Thursday, June 21, 2007

Random Sampling: Scientific American, October 1960

These days I came by chance across some older issues of the Scientific American, out of a collection Bee had inherited some time ago from a former science professor. I find it always fascinating to browse through old, yellowed magazines. We can see what kept busy the minds of people at that time, and witness now well-established knowledge in the making.

The oldest number in the collection is the issue of October 1960, and the feature articles form a mix that is very similar to what we could find in the magazine today: Archaeology ("A Forgotten Civilization - Bahrein Island in the Persian gulf was a link between Sumer and ancient India"), Biology ("Electric Fishes - Not only the electric eel but also other fishes can generate a respectable charge"; "The Eradication of the Screw-worm Fly - A serious pest of cattle has been combatted by sterilizing its males with X-rays"), Geology ("The Rift in the Ocean Floor - The great ridge that bisects most of the oceans is split by a remarkable fissure"), History of Science ("Count Rumford - Born Benjamin Thompson in Massachusetts, he was a great investigator of heat"), and Physics ("Optical Pumping - Light is used to pump electrons to higher energies for spectroscopic purposes"; "The Physics of Wood Winds - Modern physics makes possible a closer analysis of how these instruments work"; "High-Speed Impact - Bodies collecting at speeds higher than 8000 feet per second behave like fluids").

Of course, there are some curiosities: the article on the mid-ocean ridges still predates the firm establishment of plate tectonics, and discusses the "Expanding-Earth Theory" based on a decrease of the Newtonian constant G over geologically relevant time-scales as a possible explanation of the data. Optical pumping is today usually referred to in connection with the laser - but the laser, whose first realisation by Theodore Maiman was just published two months earlier, in August 1960, is only mentioned in the very last paragraph of the article (... T. H. Maiman at the Hughes Aircraft Company has already observed some degree of coherent emission from a ruby, and he as well as workers at several other laboratories are trying to put R light to practical use. Although a working light amplifier may still be some time away, its prospects now seem excellent.)

But the really cool stuff which conveys the spirit of the time is not to be found in the editorial content of the magazine, it's in the advertisements! I was fascinated to see just how many advertisements there are - the index of advertisers lists more than 120 companies, and most of the advertisements cover at least one page, inflating the issue to 224 pages total. In these ads, we can learn that

  • Teflon was not a spin-off of the Flight to the Moon, as I was told when I was a kid - at least, as we can see, DuPont de Nemours was placing advertisements for this stuff before Kennedy's bold speech...

  • Tubes are still essential parts of electronic equipment - that's what we are told by RCA, whose tubes are used "to listen to the sound of colliding galaxies 300 million light-years away" and equip "satellites and space probes [...] gathering information about the van Allen belts and other hitherto unknown phenomena of outer space" ...

  • "At Raytheon, Scientific Imagination focusses on Ferromagnetics", to be used in microwave and radar equipment - and these guys are working with second-quantised Hamiltonians on the blackboard...

Science as showcased in these ads is an all-male business, and focusses to a large part on military applications: Electronic equipment to study what happens when launching rockets,

... steel to construct silos for housing ICBMs in the Plaines of Wyoming, ...

it's all "rocket science":

But wait: Not everything in the advertisements is manifestly military stuff: There is a group of ads scattered throughout the magazine around the ECHO satellite project, the first experiment to test telecommunication via satellite:

Are you also puzzled by that funny-shaped antenna displayed in the ads of the JPL and Bell Labs?

But yeah - that is the antenna which came to true scientific fame three years later, when Penzias and Wilson recognised that it was constantly registering some funny, isotropic microwave noise corresponding to a temperature of 3 Kelvin - the Cosmic Microwave Background!


  1. how interesting! I too love to browse through old magazines :-) And where did all the good looking men from these ads go?

  2. Stefan,
    The Bell Labs Building in Holmdel (mentioned in the last picture in your set) is or will soon be no more.
    One of casualties of the collapse of Lucent.

    All those good looking men are your father and uncles :)

  3. Hi Arun,
    indeed, the longer I am in this job, the more the physics community serves as kind of a substitute family. but honestly, the guys in the ads all look like Captain Kirk, whereas of course all the leading theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys ;-)



  4. @Stefan:
    Wikipedia states that Teflon was first used in the Manhattan Project to contain uranium hexaflouride.


  5. Fascinating! I also enjoy looking through old magazines and other books. I have the old Life with the Moon Landing on the cover.

  6. Thanks, nice post. It is very interesting to browse through old magazines. I have a few quite old (late 60's) Sky & Telescope magazines that I inherited and it is fascinating to read them. I just have to convince my wife that, indeed, they are fascinating to read and they are not 'junk'!


