Such rapid-fire exchanges became
commonplace in the 1930s as physicists, chemists, and biologists raced
to the frontiers of knowledge, and journalists competed to make the
first dispatches from those intellectual front lines.
5. Chemistry on the airwaves
In developing such stories, Science Service
perceived itself as facilitating the flow of ideas in society rather
than engaging in public education. Especially in radio, pedagogical
motives would have been suspect. Broadcasts that centered on
intelligent conversations about science with (and for) fellow citizens
fit radio’s entertainment focus in the 1930s; education did not.
Through a one-on-one interview preceded by the latest ‘science news of
the week’, listeners could share a science ‘adventure’ and Science
Service could accommodate the agendas of the networks that controlled
access to the airwaves.
Science Service became involved in radio quite
early in the development of commercial broadcasting. Soon after
Washington, D.C., station WCAP began operation in 1924, its manager
asked the National Research Council (NRC) to arrange weekly talks by
scientists. Lectures by such experts provided convenient, free content
that stations could schedule between musical concerts. NRC’s scientists
knew little about radio, so they turned to Science Service, appointed
Slosson to a Committee on Radio Talks, and the two groups arranged
their first 10-minute talk for June 6, 1924.
The talks sought to inspire rather than
educate, and were aimed at a broad audience. Slosson, for example,
admonished H.E. Howe, editor of Journal of Industrial and
Engineering Chemistry, not to make a discussion of modern
glassmaking "too highbrow." Speakers emphasized
the adventure and excitement of research as they described helium,
radium, explosives, coal, synthetic rubber, or the spinning of
‘artificial silk’. "The progress of science is a continual excursion
into the mysteries of the sphere; the impossible is continually being
accomplished," one program began.
Popularity was measured by the number of
listener requests for scripts or free bulletins. In the late 1920s,
listeners consistently preferred either the annual forecasts of
‘science to come’ or information about poison ivy treatments; by the
early 1930s, listeners were asking for scripts and bulletins on the
same topics being emphasized in the Daily Mail Report stories –
medicine, psychology, and engineering. By
September 1929, Science Service’s 15-minute news and interview program
(called either ‘Radio Talks’ or ‘Science Service Series’ in the
schedules) had proved to be so successful that it was broadcast from
the CBS station in New York City and over thirty network affiliates.
Radio in the United States was changing,
however. Advertiser-supported entertainment began to dominate the
commercial networks (see Douglas 1999, Hilmes 1997, Smulyan 1994), and
science programming was soon forced to compete with comedians, jazz
singers, soap operas, detective dramas, sports, and live broadcasts of
political events (LaFollette 2002). CBS began to pressure Davis to
alter his program format – to ‘work closer’ to the news and to accent
scientific ‘personalities’. This shift in emphasis echoed changes in
how science was being presented elsewhere in the media. Newspaper
editors routinely accepted science as newsworthy and important, but
remained biased toward ‘breaking news’ and celebrities. One NBC
employee, attempting to persuade Davis to develop a new program for
their network, explained that her bosses were:
very anxious to have scientific material put
before the public but only when and if it would be news. […] with your
knowledge of forthcoming events you can get it on the air before it
breaks in the papers. They do want the personality himself or herself –
you of course bring the person to the microphone, introducing them and
framing the picture for them.
Davis attempted to explain that science news
is more "deliberate": it "does not break in the way that a murder or
shipwreck or other news of that character happens."
He was fighting a losing battle, however, and he eventually remodeled
his CBS series toward more scripted interviews with guest scientists
and engineers and gave more attention to scientists as celebrities (or,
more often, potential celebrities). His broadcasts also increasingly
emphasized pragmatic accomplishments designed to appeal to Americans
clawing through an economic depression – proven winners like ‘That
Perennial Public Enemy, Poison Ivy’ and practical topics like highway
transportation and household heating. Chemistry became an integral part
of many interviews, from pharmaceutical research to discussion of
road-building materials, crime detection, and oil exploration.
The process of developing scripts with
scientists required considerable diplomacy and patience. Here, the
correspondence between Davis and his potential guests or their
representatives provides a valuable glimpse of the construction of
popular science. When Du Pont Company scientist Henry J. Wing proposed
the title "Application of Research in the Protective Coating Industry"
for his radio talk, for example, Davis suggested that "Vanishing
Varnishes" would be better "bait" to lure listeners.
Wing called that suggestion "snappy" but offered "Changing Varnishes"
as "just as suitable and perhaps more accurate" and Davis acquiesced to
Wing and the Du Pont representatives who had brokered the chemist’s
Davis also knew how to play the broadcasters’
game. He injected humor, attempted to humanize scientists, and declared
that "Effective methods of presentation include dialogue, dramatic
programs with music, as well as other types of programs written for the
ear instead of the eye." When he interviewed
Charles C. Concannon, chief of the Chemical Division of the U.S.
