Six-Penny Science

If Queen Victoria had had a television this is what she would have watched. The new style of mass-circulation family magazines that are characteristic of the late-Victorian period have a striking resemblance to evening TV schedules.

The technology may have been different but they have a number of features in common: a strong visual element and a family-centred audience; a regular diet of fiction and features; series, serials and one-off pieces; comedy, tragedy, romance and adventure; social comment, travelogue, science and natural history; celebrities and competitions.

At times the parallels are quite striking. The Clarion polled its readers to find “Britain’s Greatest Benefactor” much the same as the BBC did a few years ago (Darwin came top), and the more populist Tit-Bits published such bizarre articles as “Celebrated people whose mothers have been buried alive” which no doubt would find a slot on ITV. It is as if a voice from the past is calling to current TV producers – “I’m a celebrity’s mother, get me out of here”.

My interest in these magazines focussed on the science content. This is what I did for my PhD research and eventually published as Media Science Before the Great War. For the research I examined eight different publications including upmarket six-penny monthlies and down-market penny weeklies; religious magazines, a socialist weekly and, of course, Tit-Bits. In all I looked at over 6,000 magazines and amassed piles of notes.

Now I want to make all that raw material available as a resource, so I have started a project to put those notes online for others to use. Provisional title is Six-Penny Science.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it is a little daunting simply looking at all the handwritten notes that need to be typed up. Oh well, at least I can make a start. It will be a long time before the project is finished and it will not be soon even for the first magazine to be ready to upload. I will probably set up a separate blog and upload stuff as I progress.

In the meantime, here is a little taster from three months of Pearson’s Magazine 1896 taken for no other reason than my Filby project is set in 1896. Apologies for the simple layout. I shall try to find something more suitable for the real thing.



Vol 1

 W.L. Alden “Wisdom Let Loose” (pp.97-8)

– British Association has “tardily recommended” an Antarctic expedition….”The moment the captain places himself at the pole his personal axis will coincide with the axis of the Earth, and he will immediately begin to revolve. His attendants will circle around him like so many satellites, and will have their days and nights, their phases, and other astronomical characteristics. The commander will be liable at almost any moment to be eclipsed by an ordinary seaman, or to be forced into occultation with a midshipman.” (p97)

– “I do not mean to speak disrespectfully of science, which, when indulged in with moderation, is in many cases quite harmless. I have, however, seen so many theories upset by facts that I have not a very profound respect for the scientific theorist, especially the theorist of the class of Lombroso and Nordau.”

– “scientific people” showed that ball cannot be thrown in horizontal curve, but this is done in American baseball

– “proved scientifically” that ship cannot sail faster than the wind, but American ice boats do

– “scientific theorist” said we use as much force to cycle as to walk ten miles, but wrong (pp97-8)

– “I have my doubts as to the theory of gravitation. As everyone has been told ad nauseam. It was invented by Sir Isaac Newton, to account for the fact that while he was lying on the ground an apple fell and hit him on the head. Suppose that he had lived in the days when crinoline was worn, and that he had trodden on a discarded crinoline which had flown up and hit him on the nose. I have little doubt that he would at once have invented a theory of the existence of a force of levitation, in accordance with which thing fly up and scientific persons in the face.” (p98)

– Professor Lombroso says criminals are born not made; that there are two species of man, virtuous and vicious with tendency to revert to original type…. “Professor Lombroso’s theory is attracting a good deal of attention, but in the opinion of many sensible persons it deserves to rank with palmistry and phrenology”…. Professor Lombroso is a socialist so if he cannot observe political economy properly why accept his science….WLA puts forward his own theory that crime is linked to length of hair…”Socialism and Anarchism are the result of wearing long hair…let him test my theory by cutting his hair short, and I will undertake to prophesy that he will find his socialistic views rapidly slipping away from him” (p99)


“In the Public Eye – Mr H.S. Maxim” (pp.163-4)

– ref to “the grey-haired, genial, cheery voiced Mr Maxim”


W.L. Alden “Wisdom Let Loose”

– “A professor in an American university” recently tried to bring up two children by a deaf and dumb man to see what language they spoke (p178-9)

– Attacks Professor Lombroso’s acceptance of spiritualist tricks of Eusapia Palladino and attacks spiritualism in general (p180-1)


Cutcliffe Hyne “London’s Danger” (p.182-9)

– Fiction: story of a future fire of London which destroys the city and brings the collapse of the British Empire


T.B. Fielders “The Ivory King” (p.271-5)

– humorous account of the latent possibilities of the elephant and his use as a domestic  pet


George Griffith “A Photograph of the Invisible” (pp.376-80)

– Fiction: story of Denton whose girlfriend left him for “that German Jew brute and his millions”

– Denton’s friend Prof Grantham “a chemist and physical investigator by profession, was a photographer by hobby”

– Prof: “Of course you’ve heard something about this new photography of the invisible, a they call it, Roentgen’s discovery, you know, with Crookes vacuum tubes?”…Prof gives simple explanation of “rays” other than light.

– Takes X-ray of Denton’s girl who goes mad when she sees herself as a mere skull.


H.J.W. Dam “A Wizard of Today” (pp.413-9)

– How many of the miracles of science, wrought by the white magic of genius and patience, have been delayed for centuries or lost altogether through fear of that armed ignorance which once blocked the path of the seeker after Nature’s secrets with the dungeon and the martyr’s stake, the world will never know.” (p413)

– ref that an article takes “six weeks or so” to come to print

– Roentgen’s lab: “a little plainly, almost meagrely furnished laboratory, whose austere simplicity would contrast strikingly with teh lavish magnificence of the scientific departments of the universities of France, England or America.” (p413)

– ref to the Griffith’s story mentioned above

– “absolute plainness of the laboratory” shows “it is the genius of the investigator, and not the multiplicity and complication of his tools that breaks new ground in the vast territory of the Unknown.” (p415)

– explains Crookes’ tubes “for the information of the unscientific” (p415)

– “the doctor entered the laboratory hurriedly. something like an amiable gust of wind. He is a tall, slender, loose limbed man, whose whole appearance bespeaks enthusiasm and energy. He was wearing a dark blue sack suit, and his long, dark hair rose straight up from his forehead, as though he were permanently electrified by his own enthusiasm. His voice is full and deep. He speaks rapidly, and is clearly a man who, when he once gets on the track of a mystery will hunt it down with unremitting vigour and tireless patience.” (p415)

– Roentgen gave personal details “under good-natured protest, for he quite failed to understand why personality should interest the public….He is too deeply interested in science to waste any time in thinking about himself” (p415-6)

– Roentgen not interested in fame

– Quotes Roentgen on his discoveries





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