america starts to invent -- 2/4/14

In today's selection -- in the first half of the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and America had become a nation of inventors. In 1845, a new publication -- Scientific American -- was founded to take advantage of this new fever to invent.

"Alfred Ely Beach was born into a prestigious family on September 1, 1826, in Springfield, Massachusetts, an hour west of Boston. ... He dreamed of striking out on his own. In 1845, another young man from Massachusetts named Rufus Porter presented him with that chance. Porter had just published the very first issue of a weekly magazine he created called Scientific American. Four pages long, it sold for a subscription rate of two dollars a year. The first edition included a note from Porter explaining how useful he believed his publication could be. 'As a family newspaper,' Porter wrote, 'it will convey more useful intelligence to children and young people, than five times its cost in school instruction.'

"Scientific American was published every Thursday morning and filled with original engravings of new inventions, improvements, or ideas, along with scientific essays, poems, and even things completely unrelated to science, like moral and religious musings. But Porter ... quickly lost interest in a magazine devoted to science, and, barely ten months after, he founded Scientific American, [he] went looking for a buyer.

 Click to read Scientific American Series 1, Volume 1, Issue 1

"Beach was twenty years old and ... [with friend] Orson Desaix Munn who moved to New York, in July 1846 the two of them paid $800 for the tiny, obscure technical magazine and its subscription list of two hundred names. ...

"Scientific American had only a few hundred subscribers under Rufus Porter. But as Alfred Beach and Orson Munn learned once they took it over, inventors of the day saw real value in the magazine. The inventors wanted help from like-minded dreamers who saw the potential in their ideas. Beach and Munn had barely settled into their offices in 1846 when they were besieged with letters from inventors, or sometimes with unannounced visits. The requests were always the same: Help me apply for a patent and secure it, and I'll pay whatever it takes. Beach and Munn realized that Scientific American was more than a magazine. It was a trusted brand. ...

"Beach and Munn were able to quickly resurrect the magazine by focusing its content less on the highly technical science stories and more on what they knew best: curious inventions and practical, interesting patents. Simply by printing a weekly list of patents given to them directly from the U.S. Patent Office, Beach and Munn increased the number of subscriptions to Scientific American, and it took off: by 1848, not even two years after they bought it, the circulation exceeded ten thousand readers."


Doug Most


The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2014 by Doug Most


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