Article ID: CBB732500857

Vaunting the Independent Amateur: Scientific American and the Representation of Lay Scientists (2018)


This paper traces how media representations encouraged enthusiasts, youth and skilled volunteers to participate actively in science and technology during the twentieth century. It assesses how distinctive discourses about scientific amateurs positioned them with respect to professionals in shifting political and cultural environments. In particular, the account assesses the seminal role of a periodical, Scientific American magazine, in shaping and championing an enduring vision of autonomous scientific enthusiasms. Between the 1920s and 1970s, editors Albert G. Ingalls and Clair L. Stong shepherded generations of adult ‘amateur scientists’. Their columns and books popularized a vision of independent non-professional research that celebrated the frugal ingenuity and skills of inveterate tinkerers. Some of these attributes have found more recent expression in present-day ‘maker culture’. The topic consequently is relevant to the historiography of scientific practice, science popularization and science education. Its focus on independent non-professionals highlights political dimensions of agency and autonomy that have often been implicit for such historical (and contemporary) actors.The paper argues that the Scientific American template of adult scientific amateurism contrasted with other representations: those promoted by earlier periodicals and by a science education organization, Science Service, and by the national demands for recruiting scientific labour during and after the Second World War. The evidence indicates that advocates of the alternative models had distinctive goals and adapted their narrative tactics to reach their intended audiences, which typically were conceived as young persons requiring instruction or mentoring. By contrast, the monthly Scientific American columns established a long-lived and stable image of the independent lay scientist.

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Authors & Contributors
Danell, Rickard
Diletta Capissi
Vittoria, Albertina
Wayne Melville
Donald Kerr
Lusito, Fabio
Physis: Rivista Internazionale di Storia della Scienza
Notes and Records: The Royal Society Journal of the History of Science
VIET: Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki
Social Science History
Science in Context
NTM: Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
Guida Editori
University of California, Santa Barbara
World Scientific
Nordic Academic Press
Cornell University Press
Science and society
Science and politics
Periodicals; serials
Professions and professionalization
Science education and teaching
Romanes, George John
Osorio Tafall, Bibiano F.
Melo e Simas, Manuel de
Lubbock, John, 1st Baron Avebury
Huxley, Thomas Henry
Geymonat, Ludovico
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
20th century, early
21st century
Pacific Rim
Naples (Italy)
United States
Royal School of Mines

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