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©David J. Rhees, Chapel Hill - 1979
Please consult the author for permission to republish any part of the thesis.

THE EARLY YEARS OF STRUGGLE, 1921-25 (CHAPTER II - PART I)


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The first years of Science Service were chaotic and overworked for Edwin Slosson as he slowly built the organization and developed the policies which would guide the Service for many years after his death. 55 He became "the center and circumference of the institution," noted one observer. 56 A tireless worker, a "whirring dynamo" of energy, Slosson raced through a rigorous schedule of conference and correspondence during the day and writing articles and lectures at night. In great demand as a speaker, Slosson gave hundreds of lectures across the country promoting both science and Science Service. In the first year of operation, in fact, Slosson's personal earnings were the greatest source of income for the Service. 57

Slosson had a heart condition and the pressures of his new responsibilities may have shortened his life, according to his son, Preston, a prominent historian. Preston William Slosson, "Edwin E. Slosson, Pioneer," in Edwin E. Slosson, A Number of Things (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1930), p. 24; Dictionary of American Biography, 1936 ed., s.v. "Slosson, Edwin Emery," by Harrison E. Howe.

Edwin Slosson's first priority was not making money, however, but engaging writers with the rare qualities of both literary talent and scientific training. Such writers were in even shorter supply than Slosson at first had supposed; a letter soliciting science writers was sent to all chapters of Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary society, but received not one reply. 58 Articles in Science pleading for writers who could articulate the dramatic elements in scientific discoveries also met with disappointing results, as did frequent appeals to the trustees of Science Service to help locate graduate students in science who might have a knack for writing. Slosson was forced to recognize that although many scientists were willing to lend moral support to popularization (a great improvement from the prewar years), most would rather do research than write about research. Hence it was not uncommon for advertisements to appear in the Science News-Letter, urging that "anyone who realizes the importance and relative interest of a scientific happening and can give us the facts, is qualified to act as a Science Service correspondent.'' 59 For the time being, Science Service accepted and even invited the work of lay journalists, who at least could put themselves in the position of the average reader more easily than could the scientist. 60

The problem of finding reporters was aggravated by the fact that most newspaper editors preferred stories written by "big names," but such celebrities, as Slosson noted, were usually poor writers. 61 Science Service met this demand to some extent by calling on its trustees, many of whom were quite distinguished in their fields, including Robert Millikan and George Ellery Hale; Robert M. Yerkes, designer of the Army intelligence tests; Alfred A. Noyes, director of chemical research at the California Institute of Technology; John C. Merriam, president of the Carnegie Institution; and James McKeen Cattell, editor of numerous science journals and the first American to hold a university chair in psychology. Other prominent scientists were also prevailed upon to write occasional articles, such as Harlow Shapley, the astronomer who determined the size and shape of our galaxy; Karl T. Compton, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist; and several foreign scientists, including Sandor Ferenczi, the Freudian psychologist from Hungary; and Albert I, Prince of Monaco, a renowned oceanographer and patron of science. More often, however, the "big names" of science would make special arrangements for supplying information to Science Service. Harlow Shapley, for instance, provided early access to news dispatches from the Harvard Observatory. James McKeen Cattell, as editor of Science, alerted Science Service to important articles before publication. Charles G. Abbot, also a Science Service trustee, provided news from the Smithsonian Institution, which he headed. And as protégé of three national scientific associations, Science Service was privy to newsworthy activities of thosen organizations. Though it was difficult to get prominent scientists to write popular articles, Science Service's close relationship with the top scientific societies at least assured it of a wealth of material to write about.

In effect, Science Service had a privileged position in the scientific community, a condition which presented difficulties as well as advantages. In Edwin Slosson's 1929 annual report to the trustees, he recalled the choice Science Service had had to make early in its career between acting as press agent for the scientific societies or as independent press service. According to Slosson, that choice

virtually involved whether we should be paid by scientific societies or by the press, accordingly regarding ourselves as working in the interest of the public for [or] science. 62

In the early years, at least, Science Service leaned toward working for the scientific societies, handling publicity for many of their meetings. The first two projects of the Service were publicizing (at cost) the annual meetings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Carnegie Institution in 1921. 63 And later that year, Edwin Slosson (assisted by Watson Davis) telegraphed over a thousand words daily from Toronto to nine newspapers, in what was said to have been the best coverage ever of an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. 64 Science Service might easily have become the official publicity organ of the scientific societies if not for the stipulation of E. W. Scripps that it never indulge in propaganda. Scripps' good business sense also prompted him to direct that the Service, though organized as a nonprofit corporation, should operate semi-commercially and charge for all its services. Scripps based this directive on the theory that "no one -- and least of all the editor of a newspaper -- values anything that costs nothing. 65 In the end, Scripps' advice prevailed, averting a possible disaster as Edwin Slosson realized (with the benefit of hindsight) in 1929.

