Making "Nature": The History of a Scientific Journal

by Melinda Baldwin

Making "Nature": The History of a Scientific Journal

by Melinda Baldwin



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Making "Nature" is the first book to chronicle the foundation and development of Nature, one of the world's most influential scientific institutions. Now nearing its hundred and fiftieth year of publication, Nature is the international benchmark for scientific publication. Its contributors include Charles Darwin, Ernest Rutherford, and Stephen Hawking, and it has published many of the most important discoveries in the history of science, including articles on the structure of DNA, the discovery of the neutron, the first cloning of a mammal, and the human genome.

But how did Nature become such an essential institution? In Making "Nature," Melinda Baldwin charts the rich history of this extraordinary publication from its foundation in 1869 to current debates about online publishing and open access. This pioneering study not only tells Nature's story but also sheds light on much larger questions about the history of science publishing, changes in scientific communication, and shifting notions of "scientific community." Nature, as Baldwin demonstrates, helped define what science is and what it means to be a scientist.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226261591
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/18/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 328
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Melinda Baldwin is a lecturer in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University.

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Making Nature

The History of a Scientific Journal

By Melinda Baldwin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-26159-1


Nature's Shifting Audience, 1869–1875

In the early months of 1869, a thirty-three-year-old British astronomer named Norman Lockyer (1836–1920) began asking his friends and colleagues to write articles he could publish in the first issue of a new weekly scientific publication. The new periodical was not, Lockyer emphasized, a specialized scientific journal. Although Lockyer was soliciting contributions from Britain's most famous men of science and intended to print abstracts of technical papers and reports from foreign scientific societies, the journal was not affiliated with any scientific organization, and the audience was not solely other men of science. Rather, Lockyer hoped that his publication would be read by educated laymen of all trades, and he was publishing the weekly with the commercial London publishing house Macmillan and Company. Most of the people Lockyer consulted about his undertaking had at best modest expectations for the new publication. Lockyer's acquaintance Joseph Hooker, an eminent botanist and the director of Kew Gardens, pessimistically responded to the project by telling Alexander Macmillan, "By all means make public my good will to the Lockyer periodical ... [but] the failure of scientific periodicals patronized by men of mark have been dismal. I do not see how a really scientific man can find time to conduct a periodical scientifically, or brains to go over the mass of trash."

Today, Lockyer's periodical, Nature, is arguably the world's most prestigious scientific journal, and most would call the publication an unparalleled success — although not the kind of success its founder had initially envisioned. Early in its life, Nature underwent a significant change in form. Nature never acquired much of a following among laymen, and the journal quickly abandoned its plan to devote a large portion of its contents to popular science pieces. The first issue of Nature was published in November 1869; by 1875, the primary audience for Nature had shifted from laymen to men of science. The changes in Nature's content suggest that Lockyer had difficulty balancing the two parts of his initial vision and that the preferences of his contributors drove Nature's transformation into a publication very different from the one its editor had planned.


Joseph Norman Lockyer was born in 1836 in Rugby, England. His father, Joseph Henry Lockyer, was a middleclass physician-apothecary, and his mother, Ann Norman Lockyer, was the daughter of a local squire. Soon after Norman's birth the family moved to Leicester, where he and his younger sister spent their childhood. Following the death of his mother in 1846, Norman was sent to live with relatives in Warwickshire, where he attended private schools and occasionally supported himself with student-teaching responsibilities. At the age of twenty he convinced a local landowner, Lord Leigh, to support his quest for a government position. In 1857 Lockyer began his working life not in science or medicine but as a clerk at the War Office in the London suburb of Wimbledon.

Lockyer's biographer A. J. Meadows dates Lockyer's interest in science to his first years in this job. A significant amount of scientific research in Victorian Britain was carried out by officers in the Army and Navy, and Lockyer probably met colleagues in the War Office who encouraged his interest in science. Furthermore, the overstaffed War Office was not a particularly taxing place to work. Lockyer found himself with plenty of time to pursue other activities, including mountaineering and his growing scientific interests. Several of Lockyer's friends in the Wimbledon village club were astronomical enthusiasts, and the barrister George Pollock appears to have been particularly significant in encouraging Lockyer's interest in astronomy.

In 1861 Lockyer purchased a small (33/4-inch refractor) telescope, which he set up in his garden and used to observe the surface of the moon and Mars. He quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and reliable observer, and in 1862 he was admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. In the mid-1860s, Lockyer's interests shifted from the observation of planetary bodies to the spectroscopic study of the sun; Lockyer hoped to learn information about the sun's temperature and elemental composition through the analysis of the sun's spectra. Just five years after the purchase of his first telescope, Lockyer (having upgraded to a much larger telescope with an attached spectrometer) completed an influential study of solar spectra, which indicated that dark sunspots radiated at a much lower temperature than the rest of the sun. The work was the basis for his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in the summer of 1869.

