Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/May 1872/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 1 May 1872  (1872) 
Editor's Table


THE Popular Science Monthly has been started to help on the work of sound public education, by supplying instructive articles on the leading subjects of scientific inquiry. It will contain papers, original and selected, on a wide range of subjects, from the ablest scientific men of different countries, explaining their views to nonscientific people. A magazine is needed here, which shall be devoted to this purpose, for, although much is done by the general press in scattering light articles and shreds of information, yet many scientific discussions of merit and moment are passed by. It is, therefore, thought best to bring this class of contributions together for the benefit of all who are interested in the advance of ideas and the diffusion of valuable knowledge.

The increasing interest in science, in its facts and principles, its practical applications, and its bearings upon opinion, is undeniable; and, with this augmenting interest, there is growing up a new and enlarged meaning of the term which it is important for us to notice. By science is now meant the most accurate knowledge that can be obtained of the order of the universe by which man is surrounded, and of which he is a part. This order was at first perceived in simple physical things, and the tracing of it out in these gave origin to the physical sciences. In its earlier development, therefore, science pertained to certain branches of knowledge, and to many the term science still implies physical science.

But this is an erroneous conception of its real scope. The growth of science involves a widening as well as a progression, The ascertainable order of things proves to be much more extensive than was at first suspected; and the inquiry into it has led to sphere after sphere of new investigation, until science is now regarded as not applying to this or that class of objects, but to the whole of Nature—as being, in fact, a method of the mind, a quality or character of knowledge upon all subjects of which we can think or know.

What some call the progress of science, and others call its encroachments, is undoubtedly the great fact of modern thought, and it implies a more critical method of inquiry applied to subjects not before dealt with in so strict a manner. The effect has been, that many subjects, formerly widely separated from the recognized sciences, have been brought nearer to them, and have passed more or less completely under the influence of the scientific method of investigation. Whatever subjects involve accessible and observable phenomena, one causing another, or in any way related to another, belong properly to science for investigation. Intellect, feeling, human action, language, education, history, morals, religion, law, commerce, and all social relations and activities, answer to this condition; each has its basis of fact, which is the legitimate subject matter of scientific inquiry. Those, therefore, who consider that observatory watching, laboratory work, or the dredging of the sea for specimens to be classified, is all there is to science, make a serious mistake. Science truly means continuous intelligent observation of the characters of men, as well as of the characters of insects. It means the analysis of mine as well as that of chemical substances It means the scrutiny of evidence, in regard to political theories, as inexorable as that applied to theories of comets. It means the tracing of cause and effect in the sequences of human conduct as well as in the sequences of atmospheric change. It means strict inductive inquiry as to how society has come to be what it is, as well as how the rocky systems have come to be what they are. In short, science is not the mystery of a class, but the common interest of rational beings, in whom thinking determines action, and whose highest concern it is that thought shall be brought into the exactest harmony with things—and this is the supreme purpose of education.

If, in this statement of the scope and work of science, we have not laid stress upon those great achievements by which it has given man power over the material world, it is not because we undervalue them. They are noble results, but they are abundantly eulogized, and their very splendor has operated to dim the view of other conquests, less conspicuous, but even more important. Telegraphs, steam engines, and the thousand devices to which science has led, are great things; but what, after all, is their value compared with the emancipation of the human spirit from the thraldom of ignorance, which the world owes to this agency? Rightly to appreciate what science has accomplished for humanity, we must remember not only that it has raised men to the understanding and enjoyment of the beautiful order of Nature, but that it has put an end to the baneful superstitions by which, for ages, men's lives were darkened, to the sufferings of witchcraft, and the terrors of the untaught imagination which filled the world with malignant agencies.

It is this immense extension of the conception of science, in which all the higher subjects of human interest are now included, that gives it an ever increasing claim on the attention of the public. Besides its indispensable use in all avocations, and its constant application in the sphere of daily life, it is also profoundly affecting the whole circle of questions, speculative and practical, which have agitated the minds of men for generations. Whoever cares to know whither inquiry is tending, or how opinion is changing, what old ideas are perishing, and what new ones are rising into acceptance—briefly, whoever desires to be intelligent as to contemporary movements in the world of thought—must give attention to the course of scientific inquiry. Believing that there are many such in this country, and that they are certain to become more numerous in future, The Popular Science Monthly has been commenced with the intention of meeting their wants more perfectly than any other periodical they can get.