  7. Hi Space Cadets! Here is an advertisement (heh) written by an acquaintance in 1994. :-)

  8. The antenna reminds me. The US government is auctioning some unwanted steerable parabolic dishes. They are about 10 meters across and might be useful for some astrophysical things. If anyone is interested we might be able to save them from the scrapyard.

  9. I had high hopes that when CERN switched on the LHC in November of this year, they would inadvertently create a black hole, thus increasing the sales of my book, 'The Ancient Order of Moridura' (with a related theme of a nascent singularity created by a meteorite impact in Extremadura).

    But then I realised that the extinction of the planet - and probably the solar system - would prevent me from collecting my royalties. Life can be unfair sometimes!

    However, doomsday has been postponed until April/May of 2008 because of problems with magnets.

    The Higgs boson must be chuckling quietly in interstellar space, its anonymity preserved for a little longer.


    Peter Curran
    Edinburgh, Scotland

  10. A magazine similar to this one (the Consulting Engineer) caught my eye in a second hand bookshop a few weeks ago, so I bought it because of the fantastically surreal science-optimist ads. My husband loved it even more than I did and took lots of photos, although he sayd they are not as good as yours!

  11. I love old magazines like Scientific American, Scribner's, Fortune, Godey's and the like. It's nice to see history without all the answers. Fortune in the 1930s was almost a nuts, bolts and dollars analysis of the new industrial economy, and they had great writing.

    The ads are always great. Science and engineering were still great adventures back then. It wasn't all about cleaning up disaster A while trying to avoid disaster B or better DRM to keep kids from copying movies. It is still an adventure, but if Monsanto or its ilk is running ads on their high yield rice and how it saved 200,000,000 people from dying of famine in China, it's buried in some trade paper somewhere. They're probably ashamed of it.

    My favorite set of ads were in the 70s for the You Can Do Real Math on Your Calculator guy. He started out with an inch or two in black and white, but before PCs came into fashion he was running full page color ads.

    Another of my favorite ads might have been in your issue. Is there a small ad, probably near the back, for indium solder solutions? I think that ad ran for 40 years. I mean, everybody needs indium based solder.

  12. Hi Arun,

    thanks for the update about Holmdel - I had no idea about that. It seems it counts among New Jersey's 10 most endangered historic places...

    Hi Andi,

    great hint - thank you - as always, Wikipedia knows it all :-).. It's fitting that it was a Frenchman who applied it first for non-sticking pan coating!

    Best, stefan

  13. Hi Carl,

    hm... setting up a 10 meter dish in the backyard as an amateur astronomer sounds interesting, albeit a little geeky ;-)...

    Eh, but I have stupid question: What kind of interesting observations can one do with a single such dish?

    I mean, besides registering some noises, one has to figure out where they actually come from? The angular resolution is not so high, I guess - would it be enough to make some radio maps of the sky and to "spot" and identify some radio-bright sources?

    Best, stefan

  14. Hi candace,

    these are great ads too in the "Consulting Engineer" - more focussed on engineering/construction than in the SciAm. What puzzled me most there was that about half of the ads came from the military/defense industry.

    BTW, I've simply put the magazine on a scanner. I have once experimented with my digital camera to use it for scanning purposes, but the results were poor and a bit disappointing: You need very good light, and I did not manage to keep the pages flat enough to avoid distortions.

    Hi exl blogger,

    - I've spotted a small ad for slide rules in the back pages, but none for indium solder solutions ;-)

    Best, stefan

  15. What's interesting is coming across really old physics textbooks and monographs from the 1920's and before.

    Awhile ago I came across Max Born's "mechanics of the atom" book, which covered all kinds of problems using the old Bohr-Sommerfeld quantization rules in great detail. It's interesting seeing what people were thinking in those days, before Heisenberg's famous 1925 paper on matrix mechanics.

  16. Hi anonymous

    - I agree! I remember that I've once browsed a copy of this old Max Born textbook in the library of the physics institute in Frankfurt (it was called "Max-Born-Bibliothek", to honour Born who was a professor here in the early 1920s, before he went to Göttingen) - it's really strange, somehow, how the outlook on atomic physics has changed so quickly within a few years...

    Best, stefan

  17. Stefan,

    It's interesting that Heisenberg had either the insight and/or the tomfoolery, to actually give up on the notion of real physical Bohr style orbits. In those days, many other physicists were still thinking in the paradigm of Bohr orbits.

    I've found that a lot of those early quantum theory papers from the mid 1920's, were quite difficult to read for the most part. There's even an entire book of english translated reprints of many other famous matrix mechanics papers from the mid 1920's.



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