Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Science Communication in 20th Century Europe

The Uses of Popular Science

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Peter J. Bowler (Queens College, Belfast, United Kingdom)

Why did people in the early 20th century read/listen to/watch popular science literature/radio programmes/films? In Britain, at least, evidence from the Mass Observation surveys of the late 1930s and 1940s suggests that most had little of no interest in the subject. But for the small proportion of the population which did access this material, how do we find out what they expected to get from it?

One obvious technique is to survey their reactions from letters, diaries, reports of discussions etc. – as done by James Secord to chart the complex reactions to the Victorian bestseller Vestiges of Creation. But this is a huge undertaking, and in the meantime we may have to make do with evidence derived from the rhetoric of those to produced and disseminated the material – advertisements, magazine editorials and the like. This is no doubt to some extent propaganda intended to promote the interests of those who wanted the public to access their products. This is especially true for material generated by the scientific community (which was itself by no means homogenous), the academic elite, publishers, and those with particular axes to grind (such as the left-wing activists of the 1930s). But anything derived from a source linked to a medium that required commercial success for its survival must reflect the public’s interests to at least some extent, otherwise the firm producing it would not attract enough attention and would fail.

Note that in Britain this last point is not valid for the radio, which was the sole preserve of the BBC, a state monopoly whose director was determined to use it as a vehicle for raising cultural standards. Here, when science was addressed, the interests and values of the elite scientific community were reflected whether or not there was much of an audience for the ‘talks’ that were broadcast. This makes a nice contrast with the situation in countries such as the U.S.A., where radio was commercial from the start and the scientific community struggled to gain access to the airwaves. The BBC’s ability to float above the world of everyday listeners’ concerns was paralleled in print organs that were similarly protected from commercial pressures, including the magazine Discovery (carried at a loss by its publisher) and later Endeavour (funded by industry).


Here the interests of the scientific community were promoted, including the excitement of research into new fields such as atomic physics and cosmology, and the link to industrial development – although these last two positions did not always sit easily together. Academic scientists wanted parity with the old educational establishment based on teaching the classics, and thus stressed the intellectual excitement of discovery. But those working for industry preferred a more practical approach, hoping to convince the public that they should take an interest in science and technology because it was transforming their everyday lives. Both of these arguments linked science and technology to a sense that ‘modernization’ was – or ought to be – an important aspect of everyday life. This was a rhetorical technique available even in countries where modernization was more an aspiration than a reality. But in an industrial nation such as Britain, proud of its imperial heritage, it was often argued that it was a patriotic duty to be aware of the technological, industrial and military developments on which the nation’s power depended.

We should not dismiss these rhetorical devices as totally divorced from the interests of at least that small proportion of the population which was open to being persuaded that taking an interest in science was worthwhile. Exactly the same rhetoric appears in the promotional material disseminated by commercial publishers hoping to sell educational book series and popular science magazines. In my book Science for All I note a large number of such advertisements, all claiming to be a response to a growing public interest in science and technology, and a growing demand for informal education by people unable to attend college or university. The book series were often quite successful, suggesting that the perceived demand was real (although it proved more difficult to sell magazines, perhaps because ‘science news’ did not offer the same benefits as a coherent programme of self-education).

The efforts to promote public interest in applied science were not necessarily offered as being of immediate practical value to the individual reader. Details of how industrial processes worked were directly relevant only to those who actually worked in that industry – but it was often implied that in order to ‘get on in life’ one needed to show that one was abreast of the latest innovations. For some innovations with an impact on everyday life the books and magazines did offer information of practical value, as in areas such as radio, electrical appliances, photography etc. Here there were books and magazines aimed directly at the ‘practical man’ and at hobbyists who wanted to build their own equipment. The same point applied to popular pastimes such as natural history and astronomy, where there were significant communities of amateur experts.

This points us to an important division within the community of scientific enthusiasts. Much of the literature aimed at the market for self-education was written by experts and was promoted as being authoritative precisely because of the professional standing of the authors. Here the elite scientific community had the opportunity to present its case for public support of academic science by government and industry. But in some areas of applied science there were also writers who had practical rather than academic experience, and they tended to promote a more populist viewpoint, encouraging ordinary people to think that they could invent valuable new technologies in their own home workshops. In Britain this viewpoint was actively promoted by ‘Professor’ A..M. Low, who was not a professor and was viewed with deep suspicion by the scientific elite. This populist vision of scientific progress was more active in America, where T. A. Edison was a folk-hero and there was considerable hostility to professional experts.

A further division opened up in the 1930s as left-wing activists became a significant force within even the academic community. These scientists were opposed to the exploitation of technology by the existing social elite, and saw popular science education as a means of giving ordinary people both a scientific outlook on social issues and also the information they need to see how science was being misused. Lancelot Hogben and J. B. S. aldane were both active in this movement, Hogben’s Science for the Citizen and Mathematics for the Million selling in huge numbers.

These brief remarks outline some of the techniques used to promote popular science, and clearly the ways in which science was promoted in different countries would exploit the rhetorical strategies in different ways depending on the local environment. But we should never forget that most genuinely popular literature had to be entertaining more than educational – only a small proportion of the general population had a real interest in science or any other academic subject. The best illustration of this in Britain is the failure of several popular science magazines, which were unable to balance the demands of self-education and entertainment. Discovery, supported at a loss by its publisher, saw its circulation decline to only a few thousand (Paralleling this there were constant press complaints about how boring the BBC’s radio ‘talks’ by experts were for the ordinary listener.) Magazines not protected from commercial pressures, including Conquest and Armchair Science, moved steadily ‘downmarket’ in the course of time in a desperate effort to maintain circulation. In the end they became little more than general magazines with a small and trivial science content, featuring also fiction, hobbies, humour, popular entertainment and fashion. The scientific community had nothing to do with such productions and would have almost certainly regarded them with distaste.