Department of Commerce, in November 1937 about the generally
uninspiring topic of tung oil manufacturing and use in waterproofing,
Davis opened with the chipper observation that "There are a lot of C’s
in that name of yours, Mr. Concannon." To which the chemist replied,
per the script, "Yes, and in chemicals and commerce. But there aren’t
any C’s at all in tung oil, and perhaps I’d better start by spelling
In May 1938, just as the series name was
changed to ‘Adventures in Science’, CBS took over all production and
added dramatization and new on-air personalities. The surviving
correspondence reveals Davis’ frustration at the abrupt changes. His
exchanges with the network personnel reflect ever more tension. He
struggled to articulate scientists’ concerns about inaccuracy,
sensationalism, and trivialization, but the radio executives remained
convinced that dramatizing or fictionalizing science would attract huge
The CBS decision had probably been influenced
by two educational programs that were attracting listeners
through clever dramatization of serious topics. ‘Cavalcade of America’,
a radio series produced and sponsored by the Du Pont Company, featured
professionally written dramas about the lives of historical figures and
aimed to instill confidence in the corporation. Its first episode in
1935 declared that Du Pont’s research chemists worked "in the same
spirit" as national patriots and pioneers. By
1938, the series was extolling the importance of invention and
ingenuity, and occasionally engaging in fanciful history of science to
enliven its message. One episode created a chance meeting between
nineteenth-century scientists Robert Hare and Benjamin Silliman, in
which Silliman asserted that "The progress of science is like an
endless chain, Mr. Hare, each link joining what is behind and what goes
before." Similar inspirational rhetoric infused
the Smithsonian Institution’s ‘The World is Yours’ series on NBC.
Beginning in 1936, its half-hour dramas, co-produced with the U.S.
Office of Education, starred a cheerful character called ‘The
Old-Timer’, who explored topics from art to archeology, engineering to
entomology. When the new CBS version of ‘Adventures in Science’ looked
at Antoine Lavoisier, therefore, its writers imitated a familiar radio
drama pattern, focusing more on that chemist’s sensational death than
Within a month, CBS had dropped the
dramatizations and shifted to an abbreviated interview format. On
September 16, 1938, the CBS announcer introduced chemist Harold C. Urey
by saying: "We’re off today on the trail of a drop of water that spread
itself into a thunderstorm and washed up on the tables of research
scientists a thousand new problems to face and fathom. It’s the story
of Heavy Water, a magic potion as fascinating as any witch’s brew and
the key, perhaps, to the next door of human progress."
By the end of September, listeners had tired of such trivializations
and tuned in elsewhere; the series was cancelled.
In late 1938, CBS asked Watson Davis to resume
production with his previous news-and-interview format, but Davis was
now keenly aware of who controlled the microphone and how easily he
could lose access to the airwaves. He and the
trustees had consistently rejected commercial sponsorship. As long as
the series remained a ‘sustaining’ (i.e., non-commercial)
program, with production partially underwritten by Science Service but
the air time provided by the network (and therefore at the network’s
discretion), Davis had to attend to the CBS suggestions. As a
consequence, the revived ‘Adventures in Science’ series blended
attention to academic science with occasional promotion of
In February 1939, for example, CBS executive
Sterling Fisher wrote to Davis that the network planned to cooperate
with the Associated Grocery Manufacturers in their April ‘Parade of
Progress’ campaign, and he asked Davis to arrange interviews with
scientists "from the research laboratories of large food product
companies." Handwritten notes in the margins of
the Fisher letter indicate that Davis immediately asked various grocers
associations for suggestions of potential guests. Fisher continued the
pressure with a telegram: "Would appreciate any information RE
Adventures in Science April 8 dealing with earlier suggestion made to
you RE interviewing scientists in laboratories of grocery firms." Davis, who was on the road, wired that Science
Service staff should locate a guest with an acceptable industry
connection: "PROBABLY SAFEST GROCERY PROGRAM WOULD BE SOME REPUTABLE
SCIENTISTS CONNECTED GENERAL FOODS ... KINDLY EXPLORE BUT KEEP IT
NONCOMMERCIAL." On his return to Washington, Davis wired Fisher: "We
are working on a food program for the April 8 Adventures in Science to
tie in with the grocers’ Parade of Progress, in accordance with your
suggestion." They eventually scheduled Lewis W.
Waters, Vice-President of General Foods, who spoke about "Better Meals
Tomorrow" and assured listeners that "Food scientists and the food
industry are helping to build a bigger and better America of tomorrow".