The work of creating science has been organized for centuries. Royal societies and scientific academies are hundreds of years old. Men of science have their journals, in all departments, in which they report to each the results of original work, describe their processes, engage in mutual criticism, and cultivate a special literature in the interests of scientific advancement.

The work of diffusing science is, however, as yet, but very imperfectly organized, although it is clearly the next great task of civilization. The signs, however, are promising. Schools of science are springing up in all enlightened countries, and old educational establishments are yielding to the reformatory spirit, modifying and modernizing their systems of study. There is, besides, a growing sympathy, on the part of men of science of the highest character, with the work of popular teaching, and an increasing readiness to cooperate in undertakings that shall promote it. There is, in fact, growing up a valuable literature of popular science—not the trash that caters to public ignorance, wonder, and prejudice, but able and instructive essays and lectures from men who are authorities upon the subjects which they treat. But the task of systematically disseminating these valuable productions is as yet but imperfectly executed, and we propose to contribute what we can to it in the present publication.

The Popular Science Monthly will make its appeal, not to the illiterate, but to the generally educated classes. The universities, colleges, academies, and high schools of this country are numbered by hundreds, and their graduates by hundreds of thousands. Their culture is generally literary, with but a small portion of elementary science; but they are active minded, and competent to follow connected thought in untechnical English, even if it be sometimes a little close. Our pages will be adapted to the wants of these, and will enable them to carry on the work of self instruction in science.

The present undertaking is experimental. We propose to give it a fair trial; but it will be for the public to decide whether the publication shall be continued. All who are in sympathy with its aims are invited to do what they can to extend its circulation.


Prof. Morse has completed his career, and taken his place in the past. He belongs now to memory and to fame, and his name and work will help to save our age from oblivion in the distant future. After a few thousand years, when the inferior races of men shall have disappeared from the earth, except perhaps a few samples preserved as antiquarian specimens; when civilization has overspread the world, and the telegraph system has become so universal and perfected that any individual will be able to put himself into instantaneous communication with any other individual upon the globe, then will the name of Morse, one of the great founders of the system, be more eminent than any upon whom we now look back as the illustrious of ancient times.

Prof. Morse illustrated the law of the hereditary descent of talent, being the son of the Rev. Jedediah Morse, the first American geographer. He was born in Massachusetts, in 1791, and graduated at Yale College in 1810. The American inventor of the telegraph, like the inventor of the steam boat, was at first an artist, and distinguished himself both in painting and sculpture. He studied abroad, and received the gold medal from the Adelphi Society of Arts for his first attempt in sculpture. Returning to this country, he was engaged, by the corporation of New York City, to paint the portrait of Lafayette; he assisted in founding the National Academy of Design, was its first president, and gave the first course of lectures ever delivered on art in this country.

In college, young Morse had paid some attention to chemistry and physics, but did not afterward specially pursue them. He took up the subject of electricity much as Franklin did, through the influence of others, and with reference to utilitarian ends. The invention of the Leyden jar, in 1746, set all Europe to experimenting, and the next year Peter Collinson, of London, sent a box of glass tubes, and other things for experimenting, to his friend Franklin, at Philadelphia, who took the electric fever and went enthusiastically to work, giving the world the lightning rod in five years after he began to investigate. So, while Morse was lecturing on the fine arts, his friend Prof. G. F. Dana was lecturing in the same institution on electro-magnetism, and his attention was thus drawn to the subject. This was in 1826-'27, when much was said of the many and brilliant discoveries in these sciences.

The conception of the telegraph in Prof. Morse's mind dates from 1832, when he was forty one years old—exactly the age of Franklin when he received his instruments from Collinson, and entered upon the study of electricity. It was in a conversation on electromagnetism on board the packet ship Sully that the idea of instantaneous communication of intelligence by means of an insulated wire occurred to him, "and, before the completion of the voyage, he had not only worked out in his own mind, but had committed to paper, the general plan of the invention with which his name is indissolubly connected. His main object was to effect a communication, by means of the electro-magnet, that would leave a permanent record by signs answering for an alphabet, and which, though carried to any distance, would communicate with any place through which the line might pass. His first idea was to use a strip of paper, saturated with some chemical preparation that would be decomposed when brought in connection with the wire, along which the electric current was passing, and thus by a series of chemical marks, varying in width and number for the different letters of the alphabet, record the message without separating the wire at each point of communication."