Astronomy, however, was an expense rather than a source of income, and by the early 1860s Lockyer was married and increasingly in need of money for his growing family. Lockyer supplemented his War Office income by writing articles for a nonscientific audience. By the early 1860s Lockyer had written several articles on astronomy that appeared in lay publications such as the London Review and the Spectator. In 1862 his Wimbledon neighbor Thomas Hughes, a well-known Christian Socialist, persuaded Lockyer to help him establish a new journal that would discuss British science, religion, and art. Lockyer enthusiastically agreed. The new journal was called the Reader, and its first issue appeared in January 1863. Lockyer served as this weekly magazine's science editor. He oversaw a section that mixed popular science articles aimed at laymen with content aimed at researchers, such as reports on meetings of scientific societies and abstracts from specialist journals. Lockyer's correspondence indicates that the Reader's subscribers included many of his fellow scientific researchers and that this readership particularly valued the abstracts and summaries. In 1864, for example, the mathematician Thomas A. Hirst wrote to Lockyer to express concern that the reports of foreign societies had been omitted from the latest issue of the Reader:

Your usual reports of the proceedings of foreign societies are discontinued I see at present, in consequence I apprehend of the press of matter caused by the Bath Meeting. I trust however they will be shortly resumed with arrears for this constitutes an excellent and useful feature in The Reader.

However, like many other Victorian publications, the Reader was unable to turn a profit; there were simply never enough subscribers to sustain the costs of publication. In late 1863 Lockyer convinced the other editors of the Reader to allow him to increase the size of the science section. A letter to Lockyer from the naturalist George J. Allman suggests that Lockyer wrote to fellow men of science to ask for their aid in expanding the Reader's scientific content:

I quite approve of your proposal to amplify the scientific section of The Reader and I wish every success to your project. I am personally well-pleased with the idea, for I have recently become a subscriber to the journal.

However, the increased amount of scientific coverage did little to secure more subscribers.

The Reader continued to spiral into the red. In 1865 the journal was sold to a new owner, Thomas Bendyshe, who eliminated Lockyer's science section.

Although the Reader was short lived, Lockyer's work with the magazine brought him into contact with one of his most famous scientific contemporaries: Thomas H. Huxley, "Darwin's bulldog" and advocate of scientific naturalism. Huxley was a member of an informal society of nine British scientists that called themselves the X Club. This influential group included such Victorian scientific luminaries as Huxley, Hooker, John Tyndall, John Lubbock, and Herbert Spencer. Their shared goal was to promote Darwinian evolutionary theory and scientific naturalism, both within the British scientific community and in British society at large. The nine were remarkably successful at winning influential positions in British science. During a visit to England, the American science writer John Fiske described the X Club as "the most powerful and influential scientific coterie in England" and said that the group had "dictated the affairs of the British association for three years past."

Huxley had seen the science section of the Reader as a chance to create a forum where the members of the X Club could advance their views before the general public. When the publication began failing, Huxley even arranged for the X Club to assume ownership of the Reader in 1864, but the club could not keep the publication afloat and eventually sold it to Bendyshe. Despite the Reader's failure, neither Huxley nor Lockyer gave up the idea of a publication that would allow men of science to promote their work to a lay audience. In fact, the experience seems to have convinced both men of the need for a publication devoted strictly to science.

Meanwhile, Lockyer began work on a book, Elementary Lessons in Astronomy, which he published with the London publishing house Macmillan and Company. The book was printed in 1868 and was well received and reasonably profitable. Following the success of Elementary Lessons in Astronomy, Macmillan and Company began paying Lockyer to advise them on their scientific publications. Lockyer got along well with Alexander Macmillan, the patriarch of the publishing clan, and quickly became the publishing house's most important scientific consultant. Macmillan once referred to Lockyer as his "consulting physician in regard to scientific books and schemes." Lockyer's financial situation, which had been precarious in the early 1860s, was looking more secure — until 1868, when a complicated series of bureaucratic reorganizations resulted in Lockyer losing a promotion at the War Office and in his salary being reduced by almost half. His career as a civil servant was suddenly looking much less profitable than his science writing. He approached Macmillan about financing a new periodical and hiring him as its editor.

At the time Macmillan and Company was primarily known for publishing books, not periodicals. The publishing house had been printing Macmillan's Magazine, a literary monthly, since 1859, but Macmillan's presence in the world of intellectual periodicals was otherwise slim. Fortunately for Lockyer, the 1860s had been an enormously successful decade for Macmillan. The firm had established a new headquarters in London, published an impressive list of profitable novels and series, and opened an American branch office in New York City. Alexander Macmillan was looking to expand his publishing empire even beyond the novels and series that had made his family business one of the leading publishing houses in Britain. Leveraging both his own relationship with Alexander Macmillan and the publishing house's desire to build on their profitable line of scientific books, Lockyer persuaded Macmillan and Company to back his new publication. He immediately began soliciting contributions from the acquaintances he had made during his time at the Reader.