The most unusual broadcast that year involved
a chemist who did not appear. That program exemplifies the attempts to
sensationalize science while also emphasizing its role in national
preparedness. It also offers an example of how scientists’ attitudes to
popularization had evolved since Science Service had been founded. On
Saturday afternoon, November 13, 1939, after his usual four-minute news
segment (e.g., world’s highest and lowest-recorded temperatures,
new building insulation materials, and discovery of a new undersea
mountain off the Alaska coast), Davis declared "now let’s turn to the
war." One question "most often asked in connection with the war," he
said, is about "the delay in using gas warfare": "The failure to use
gas is puzzling to those of us who read about every man, woman, and
child in warring countries of Europe fitted out with gas masks." The program then focused on what had been
advertised as a live interview of Winford Lee Lewis, inventor of
Lewis had developed a powerful respiratory
irritant, chloro-vinyl-dichloro-arsine (‘lewisite’), while working for
the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service during World War I. Formerly chairman
of the Northwestern University chemistry department, he was now
director of scientific research for a Chicago firm. Davis had
interviewed Lewis years before, in a September 1933 program on
‘Friendly Germs’, and so the chemist agreed to appear again but
explained that he had been having trouble with his voice: "I will be
glad to undertake the broadcast providing Mrs. Lewis [his wife,
Myrtiela Mae Lewis] might give my talk in the event I am out of voice." He assured Davis that she had a "most unusual
speaking voice […] with exceptional enunciation" and that she had been
"one of my chemistry students" so would be conversant with the topic.
Mrs. Lewis did appear, in fact, reading her part from a prepared script
that celebrated the "usefulness" of chemical weapons:
Interviewer: The development of a country’s
chemical industry has a very real bearing on its disposition to use or
not use chemical weapons.
Mrs. Lewis: Yes, it has been frequently pointed out that a country with
a strong chemical industry has a tremendous advantage in a conflict
involving chemical weapons. Chemists, chemical knowledge, chemicals and
chemical plants are needed to produce chemical weapons. These resources
cannot be developed overnight.
At the end of the broadcast, the announcer
asked, "Would you like to have more information on war gases?"
Listeners received a free bulletin (‘War Gases’) that described the
chemical characteristics and physiological effects of substances like
mustard gas, chlorine gas, lewisite, and toxic smokes.
That episode demonstrates how much the
scientific establishment’s acceptance of popularization had changed.
Many historians, myself among them, have long pointed to chemists’
outrage at the news coverage of poison gas after World War I and have
assumed that such outrage not only fueled their postwar campaigns to
improve chemistry’s public image but also left many scientific leaders
leery of certain types of popularization. By 1939, however, an
organization praised and supported by scientists, including the most
prominent chemists of the time, was discussing poison gas research on
its Saturday afternoon radio program and doing so without any apparent
defensiveness. This circumstance suggests that the scientific
establishment had embraced a more pragmatic acceptance of media
attention, perhaps seeing participation in such communication as
potentially useful in attracting economic and political support, as a
necessary evil rather than an enemy of science’s cause.
Several other late 1939 broadcasts sounded
celebratory notes about chemistry and its contribution to national
self-sufficiency and defense. Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, editor of Chemical
and Metallurgical Engineering, assured listeners on December 4 that
"America now has a chemical industry second to none […] we are more
nearly self-sufficient from a chemical standpoint".
And on December 25, Davis opened his annual ‘Review of the Year’
program by wishing listeners "A Merry and Scientific Christmas" and
giving a "scientific balance sheet, to judge what has been important
and significant". "Long after the war of 1939 is
forgotten," he explained, "the splitting of the uranium atom with
release of energy, hinting practical production of power from within
the atom, may be listed as the year’s outstanding achievement." Davis
then listed science’s ten major contributions to American health and
households, including "Number 6 […] The success of the chemical
sulfapyradine in treatment of pneumonia and the continued promising
treatment of many other disease with sulfanilamide and related
chemicals" and "Number 9 […] Development of synthetic fibers for
clothing, including nylon, vinyon, synthetic wool from milk". This last
achievement was the subject of another Science Service project which
combined department store mercantilism with adult education.
6. Chemistry in department store windows
Early in 1939, after a meeting of the Science
Service executive committee, some members went to inspect a new exhibit
about synthetic fibers, set up a few blocks from the National Academy
of Sciences building. It must have been a
remarkable sight as a dignified trio – chemist W.H. Howell, Edwin G.
Conklin of the American Philosophical Society, and C.G. Abbot, head of
the Smithsonian Institution – stared at a display of women’s clothing
in the central window of the Woodward & Lothrop department store
(Figure 2). The window, in which garments made of new synthetic
textiles were surrounded by jars of the fabrics’ constituent chemicals,
represented Science Service’s latest innovation: a traveling exhibit
displayed in department store windows and sponsored by local newspapers
which published a coordinated series of articles about the chemistry of
‘Fabrics of the Future’.
On one side of the Woodward & Lothrop
window (Figure 2) can be seen bottles of new chemicals and samples of
metal and glass; on the other side, nylon stockings and lengths of
rayon cloth. The mannequin’s dress is made of lanital (synthetic wool).
Over the front of the window is a ‘spider web’ design representing the
‘spinning’ of artificial fabrics. This project – both the middle-class
context in which the exhibit was displayed and its central themes –
exemplified the organization’s attempts to diffuse science beyond
traditional outlets and to infuse social and economic relevance into
its news. What could be more accessible to Americans than a downtown
department store? Or more appealing than the latest fashions?
