Popular Science is the fifth oldest continuously-published monthly magazine—a long way of saying that the magazine has done a fine job of maintaining a niche in a crazily fast-paced industry. Founded in 1872 by science writer Edward Youmans to reach an audience of educated laypeople, Popular Science today combines reviews of the latest gadgets with stories about innovation in design and science. It’s an organized mishmash of news about “the future now,” liberally defined. A recent issue included stories about the military’s use of 3-D printing and an astrophysicist who questions whether Shakespeare wrote the entire Folio.
With that kind of breadth, the magazine’s archives cover just about everything. And it’s easy to browse through back issues, dating all the way back to 1872, since the magazine teamed up with Google to put a searchable archive on the web. The earliest issues, like this one from February 1920, feature color covers that bring to mind science fiction with a fascination for the imagined future.
One of the cool things about the magazine is its equal attention to new and old technology. Search for “scissors” and you will find this 1964 article about the mechanics of sharpening your own scissors. The archive also offers another search tool that returns results in a visual word frequency grid, which is especially cool if you click the “animate” button. Any social historians out there able to explain why the word “scissor” would appear so often in the mid-20th century?
Interestingly, although the word “internet” dates back to the 1960s, the word didn't appear in the magazine’s pages until 1989.
Period advertisements are included, which adds to the fun. This issue from September, 1944 includes a house-advertisement on the table of contents page calling for all collectors of back issues to consider surrendering them for the war cause. “There’s a war going on and this is no time for sentiment,” the ad urges. “Grit your teeth and dig out those stacks of back numbers. Then turn them over to your local paper salvage drive!”