Three years were now consumed in experimenting, and in 1835 he had so far perfected his instrument as to be able to show it to his friends, and send by it a message to the distance of half a mile; but, at this time, he could not receive an answer through the same wire. Two years later, his plan was so matured that he could telegraph to a distance, and receive replies; and he then exhibited it to hundreds of people in the University of New York, where soon after the first photograph of a human countenance was taken by Dr. J. W. Draper.

It is interesting to note the equality of the rhythms of mental movement in the development of electrical science. If we start with Du Fay, the greatest electrician of the last century, and who first introduced the conception of the two kinds of electricity, vitreous and resinous—afterward positive and negative—we may assume that he first laid its secure foundation as a science, and his researches were published in the proceedings of the French Academy in 1737. The next fifteen years was the most productive period in the development of frictional electricity, and ended with the invention of the lightning rod in 1752. In 1790, a new form of electricity was discovered by Galvani, and then came a period of seventeen years in which the phenomena were rapidly developed, ending with Davy's grand experiments in electrical decomposition with the galvanic battery in 1807. In 1820, Oersted announced electro-magnetism, and then followed a brilliant course of discoveries again, for seventeen years, terminating in the patenting of the electro-magnetic telegraph by Morse in 1837—exactly a century from the publication of the memoirs of Du Fay.

It is not to be forgotten, however, that the time had come for the electric telegraph, and other men were working at the problem as well as Morse. He sailed for Europe in 1838, to get assistance in carrying out his project, and to obtain patents in foreign countries. In this he failed, because of rival contrivances already in the field. Cooke and Wheatstone in England, and Steinheil in Munich, had been at work for several years on the same problem. The latter had patented an electric telegraph in 1836, and the former in 1837.

Of Prof. Morse's difficulties in carrying out his great and beneficent invention, the lack of sympathy and appreciation on the part of the public, the faithlessness of capitalists, and the stupidity of the American Congress, little need be said, as it is but the old story over again. Yet he triumphed over all these obstacles, and lived to a ripe old age, to enjoy in munificent measure the rewards and the applause of his generation.


The first article of our first number is the first instalment of a series of essays on the study of society in a methodical way, or sociology. But few can now be found who will question that the author of these articles is the highest authority of our age upon the subject. To deal with any thing so vast and complex as society, by an original method, so as to bring out the natural laws of its constitution, requires rare powers and attainments on the part of him who undertakes it. He must have an accurate and extensive acquaintance with the higher sciences of life and mind, as well as the various states and phases of man's social condition. To encyclopaedic knowledge, there must be added originality, independence, and a broad grasp of principles and details. That Mr. Spencer possesses these in an eminent degree, we are assured by authorities who are both competent to judge and cautious in the expression of their judgment—such men as Mill, Hooker, Lewes, Darwin, Morell, Wallace, Huxley, Masson, McCosh. In the last number of the Contemporary Review is an article by the acute essayist, "Henry Holbeach," referring to what Mr. Spencer has already written on public and social questions, in which he is spoken of as "holding the unique and very eminent place as a great thinker, which he does, in fact, hold," and these writings are referred to as containing "an arsenal of argument and illustration never surpassed for range and force, if ever equalled in the history of philosophy."

Mr. Spencer has now been engaged twelve years on his life work, a system of Synthetic Philosophy, based on the doctrine of evolution. Five volumes of this work will be completed next autumn, in which the foundations are deeply laid in the sciences of life and mind for the third great discussion—the Principles of Sociology, in three volumes, treating of the development of society in all its elements in accordance with the theory of evolution.

Before entering upon this part of his undertaking, the author has thought it expedient to make some observations concerning it, which will be outside of the philosophical system, and independent of it. Those who have familiarized themselves with the former parts of his system, are not as the stars of heaven in number; nor are those who understand the nature and claims of sociological science as the sands of the sea. The term social science has indeed come into vogue, and large associations have assumed it; but, as thus applied, it fails to connote any distinctive or coherent body of principles such as are necessary to constitute a science.

In this state of things, and before proceeding to the systematic work of developing the science itself, Mr. Spencer will consider its claims as an object of study, its subject matter, its method of investigation, scope, and limits. The article which is now published presents the need of the study, and the next will answer the question, "Is there a social science?" The paper we now publish tells its own story, and the subsequent ones will not fall below it in interest and instructiveness.