Figure 2. Installation of the Science
Service ‘Fabrics for the Future’ display in the window of the Woodward
& Lothrop department store, Washington, D.C., February 1939 (SIA
RU7091, Box 457). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Public reaction to the ‘Fabrics of the Future’
installation in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Washington Daily
News, proved to be enthusiastic. The store’s advertising manager
called it "one of the most instructive and interesting displays of a
merchandise nature that we have been able to make in a long while […]
spectators crowded the window throughout the day for the duration of
the display." Washingtonians’ interest was so
great that a competing newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald,
even reproduced photographs of the window with a half-page of
explanatory text. Similar praise came from newspaper sponsors and
department store managers as the exhibit was shown in dozens of U.S.
cities over the next two years.
The series of six articles, written by Robert
D. Potter, wove themes of national self-sufficiency, economy,
creativity, efficiency, wizardry, and progress into a tapestry
sprinkled with technical terms and domestic metaphors. The text offered
substantial promises for chemistry as science’s "wonder worker" and
contributor to national defense. "The fibers and fabrics of tomorrow
stagger the imagination and leave the mind speculating in fantasy that
has a good chance of some day becoming true, regardless of how crazy it
may seem," Potter wrote. A promotional
advertisement for the series read:
CHEMISTS SYNTHESIZE TOMORROW’S FABRICS. ‘Wool’
out of milk […] ‘silk’ out of coal, air and water […] fibers of glass
and metal […] here are the wonders of modern science […] bringing new
discoveries to the home […] influencing the nation […] swaying
international trade […] even swinging the balance that may decide
future wars. See what the future holds in store for Americans through
modern research now molding the future.
The articles outlined the significance of this
work: how countries "under the spur of national defense" needed to
develop synthetic fibers so that they might be "liberated from foreign
imports that might fail in time of war" yet not "exhaust" their own
Figure 3. Steps in making rayon, a photograph by
Fremont Davis which was supplied with the Science Service ‘Fabrics for
the Future’ newspaper series, 1939. The suggested caption read "Eight
different chemical steps go into the making of acetate rayon in turning
raw wood chips into the finest of fibers and fabrics." (SIA RU7091, Box
408, Folder 23). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Chemists were described in the same glowing,
positive terms found elsewhere in popular science in 1939: persistent,
ingenious, creative, and able to identify the simplicity hidden in
nature’s complexity (LaFollette 1990). The articles emphasized traits
like economy, frugality, and inventiveness. These "man-made wool
fibers" were "economical" and cheap to produce because they used either
less expensive raw materials or dairy by-products like dried casein
powder. Potter praised chemists’ "ingenuity" and creativity; in part
six, he described how "two advertising men turned inventors" had
developed a new rayon fabric they called "Perval", that "could be made
so cheaply it would be thrown away instead of being sent to the
Figure 4. ‘Lanital Lady’, a photograph by Fremont
Davis which was supplied with Science Service ‘Fabrics for the Future’
newspaper series, 1939. The caption explained that "various steps in
the production of lanital – the synthetic ‘wool’ – have been used to
create the lady.’ The doll’s head was ‘wool’ made from cow’s milk; the
hands held bottles of raw casein and milk (SIA RU7091, Box 408, Folder
23). Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Both the articles and photograph captions
wizardry and alchemy: chemists were spinning cloth out of coal, and
wool out of "mechanized sheep" or buckets of milk; they were "turning
wood chips into the finest of fibers and fabrics" and making nylon
"from coal, air and water". Figures 3, 4, and 5 show three of
twenty-four photographs sold with the articles, some of them taken by
the Science Service photographer but others (as was standard practice)
obtained from industry sources and supplied with new captions.
As with so much of popular science of the
1930s, the articles assured readers a future of endless progress; they
promised more science to come, with little attention to the
consequences (LaFollette 1990, ch. 10). Potter suggested that the
"great advances of the past" were "only a small part of what will
appear in the future." "Still stronger" or "potent" products are "in
store for the future" and this was just a "foretaste". As science
continued to widen "its circle of achievement and usefulness", it would
weave fabrics with longevity – "rot-proof", "moisture-proof", and
"fire-proof". Even rayon’s "future as a fiber" was not "exhausted"
because chemists were devising new uses for it.
Figure 5. Synthetic
wool suit, a photograph supplied by the Hamilton M. Wright advertising
firm, which represented the Italian textile industry, for use with
Science Service ‘Fabrics for the Future’ newspaper series, 1939. The
suggested caption read "Synthetic wool, made out of the casein in cow’s
milk, was the basic raw material for this beautiful woman’s three-piece
suit. The casein cost 50 cents and was obtained from 63 quarts of
milk." (SIA RU7091, Box 408, Folder 23). Courtesy of Smithsonian
Although the series did not refrain from
anthropomorphizing science (see the photograph of ‘Lanital Lady’, a
‘doll’ made of synthetic material, in Figure 4), its approach was more
pragmatic than romantic. It promoted a spiritual duality. Nature
remained the best fabric producer; scientists could only copy or
improve on nature, not replace it. Science, however, provided an
advantage in that its processes, unlike nature, could be controlled.
