Print became the first of the mass media in the nineteenth century, as industrial technologies of production and distribution were gradually applied to newspapers, periodicals and books. These changes affected all areas of publishing, including the sciences. There are two main ways in which publishing affected the sciences: firstly, in the communication of discoveries and new results within the scientific community; and secondly, in the discussion of science and nature among the general public. There were, however, many points of overlap between these areas, as the distinction between professional and popular spheres was still in the process of being made. Hence, scientific bestsellers such as Constitution of Man (1828) and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) were certainly popular in terms of their sales figures, but also made claims to expertise. Even some more acknowledged scholarly works, such as Origin of Species (1859), sold enough copies to prove their popularity with the general public.
Men of science had been communicating their discoveries through print long before the nineteenth century, usually through books, but also, from the late seventeenth-century, through the pages of periodicals. In the nineteenth century, the big change was the increasing importance of periodicals. At the beginning of the century, there were relatively few journals, and no strong incentive for men of science to publish at all. By the end of the century, publication had become crucial to a career in the sciences, and publication in one of the many increasingly specialised journals was the most usual way for new results to appear.
In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, the Royal Society and its Philosophical Transactions ceased to be seen as a suitable forum for increasingly specialised work. Specialist scientific societies began to spring up (the Geological Society in 1807, the Astronomical Society 1820, Chemical Society etc.), and they began to issue their own Transactions, Proceedings, and Quarterly Journals. There were also a few journals issued by commercial publishers (such as Taylor and Francis's Philosophical Magazine, 1798), but these tended to suffer from financial troubles, closures and mergers until about mid-century, by which time there was a more established market for that sort of publication. By the time Nature was launched by the publisher Macmillan in 1869, the size of the scientific community had increased, and the publication of papers had become a central part of a scientist's career. Hence, Nature was able to find both contributors and readers.
In terms of publications on the sciences for the general public, things also changed significantly in the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century, there had been some books on the sciences for non-specialists, but these - like most books of their time - were relatively expensive works, and only for the upper ranks of society. During the nineteenth century, the application of production techniques such as steam printing, mechanical paper-making and stereotyping made printing large numbers of cheap publications viable, while new techniques of distribution, including the railways and the penny post, but also the growth of shops and advertising, meant that the cheap publications could be physically transported to their market of readers.
At the start of the century, a typical volume could easily cost 10 shillings. In the 1820s, a volume of a new work might still cost that much, but a volume of a reprint might only be 5 or 6 shillings. By mid-century, reprints at 5 or 6 shillings were common, and some were available at 2 or 3 shillings. In the second half of the century, new books also benefited from cheaper prices. A similar story could be told for periodicals, which increased in periodicity (from quarterlies, to monthlies, to weeklies) over the first half of the century, and fell in price. The weeklies of the 1840s and 1850s typically cost a penny.
As far as the sciences are concerned, general treatises for educated middle-class people were produced throughout the century, with their prices gradually falling. The more important innovation was the development of a scientific literature adapted for lower-middle and working-class people- adapted in both price and style. Some philanthropic attempts had been made in the late 1820s to produce cheap works on the sciences (e.g. by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826-46), but these were rarely commercially successful. The efforts did demonstrate, however, that the sciences were seen (by liberal Whigs) as valuable knowledge for the working classes. By the 1840s, commercial publishers (e.g. William and Robert Chambers) were beginning to produce successful series of popular science works - these were usually cheaper, shorter, and less technical than their predecessors for middle-class readers. The institutionalisation of the sciences, in universities and (by the 1870s) in schools, can also be seen in the developing trade in textbooks.
There were some periodicals in the 1820s which included a large proportion of scientific material as part of their 'instructive and amusing' mission (the Penny Magazine and Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, both of 1832), and by the 1860s, there were specialist popular science journals (Recreative Science, 1859, and Popular Science Monthly 1895). There was also a whole range of more specialist but still general interest magazines, usually cheap but not very cheap, such as the Mechanics' Magazine and Darwin's favourite, the Gardeners' Chronicle 1841.
In addition to specialist science journals and books, scientific material also appeared in more general publications. The SciPer project is investigating the scientific content of a range of periodicals, from literary journals to children's magazines. And from the 1840s onwards, science could make news, with new discoveries, or meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, appearing in the newspapers.
All of these changes in the publication of science for laymen indicate that science was growing in public appeal throughout the century - people wanted to read about it, and publishers were able to provide a range of books and periodicals for different audiences. Publishers were thus crucial to the developing professionalisation of the sciences (by providing places to publish results) but also, and perhaps even more significantly, in increasing the public awareness and understanding of the sciences. The end result was that the sciences in the late nineteenth century had achieved a level of cultural authority undreamt of in the early years of the century.
Created 2 October 2002
Last modified 14 January 2020