"The Best Mechanical Paper in the World": Scientific American, Reprinting, and the Circulation of Popular Science in Nineteenth-Century Newspaper

Ryan Cordell
17 May 2016

In this talk, Ryan Cordell will draw from the Viral Texts project (http://viraltexts.org) at Northeastern University to demonstrate how reprinting, excerpting, and related textual practices shaped popular ideas about science and mechanics in the mid-nineteenth-century, both in the US and internationally. In widely-circulated advertisements from the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, the publishers of Scientific American lauded the paper’s “interesting, valuable, and useful information” for readers. Many nineteenth-century editors agreed, and columns from Scientific American were among the most widely-reprinted in the period, along with a plethora of related recipes, household tips, listicles, and columns of practical knowledge that promised to be of immediate use to readers. While individually such pieces might seem ephemeral to modern readers, when considered as a corpus—and tracked across space and time—they contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of everyday reading and writing during the nineteenth-century. Computationally-derived bibliographies of “information literature” allow us to ask what kinds of scientific knowledge “went viral”—to borrow a modern term—among nineteenth-century readers, and what might these pieces tell us about the priorities of readers and editors? What “information literature” spread beyond national borders? How did nineteenth-century newspaper exchanges foster a more diffuse (but possibly less robust) understanding of science and technology among the public?

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