These articles also included a substantial
number of domestic analogies and examples, as if the editors had made a
conscious effort to appeal to women readers (although no explicit
evidence of this approach survives in correspondence or is mentioned in
the associated promotional material). The text as well as the
photograph captions include many references to such products as flour,
face powder, bread baking, aprons, upholstery, curtains, laundry, and
frying pans. Four of the photos sent with the series explicitly
depicted women’s clothing – a blouse made of synthetic wool, nylon
stockings modeled by female college students, and a three-piece suit
made of synthetic wool (Figure 5) – and the store window display
centered on the female mannequins.
These domestic and gender-linked references
appeared in articles that were sprinkled liberally with technical
details and terms, including detailed descriptions of the spinneret
process and other aspects of synthetics production. Article two
compared the chemical analyses of synthetic and natural wool, breaking
them down into percentages of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and
sulfur. Words like ‘protein’, ‘coagulate’, ‘formaldehyde’, ‘bacterial
enzyme’, ‘nitrocellulose’, ‘chemical bonds’, and ‘polyamides’ were used
throughout the text, usually without further definition, as if assuming
that readers would find them as familiar as the associated references
to milk production and sheep farming.
By April, with the exhibit almost fully
booked, Science Service was turning down requests. "We appreciate your
interest in the Science Service exhibit on ‘Fabrics of the Future’. I
regret that there has been such a great demand for this throughout the
country by the newspapers […] that it is not possible at the present
time to arrange for its use by colleges," Potter wrote to a chemistry
student in New York who had read about the exhibit in Industrial
and Engineering Chemistry. That spring, the
exhibit traveled to major cities in Indiana, Ohio, and New York. During
May, it was in the windows of the Joseph Horne Company in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Press. In June and
July, the San Francisco News, San Diego Sun, and Berkeley
Gazette sponsored California appearances, and other newspapers and
stores in New Mexico, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, New Jersey, and
Michigan scheduled the project. Public reaction remained enthusiastic.
In Buffalo, New York, "It didn’t matter whether it was day or night,
there were people examining the exhibit and all expressed amazement at
Sponsored by the Boston Transcript,
the exhibit went on display at the Jordan Marsh department store during
the week of September 11, 1939, coordinated with the annual American
Chemical Society conference. Davis asked chemist H.E. Howe to appear on
the ‘Adventures in Science’ broadcast directly from the Boston meeting.
In his introduction, Davis extolled the wonders of synthetic fibers,
emphasizing (in the context of world events) that such fibers could
step "into jobs previously performed by silk" from Japan, make use of
products like milk casein that might otherwise go to waste, and help
create new production jobs. Howe explained that chemists had "learned
how to make synthetic substances that are better than rubber" because
of research "initiated in pure or fundamental science without thought
of immediate commercial application and without seeking the answer to
any pressing industrial problem", a theme further reinforced in a
November broadcast when Davis interviewed U.S. Department of
Agriculture chemist E.O. Whittier about ‘Wool from Milk’.
After each of these programs, listeners could obtain a free bulletin
summarizing the newspaper series or a sample of ‘synthetic wool’.
The ‘Fabrics for the Future’ exhibit continued
on tour throughout 1940, shipped to the Princeton University chemistry
department that summer, and on to Maine for a New England Association
of Chemistry Teachers meeting, but the war interrupted any further
plans for such multi-media approaches. Starting
in the 1940s, Science Service’s efforts began to focus increasingly on
science education projects and away from its news syndication
activities, other than through radio.
What can the history of Science Service reveal
about public images of chemistry and other parts of science and about
how or why scientists engaged in the popularization process? Was the
organization merely a promotional agent for scientists, or did it play
a more complex, subtle role? Because Science Service, Inc., continued
beyond those first decades, and focuses today on science education and
the publication of the small weekly magazine Science News,
there has been a tendency to see the past mirrored in the present, to
regard its mission today as reflective of its initial purposes and
My research suggests a different
interpretation, one that views the history of Science Service – like
that of nations, corporations, scientific disciplines, or families – as
having distinct phases. The first decades of its existence represented
a phase that stretched until World War II. After that time, not just
Science Service but also its contextual partners (the scientific
community and mass media) changed. Watson Davis continued to deliver
speeches declaring that accuracy and timeliness comprised the ‘essence’
of science news but his organization no longer needed to convince
publishers or the public of science’s relevance to every aspect of
modern life, nor did it need to persuade scientists that public opinion
mattered to the health of science. Consolidation of newspapers, market
expansion, television, and internationalization – each altered the
media marketplace in which Science Service had been functioning. Davis
became preoccupied with promoting science education and the
organization became a marginal (although still respected) player in the
hardnosed world of news journalism.
