Science Service: Up Close

Watson Davis's handwritten notes on the day he first met John Thomas Scopes in June 1925. Smithsonia Each Smithsonian Institution Archives collection has a life story. That narrative, much like the biography of a person, can explain how a collection's photographs, letters, and documents relate to each other. Closer inspection may also reveal hidden connections to other archival materials and can help in identifying photographers and writers. This new blog series will turn a lens on some of the Archives' largest, most eclectic, and interesting collections - the ones relating to the independent science news organization, Science Service.

Over the past decade, a host of surprising treats and treasures have been discovered in those records, from a long-forgotten trove of photographs of the 1925 Scopes anti-evolution trial to the “Cartoonograph” drawings of artist Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin.

But, wait, there is more!

Cartoonograph about international shoe trade, 1924, pen and ink drawing by Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin, For historians hunting for answers, joy springs eternal. Sometimes, we are lucky; sometimes it takes many eyes to spot the clue (as with identifying Elizabeth Goodwin). The goal of this new series will be to illuminate various overlooked nooks and crannies, to share hidden treasures, and perhaps thereby to encourage deeper research on the Science Service records (including Record Unit 7091, and Accessions 90-068, 90-105, 93-01997-020, 01-122, 01-243, 04-042, 06-134, 06-135, 13-034, 13-035, and T89059).

Unlocking the history of Science Service began for me in 2006 with research on its radio programs. That project was made easier once I understood how the staff organized their daily work. For example, the office maintained parallel filing systems: business and financial records; editorial correspondence; a biographical "morgue" of photographs and material about people; and another set of topical "morgues." Archival materials relating to a single radio broadcast might be filed in any (or all) of those groups.

Workers at the Rarig Engineering Company plant, Columbus, Ohio, 1907. The company built steam engine

Their topical morgues were arranged according to the same classification scheme used by the Library of Congress to catalog books, a fact that Science Service editor Watson Davis fortuitously mentioned in a letter in Record Unit 7091. Because of that choice, the file labels preserve for intellectual historians a snapshot of what these science journalists judged to be important and how scientific fields expanded over the decades. Look, for example, at the finding aid for Accession 06-134. You can observe the expansion of twentieth-century physics through the folder labels: from “QC Atoms” to “QC Accelerators - Mevatron 50.” 

Although science, engineering, and medicine formed the core of the organization’s interests, the Science Service intellectual networks were extensive and eclectic. There are fascinating exchanges with artists and poets, novelists and museum curators, advertising and public relations specialists, military figures, and politicians. Bits of ephemera occasionally shed light on contemporary social mores and taste, and handwritten notes provide insight to an individual decision-making or impressions of a meeting. Group photographs prompt questions about what the people shown had in common. There are letters from or about celebrities of the day, and interesting ones from people who deserve to be better known.

Hans Bethe and Reporters  From the onset, Science Service had a number of connections to the Smithsonian Institution. In January 1921, its founders tried to house the editorial offices at the Smithsonian, but the news service secured accommodation instead with the National Academy of Sciences. The Smithsonian Secretary always served as one of the group's trustees, and the Institution frequently used the news service to advise on publicity, to disseminate information about discoveries by Smithsonian scientists, and even to distribute data. During the winter of 1925-1926, for example, they received "daily values of the solar constant of radiation ... via mail, telephone, or messenger" from the Smithsonian for inclusion in bulletins to newspapers.

Science Service interpreted its name and mandate liberally. This series will range similarly wide, discussing cartoonists, "sleeplessness" studies, and river excursions as well as the choices and challenges of early twentieth-century science popularization. Join us along the way, as we turn a lens on the records of Science Service. We invite your help in understanding what we see.

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