The journal would enter a bustling and highly competitive market in popular science publishing. The market for periodicals had been growing steadily in nineteenth-century Britain thanks to new and cheaper methods of serial production, and scientific periodicals were among the new publications that readers could purchase at London newsstands. In 1815, there were only five commercial science periodicals available in Britain; by 1895, that number stood at eighty. Several shilling monthlies that discussed science, such as the Cornhill Magazine and Robert Chambers's Chambers' Edinburgh Journal, had successfully established readerships among middle-class Englishmen during the 1850s and 1860s.

Nature was designed to rival such publications on two levels. On the commercial level Nature was competing for subscribers, but Nature's editor and contributors were also competing for control of information about science in Britain. Huxley was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Nature in part because he and the other members of the X Club were alarmed by the growth of popular science literature written by science journalists. Huxley had become increasingly frustrated by the scientific errors he often spotted in popular science books; even worse, in Huxley's view, many science journalists (especially, he believed, female ones) wove theological overtones into their writings. He came to believe that only scientific researchers could properly educate the public about science.

Lockyer did not share Huxley's low opinion of women, but he did agree that scientific researchers, not journalists or interested dilettantes, should be the ones who told the British public about scientific findings. He envisioned Nature as a publication filled with accessible articles by distinguished men of science. This endeavor was intended not only to inform the public but also to place the control of public information about science in the hands of men of science. Furthermore, although the initial price of 4 pence per issue made it a relatively inexpensive weekly, Lockyer and the Macmillans did not intend to market Nature to middle-class English families. It would be aimed at an elite audience of highly educated (although not necessarily wealthy) laymen.

Lockyer's inspiration for Nature's format appears to have been Chemical News, a publication edited by his good friend William Crookes. Crookes founded Chemical News in 1859 with the aim of reaching an audience of chemical researchers, teachers, physicians, and any other readers interested in chemistry or chemical manufacturing. Like Nature,Chemical News was a weekly with two columns of text printed on each page. When we compare the contents of Nature and Chemical News in 1869 (table 2), we see that the two journals also contained similar material. Both led with editorials (when available; neither journal published an editorial every week). Both contained book reviews, articles on recent experiments (frequently abstracts of longer papers), reports from scientific societies, correspondence from readers, and a column devoted to miscellaneous pieces of interesting scientific news ("Notes" in Nature, "Miscellaneous" in Chemical News).

The two were not completely identical, of course; each publication had a few unique features signaling the different missions of the two journals. For example, Chemical News included a column specifically devoted to lecture experiments, suggesting that teachers of chemistry formed an important part of Crookes's readership, and also printed a yearly student issue. Chemical News also reported on recent chemical patents, a testament to the growing influence of such patents in the chemical industry. Nature had a section for reports from different disciplines such as astronomy, botany, geology, or physiology, a feature that would have been unnecessary in the discipline-specific Chemical News.

Chemical News was not Lockyer's only model. Nature also owed a great deal to Victorian gentlemen's publications, such as the Reader and the Athenaeum (a periodical associated with the London gentleman's club of the same name). Britain's literary magazines, such as Fortnightly Review, Nineteenth Century, and British Quarterly Review, also provided a source of inspiration and competition. These were the publications that attracted the kinds of subscribers Lockyer wanted — educated men of all trades — and they had been major centers of scientific discussion throughout the nineteenth century. The Athenaeum, for example, included reviews of important scientific monographs (such as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species or Herbert Spencer's Principles of Biology) in its Literature section, and like the Reader, the Athenaeum had a science section that printed reports from scientific societies and schedules of upcoming scientific meetings. In addition, the correspondence section of the Athenaeum sometimes contained discussions of scientific questions, such as the proper method of gathering and preserving specimens for the Zoological Society. Literary magazines were even more important as forums of scientific communication in Britain. Although literary magazines generally devoted less than a tenth of their contents to articles on scientific subjects, like the Athenaeum, they frequently included reviews and discussions of noteworthy scientific monographs. Furthermore, many famous men of science, including Huxley, Spencer, Crookes, and Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote articles for these publications, and (as we shall see) many scientific controversies began with a man of science criticizing another's theories in a lengthy essay for a literary magazine.


Excerpted from Making Nature by Melinda Baldwin. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Citations and Abbreviations
A Note to the Reader

Who Is a “Scientist”?

Chapter One
Nature’s Shifting Audience: 1869–1875

Chapter Two
Nature’s Contributors and the Changing of Britain’s Scientific Guard: 1872–1895

Chapter Three
Defining the “Man of Science” in Nature

Chapter Four
Scientific Internationalism and Scientific Nationalism

Chapter Five
Nature, Interwar Politics, and Intellectual Freedom

Chapter Six
“It Almost Came Out on Its Own”: Nature under L. J. F. Brimble and A. J. V. Gale

Chapter Seven
Nature, the Cold War, and the Rise of the United States

Chapter Eight
“Disorderly Publication”: Nature and Scientific Self-Policing in the 1980s


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