During the 1920s and 1930s, though, Science
Service had facilitated communication between scientists and the public
and been at the hub of a network of people creating what we now call
‘science journalism’. In that initial phase, it negotiated standards
for a new public-private space in which complex and potentially
empowering information could be explained precisely to people with
little or no education in science. It also cultivated relationships
with corporate sources, especially in the chemical industry, and
promoted popularization through dramatization, scientists as
celebrities, and, as in the department store project on chemistry, the
marketing of science through connection to consumer goods. Like
nations, families, and other organizations, the history of Science
Service is a complex mix of positive and negative outcomes.
Americans, Thone had argued, wanted
information that was comprehensible and accessible, that could be
rolled up, stuck in a pocket, and consumed on demand.
Scientists may have found such informality unsettling but Science
Service’s marketing success helped enable it. The popularization of
science was strutting resolutely toward today’s familiar landscape of
multiple, diverse, and commercialized outlets. By the end of the 1930s,
no one had to persuade newspapers to attend to science. From the New
York Times to Saturday Evening Post, Hollywood movies to
network radio, Arrowsmith to World’s Fair exhibitions, science
and scientists were accepted as suitable subjects for news,
entertainment, promotion, merchandizing, and even satire. Understanding
the development of Science Service during its formative years, and the
motivations of the people associated with it, will assist historians in
unpacking further the array of forces that shaped (and continue to
shape) popular science content.
The author gratefully acknowledges the role
played by Dr. Audrey Davis, a historian whose foresight enabled the
original transfer of the Science Service editorial records to the
Smithsonian Institution. The author also thanks the staff of the
Smithsonian Institution Archives and Hagley Library for assistance with
this research, and participants in the April 2005 conference ‘Science
for Sale? The Public Communication of Science in a Corporate World’ at
Cornell University, and especially Professor Trevor Pinch, for comments
on presentation of this history.
 Frank Thone,
‘The Press as an Agency for the Diffusion of Science’, text of a speech
to the American Association for Adult Education, May 21, 1936, p. 2;
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7091 (hereafter cited as
‘SIA RU7091’), Box 4, Folder 2.
 Based on the
author’s research in Smithsonian Institution Archives manuscript
collections, especially Record Units 45, 46, 83, 7183, and 7091 and
Accession 90-105; materials housed in collections of the Smithsonian’s
National Museum of American History; ‘Cavalcade of America’ Collection
at the Hagley Library; and Papers of James McKeen Cattell (MSS15412) at
the Library of Congress.
 This latter
emphasis on science education and ‘science talent searches’ arose in
earnest only in the 1940s, a topic being explored by such historians as
John Rudolph and Sevan Terzian.
 The absence of
a comprehensive history of Science Service relates both to the
complexity and size of its records and to an earlier failure by
historians to recognize the importance of these records and how they
might illuminate the history of science as well as its public
presentation. The organization’s multiple parallel filing systems
intermingled editorial, business, and personal correspondence with
drafts, notes, photographs, and other ephemera for hundreds of projects
and activities. Records generated between 1921 and the early 1970s were
donated to the Smithsonian Institution in several phases, but not all
records were transferred, not all those were housed in the same
location, and not all remained intact. The surviving records, located
in the Smithsonian Institution Archives and in curatorial collections
throughout the Smithsonian museums, comprise many hundreds of cubic
feet of papers and photographs, much of it still without comprehensive
finding aids and some still incompletely processed. For decades, only a
small portion of the early records had been processed. In 2005, the
author wrote a brief historical summary of Science Service’s first
forty years for a Smithsonian Institution Archives finding aid to
Record Unit 7091, available online at <http://siarchives.si.edu/findingaids/FARU7091.htm>.
Documents relating to the history of the collection are preserved at
the Smithsonian Institution Archives, as part of the control files for
Record Unit 7091.
 ‘Document A -
The American Society for the Dissemination of Science’, dictated by
E.W. Scripps on March 5, 1919; SIA RU7091, Box 1, Folder 1.
 Carbon copy of
William E. Ritter to E.W. Scripps, May 13, 1921, mailed to E.E.
Slosson; SIA RU7091, Box 1, Folder 3.
 E.E. Slosson
to R.S. McBride, McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., April 5, 1921; SIA RU7091,
Box 9, Folder 6.
 Underlining in
original. H.L. Smithton to W.E. Ritter, January 2, 1924; SIA RU7091,
Box 23, Folder 6.
 W. Davis to
S.S. Seward, Jr., October 20, 1924; SIA RU7091, Box 74, Folder 6.
 Rhees 1979
remains the definitive analysis of Slosson. Like many other historians,
I have used it as a guide in interpreting correspondence in SIA RU7091,
on which this section draws.
 E.E. Slosson
to Thomas T. Coke, February 7, 1921; SIA RU7091, Box 7, Folder 1. Coke
had taken a degree in chemistry from Cornell University but had decided
to shift careers and was then studying law at Yale University.
 Slosson had
originally been hired as ‘Editor’ of Science Service. He delivered
hundreds of paid lectures every year. Income from those lectures was
essential to Science Service. As a result, Slosson spent considerable
time traveling and appears to have left the management of day-to-day
operations (and therefore most news decisions) to Watson Davis.
