In 1845 James K. Polk succeeded John Tyler, Jr., as the 11th president. The U.S. annexed Texas as the 28th state, and the young nation’s “manifest destiny” to occupy all of North America became a popular ideal. The industrial revolution was burgeoning, easing people’s lives with mechanical marvels. By this time, for instance, Cyrus McCormick had created a labor-saving reaper for crops. And with a promise to explain “New Inventions, Scientific Principles, and Curious Works,” the painter and inventor Rufus Porter introduced the first issue of a broadsheet called The Scientific American on August 28, 1845.
Porter was “a mechanical Johnny Appleseed sowing seed of new and ingenious ideas as he traveled through New England and abroad through his journals,” wrote Jean Lipman in Rufus Porter, Yankee Pioneer (Clarkson N. Potter, 1968); you can learn more about him at the Rufus Porter Museum in Bridgton, Me. Porter took out more than 100 patents, but his best-known innovation is his revolver mechanism, which he sold in 1844 to Samuel Colt for $100. Scientific American reflected his broad interests. The inaugural edition lists patents, describes developments such as Samuel Morse’s telegraph and a filter for locomotive smoke, comments on painting portraits and even includes poetry. Find excerpts in a special 50, 100 and 150 Years Ago, starting on page 12; other excerpts from the 1845 issue and a slide show appear at www.ScientificAmerican.com.
True to Porter’s restless nature, he sold the publication after only 10 months to Orson Desaix Munn and Alfred Ely Beach, both in their early 20s. Beach was also an inventor—he designed New York City’s first subway, the Beach Pneumatic Transit (an 1870 issue featured the plans). Scientific American is included in an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on the history of journalism in the 1800s. Munn & Co. had a successful patent agency that shepherded more than 1,000 applications, and it ultimately held Scientific American for more than a century.
When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Scientific American covered it. Thomas Edison came into the office and demonstrated his work for the staff. With editorials and silver trophies to reward flights of increasing distances, the editors goaded the Wright brothers to reveal details of their flying machines. Albert Einstein once penned an article for our pages. The magazine saw the U.S. through its Sputnik moment and the start of the “space age.”
This is Scientific American’s 165-year heritage as the country’s oldest continuously published magazine. Yet in every issue, the magazine is new again, with its scientist authors, many of them Nobel Prize winners, and top journalists describing the latest in science and technology. In this edition, feature articles cover everything from threats to the computers we now rely on (“The Hacker in Your Hardware,”) to devices that will make “fantastic voyages” in medicine a reality (“Robot Pills,”) to extrasolar Earth-like planets that might harbor life (“Planets We Could Call Home,”). Fittingly, we include a special report on “Origins”.
So Happy Birthday to Scientific American this month. We hope you will join us in celebrating the renewal and positive force of science in our world every day.