The oldest continuously published magazine in the United States issued its first edition on 28 August 1845.
Earlier that year, Henry David Thoreau moved to Walton Pond, and Stephen Perry of London patented the rubber band. That summer, the Irish potato famine began. The prior year, Samuel Morse uttered, “What hath God wrought?”
The New York Mechanic had launched in 1841. Inventor Rufus Porter invested in the magazine; moved it from New York to Boston; and changed its name to American Mechanic.
In 1845, he returned to New York and rebranded the weekly broadsheet as Scientific American. He outlined his vision on the front page of that first issue:
Published every Thursday morning at No. 11
Spruce Street, New York, No. 16 State
Street, Boston, and No. 21 Arcade
(The principal office being in New York)
By Rufus Porter
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.
Among the entries in that first issue is a blurb about the telegraph:
At heart Porter was an inventor, not a publisher. After 10 months he sold Scientific American to Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach for $800. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s about $30,000 in today’s dollars (CPI). If you use the relative share of GDP, the estimated value today would be $9,900,000.
In an era of rapid innovation, Scientific American founded the first branch of the U.S. Patent Agency, in 1850, to provide technical help and legal advice to inventors. A Washington, D.C., branch was added in 1859. By 1900 more than 100,000 inventions had been patented thanks to Scientific American.
At the turn of the century, vehicles were of particular interest, and in 1899, a special issue was devoted exclusively to bicycles and automobiles. The editors took great delight in reporting new speed records, including a land speed record of a mile in 39.4 seconds set in 1904 by Henry Ford while driving across the ice of Lake St. Clair, Michigan.
By this time, the magazine had established its hallmark for pinpointing emerging trends before news of them reached the general population. Articles on Marconi’s experiments appeared two decades before the advent of radio. Scientific American published photographs of the Wright Brothers’ plane nearly two years before the successful Kitty Hawk flight. Robert Goddard contributed an article in 1921 defending and explaining his work on developing a rocket capable of reaching “interplanetary distances.” In 1927 Scientific American reported on a practical demonstration of television that sent the voice and moving image of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover over telephone wires from Washington, D.C., to New York.
It became a monthly magazine in 1921.
In 1948, Gerard Piel, Dennis Flanagan and Donald Miller purchased the assets from Munn & Company when they were considering publishing a science magazine. The 100+ year old publication would be rebranded yet again:
In their quest to increase the immediacy, timeliness and authority of the magazine, they insisted that the majority of the articles be written by the people who actually did the work described—a unique distinction among consumer magazines.
Scientific American launched its website in March 1996.
In 1986 Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a German-based publishing group, bought Scientific American, Inc. In June 2009, Scientific American joined Nature Publishing Group (NPG) to form the heart of NPG’s newly-formed consumer media division, meeting the needs of the general public. Scientific American and NPG are both part of Macmillan Publishers Ltd, a Holtzbrinck group company.
- Scientific American article linked to in post, archived
- Scientific American, first issue on Wikimedia
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