 W.H. Howell
to W. Davis, June 24, 1936; SIA RU7091, Box 4, Folder 3.
 W. Davis to
David White, February 10, 1931; SIA RU7091, Box 131, Folder 9.
 According to
Davis, James McKeen Cattell and physicist Robert A. Millikan wanted to
abolish the policy "that we do not operate as a publicity organization,
that we charge for everything we send out and pay for everything we
get." Davis stated that "there will be a stiff fight on this score, so
far as I am concerned." W. Davis to J.W. Foster, Scripps-Howard
Newspapers, February 12, 1931; SIA RU7091, Box 124, Folder 10.
Smithton to W.E. Ritter, January 2, 1924; SIA RU7091, Box 23, Folder 6.
 W. Davis to
F.J. Schlink, American Standards Association, May 12, 1930; SIA RU7091,
Box 119, Folder 3.
 Ibid.; the
records of the Daily Mail Report often contain correspondence
discussing published errors or scientists’ complaints.
Davis’s raw notes and data for this analysis are located in SIA RU7091,
Box 129, Folder 11.
Tressida has created a web exhibit (‘Women of Science Service’) that
describes some of the staff and contributing writers. See <http://siarchives.si.edu/research/sciservwomen.html>.
 Frank Ernest
Aloysius Thone (1891-1949) majored in botany at the University of Iowa,
and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1922. His work in
California as assistant to William E. Ritter led to the contact with
Slosson. After a few years of teaching and research, he became the
Science Service biology editor in 1924.
estimates are based on the author’s analysis of 202 news stories from a
sample of Daily Mail Report for weeks in September 1935, March
1936, December 1938, May 1939, and October 1939 located in SIA RU7091,
Box 374. Newspapers subscribing to the Daily Mail Report
received about 8 to 10 short news stories a day (40 to 50 each week).
Science Service had retained the backup and drafts for each story at
least through the 1960s. During the 1970s, when those records were
transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian archivists
unfortunately saved only a sample of the complete Daily Mail Report
files, randomly selecting a few weeks out of each year. The remaining
files are located in SIA RU7091, Series 8 (Boxes 373-381).
 E.W. Scripps
to E.E. Slosson, August 1, 1921; SIA RU7091, Box 12, Folder 2.
 E.E. Slosson
to E.W. Scripps, September 2, 1921; SIA RU7091, Box 12, Folder 2.
 E.E. Slosson
to W.A. Cannon, Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Coastal
Laboratory, February 23, 1923; SIA RU7091, Box 16, Folder 1.
Service form letter sent to editors of newspapers from ‘Watson Davis,
News Editor’, September 11, 1922; SIA RU7091, Box 60, Folder 2.
Smithton to W.E. Ritter, January 2, 1924; SIA RU7091, Box 23, Folder 6.
 W. Davis to
J.N. Heiskell, Editor, The Arkansas Gazette, October 22, 1936;
SIA RU7091, Box 424, Folder 14.
Catton, Editor of EveryWeek, to Frank Thone, October 3, 1938;
SIA RU7091, Box 199, Folder 11.
 Many records
of transactions with these stringers – job applications,
correspondence, payment slips, and drafts – are preserved in
Smithsonian Institution Archives Record Unit 7091, and represent an
important resource for study. Especially notable are the 1930s
applications from women with some science training who sought writing
assignments to supplement their incomes.
 For example,
W. Davis to Arthur F. Coca, April 26, 1938; SIA RU7091, Box 194, Folder
 Leonard H.
Engel to Roger E. Chase, June 17, 1938; SIA RU7091, Box 194, Folder 1.
former science editor of the New York Herald-Tribune, joined
the staff in 1934 and had responsibility for physics, engineering, and
chemistry. Along with others on the Science Service staff, he was one
of the founders of the National Association of Science Writers.
 E.E. Slosson
to H.E. Howe, June 17, 1924; SIA RU7091, Box 22, Folder 6.
analysis of data in ‘Survey of Requests Received for Science Service
Radio Talks, ‘Science News of the Week’, June, 1926 – November, 1929’,
sent by W. Davis to the U.S. Advisory Committee on Education by Radio;
SIA RU7091, Box 118, Folder 5. Data on the 1930s from a letter by W.
Davis to Robert F. Elder, November 2, 1934; SIA RU7091, Box 154, Folder
 W. Davis,
September 20, 1929; SIA RU7091, Box 102, Folder 8.
Cuthbert to W. Davis, November 30, 1934; SIA RU7091, Box 167, Folder 11.
 W. Davis to
Margaret Cuthbert, December 4, 1934; SIA RU7091, Box 167, Folder 11.
 Henry J.
Wing to W. Davis, September 10, 1935; SIA RU7091, Box 403, Folder 13.
 Henry J.
Wing to W. Davis, October 4, 1935; SIA RU7091, Box 403, Folder 13.