The course of recent events has brought to light one decided advantage to this policy that was not so obvious when the decision was made eight years ago. So many scandals have been disclosed as to the methods employed in certain forms of propaganda for the purpose of influencing public opinion that newspaper editors have acquired an almost pathological aversion to publicity of any sort. Any hand-out, however innocent and informative, excites a feeling of fear and repugnance, so that if Science Service were the official and paid publicity agent of research societies and foundations, it would be impossible for it to get as much space for scientific news, even if furnished free, as we now get paid for by the press. 66

Thus Science Service successfully avoided the appearance of being a paid publicity agent of the scientific societies. However, the fact that the Service was controlled by trustees selected from three of the most prominent scientific associations insured that it would continue its publicizing activities, although informally and without pay, and that its editorial policies would continue to be dominated by the values held by the scientific community.

Edwin Slosson was immensely aided in the development of Science Service by young Watson Davis, who was waiting to apply for a job when Slosson arrived for his first day of work on New Year's Day, 1921. 67 Watson Davis' career, like Slosson's, began in science, in which he spent four years as a civil engineer with the National Bureau of Standards. During the war, he supervised the testing of concrete used in American ships and invented a cardboard molding for making concrete test cylinders. 68 Davis evidently preferred popularizing science to investigating the properties of concrete, for he began moonlighting as a science reporter and in 1920 became science editor of the Washington Herald, in which he originated the first science column, "What's New in Science." 69

Davis quickly became indispensable at Science Service where he worked for over forty years until just before his death in 1967. Succeeding Slosson as director of the Service, he may have had an even greater influence on its development.

Watson Davis was immediately set to work editing the Science News Bulletin, which was to be the foundation of a regular news service to the newspapers. The Bulletin began on April 2, 1921 as a weekly mimeographed mailing of about five stories sent directly to subscribing papers, of which there were only sixteen in that first difficult year. Soon, though, it proved the most successful of the many projects with which Science Service experimented, steadily increasing its clientele and becoming a daily service on September 11, 1922. The main emphasis of the first few years was not on direct syndication, however, but on trying to work through the established syndicates until the Bulletin was strong enough to stand on its own. This arrangement soon proved unsatisfactory. Although some material was placed with the Newspaper Enterprise Association and United Features was taking a daily articles, neither syndicate found a very large market for articles on science, and what articles they did sell were usually the shorter, more trivial ones. As William Ritter observed, the syndicates were not "in position to utilize the portion of what we furnish that we think most worthwhile.'' 70 In October 1921, the NEA canceled its arrangement with Science Service, and in April of the following year Science Service terminated its arrangement with United Features, which had placed its material with only four newspapers over an eleven month period. 71 To complicate matters, adverse business conditions had created a contraction in the publishing industry that made it difficult to sell articles of any kind to the periodicals. In June 1921, Slosson cited strikes, a slump in advertising, and the high costs of paper and printing as factors that boded ill for the success of the institution. He recalled the complaint of a syndicate salesman who, in the summer of 1920, failed to place a science feature with any of the 129 editors he had canvassed; the frustrated salesman reported that "the angel Gabriel couldn't put out a new feature now." 72

The first five years of Science Service's existence were not without accomplishment, however. Though many of the dozens of new projects that were launched were later scrapped, others proved viable; in any event, valuable experience was gained. One lesson of these years was that responsibility for editorial and business policy should not be divided, as it was when Howard Wheeler was appointed business manager in February of 1921. When Wheeler was asked to resign early in 1923, Slosson's duties were expanded to include general supervision of business policy and he was given the title of Director. Watson Davis was appointed Managing Editor, handling daily business details in addition to his editing activities. Davis had already taken on the editing of the Science News-Letter, beginning March 13, 1922, which in effect if not intention became the nucleus of the proposed popular science journal. It arose as a spontaneous outgrowth of the Science News Bulletin in response to the demand of individuals, schools, and libraries which had been impressed by Science Service articles in the newspapers. The News-Letter was gradually up-graded until on October 2, 1926 it was changed from a ten-page mimeographed newsletter to a sixteen-page printed magazine with photographs and advertisements. 73

The following smaller scale ventures were also attempted: special articles by Slosson in World's Work and The Century; a monthly article by Davis in Current History; newspaper features such as "Why the Weather," "Your Health," "Sports of the Ancients," "Nature's Notebook," "Outline of Business," and "Test Yourself"; an arrangement with several publishers for editing popular science books; and even a movie (silent, of course) on how to make a radio. The first half of the 1920s was thus a period of intense experimentation for Science Service, as Edwin Slosson and Watson Davis zealously tested a variety of techniques for selling science to America, or, more accurately, to American editors. Underlying all their attempts, however, was an essential matter of editorial policy which had yet to be resolved; that was the important problem of selling science without selling out to the popular demand (or what most editors perceived was the popular demand) for what Slosson called "snippets of sensational science. 74

Chapter Two -    Part I    Part II    Part III    Table of Contents
 


Copyright David J. Rhees, 1979



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