 W. Davis to
H. Bonnet, February 8, 1938; SIA RU7091, Box 193, Folder 3.
 Script for
radio talk (‘The Romance of Tung Oil’) located in SIA RU7091, Box 194,
of America’, Episode number 1 (1935), p. 1; Cavalcade of America
Collection, Hagley Library.
of America’, Episode number 117 (1938), p. 11; Cavalcade of America
Collection, Hagley Library.
in Science’ script for August 12, 1938; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder 1.
in Science’ script for September 16, 1938; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder
 The series
ran until 1958, with occasional interruptions for world events and
Saturday afternoon football games.
Fisher to W. Davis, February 7, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 385, Folder 15.
Fisher telegram to W. Davis, March 8, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 385, Folder
 W. Davis to
Sterling Davis, March 11, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 385, Folder 15.
outline of talk by Lewis W. Waters; SIA RU7091, Box 385, Folder 15.
 Script for
‘Adventures in Science’, November 13, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder
 See W. Davis
to W. Lee Lewis, September 26, 1939; W. Davis telegram to W. Lee Lewis,
October 16, 1939; W. Lee Lewis to W. Davis, October 16, 1939; and W.
Lee Lewis to W. Davis, October 25, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder 2.
The interview section of the broadcast actually took place in the
studios of station WBBM in Chicago, where a local announcer read
questions to Mrs. Lewis from the prepared script. See annotated scripts
for November 13, 1939, in SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder 2.
 Script for
November 13, 1939, broadcast; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder 2.
 Bulletin for
‘Adventures in Science’ broadcast of November 13, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box
386, Folder 2.
in Science’ script for December 4, 1939, p. 3; SIA RU7091, Box 386,
in Science’ script for December 25, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder
 See ‘Minutes
of the Executive Committee of Science Service... February 11, 1939’;
SIA RU7091, Box 4, Folder 7.
 James W.
Hardey, quoted in ‘Information Memorandum on Progress of Science
Service, June 10, 1939’, p. 5; SIA RU7091, Box 4, Folder 8.
 See other
descriptions of crowds and compliments from newspaper editors in: W.
Davis to Max B. Cook, April 21, 1939, and Austin Winant to Max B. Cook,
July 19, 1939, and July 28, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 427, Folder 77.
throughout this section are taken not from the various published
versions but from a mimeograph copy of the ‘Fabrics of the Future’
text, version of August 12, 1939, located in SIA RU7091, Box 408,
box text suggested by Science Service for use with the ‘Fabrics of the
Future’ Series, August 12, 1939, mailing; SIA RU7091, Box 385, Folder
 Robert D.
Potter to Sherman Finneran, April 1, 1939; SIA RU7091, Box 208, Folder
Memorandum on Progress of Science Service’, June 10, 1939; SIA RU7091,
Box 4, Folder 8, p. 6.
 Script for
‘Adventures in Science’, September 11, 1939, p. 5; SIA RU7091, Box 385,
Folder 39. Also see script for ‘Adventures in Science’, November 20,
1939; SIA RU7091, Box 386, Folder 4.
Service attempted to work with Modern Plastics magazine on a
similar "plastics exhibit for newspapers and cooperating department
stores", but that project never went beyond the planning stages. See
correspondence in SIA RU7091, Box 220, Folder 2.
 Frank Thone,
‘The Press as an Agency for the Diffusion of Science’, text of a speech
to the American Association for Adult Education, May 21, 1936, p. 2;
SIA RU7091, Box 4, Folder 2.
Burnham, J.C.: 1987, How Superstition Won
and Science Lost: Popularizing Science and Health in the United States,
Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.
Douglas, S.J.: 1999, Listening In: Radio
and the American Imagination, Times Books, New York.
Hilmes, M.: 1997, Radio Voices: American
Broadcasting, 1922-1952, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Kevles, D.J.: 1978, The Physicists: The
History of a Scientific Community, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Kirchhofer, A.H.: 1932, ‘Science Service
Conference’, Science, 76 (August 19), 154-5.
LaFollette, M.C.: 1990, Making Science Our
Own: Public Images of Science, 1910-1955, University of Chicago
LaFollette, M.C.: 2002, ‘A Survey of Science
Content in U.S. Radio Broadcasting, 1920s through 1940s: Scientists
Speak in Their Own Voices’, Science Communication, 24,
Rhees, D.J.: 1979, A New Voice for
Science: Science Service under Edwin E. Slosson, 1921-1929, M.A.
thesis, University of North Carolina.
Scripps, R.P.: 1932, ‘Science Service
Conference’, Science, 76 (August 19), 156.
Slosson, E.E.: 1922, ‘Popular Science’, Science,
60 (May 5), 480-482.
Smulyan, S.: 1994, Selling Radio: The
Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920-1934, Smithsonian
Institution Press, Washington.
Tobey, R.C.: 1971, The American Ideology
of National Science, 1919-1930, University of Pittsburgh Press,
Thone, F.E.A. & Bailey, E.W.: 1927,
‘William Emerson Ritter: Builder’, The Scientific Monthly, 24
Marcel C. LaFollette:
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Copyright © 2006 by HYLE and
Marcel C. LaFollette