The 1860s

  • description of imageThe first issue of Nature was published at the end of the decade, on 4 November 1869. Many earlier publishing adventures in science had failed dismally, but Nature's eventual success grew out of the social and scientific conditions under which it was founded — driven by the vision of strong personalities, who forged ahead when the odds seemed against them. Nature, above all, has been a survivor. This it owes to Alexander Macmillan, who tolerated a loss-making venture for three decades, to Sir Norman Lockyer, the first editor, and to a string of influential collaborators and contributors, including Thomas Henry Huxley — one of the heavyweights of Victorian science and a staunch ally of Charles Darwin (he was known as Darwin's 'bulldog'). The original Nature masthead is pictured.

The stage is set

  • description of imageIn the nineteenth century, science was thriving but science communication was severely restricted. Eminent 'men of science' (the term 'scientist' was not widely used) who were members of the Royal Society communicated through Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. But this publication did not offer non-members the opportunity to learn of or share in the scientific endeavours of the day. Other similarly introspective communications of associations such as the Royal Astronomical Society and the Linnaean and Zoological societies led to the impression among many observers that science was becoming increasingly fragmented. Joseph Hooker (pictured), then assistant director of the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens complained to T. H. Huxley in 1856 that "Without some recognized place or resort that will fulfil the conditions of being a rendezvous for ourselves... we shall always be ignorant of one another's whereabouts and writings". Against this background, Nature steps in to bring together the best in science and communicate it to a wider audience.

The Victorian periodical

  • description of imageA great expansion in periodical publishing took place in Britain in the 1860s and is considered one of the hallmarks of the age. From 1861–70, more than 170 new periodicals were launched — or roughly one new magazine every three weeks. A key catalyst was the abolition in 1855 of Newspaper Stamp Duty which was first imposed on British newspapers in 1712 and which by 1815 had reached fourpence a copy, making most publications too expensive for all but the upper echelons of Victorian society. The abolition of this unpopular 'tax on knowledge' made periodicals and newspapers not only more affordable and therefore more accessible to the masses, but also potentially profitable to those wishing to publish in more specialized outlets. Businessmen with an interest in publishing science soon stepped in. The image shows a cover from Chemical News, launched in 1859.

Boom and bust

  • description of imageThe expansion in periodical publishing in the 1860s naturally crossed into science, doubling the number of scientific periodicals spawned from 1850 to 1860. 'Men of science' were anxious to establish a journal in which news of discoveries could be communicated to each other and to the public at large. Among the many works of the English biologist T. H. Huxley (pictured) collected at Imperial College is the quarterly Natural History Review, first published in 1861. Of the editorial board of eleven people, nine would later write for Nature. But like most publications before and after it, Natural History Review did not last for more than a few years, leading the publisher John Murray to declare that "quarterlies do not pay". Indeed, none of the quarterlies of the time — which included Quarterly Science Review, Quarterly Journal of Science and the Quarterly Review of Popular Science — has survived to the present day. Contemporary weekly science magazines included Chemical News, The Athenaeum, The Academy, Saturday Review, The Scientific Record and the popular Penny Mechanic, but none of these survived either.

Macmillan's moves to London

  • description of imageWhile in Cambridge, Alexander Macmillan (pictured, top) opened a London branch of the business at 23 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, following the death of his brother and co-founder Daniel (pictured, bottom) in 1857. Macmillan's headquarters remained in Cambridge until 1863, when they moved to 16 Bedford Street in London. The academic standing of the Macmillans in Cambridge (their shop was at the heart of the University city) later helped Alexander to establish contacts with eminent men of science in London. He would host the famous 'tobacco parliaments', where science, art and hot topics of the day, such as Darwinism, would be discussed. This "Talk, tobacco and tipple on Thursdays" group fostered friendships among the great scientific educators of the Victorian era, including T. H. Huxley and the physicist John Tyndall, who were eager to write for Macmillan. In 1859 Alexander launched Macmillan's Magazine, the first shilling monthly in England, with the aim of unifying science, literature and the arts under one banner, with David Masson as the editor. Huxley's article Time & Life was published in the second issue.

Joseph Norman Lockyer

  • description of imageLockyer (pictured) was born in Rugby in Warwickshire on 17 May 1836. A clerk in the UK government's War Office by day, Lockyer was a keen and talented young amateur astronomer by night — he was later to discover the element helium in the corona of the Sun by using a spectroscope. He shared a train carriage to London each day with John Ludlow and David Masson, both friends of Alexander Macmillan, and they asked him to be the science editor of their proposed new weekly, The Reader, which was to cover the arts, literature and science. The Reader was in many ways an early forerunner to Nature — thirty-eight people who supplied reviews to The Reader all later contributed to Nature. Unfortunately for Lockyer, the paper was commercially disorganized and its poor financial performance meant that — like many publications in the Victorian era — it lasted for less than a year. Image source: Life and Work of Sir Norman Lockyer by T Mary Lockyer and Winifred L Lockyer published by Macmillan 1928.

Lockyer meets Macmillan

  • description of imageThe exact time and place of Macmillan's and Lockyer's first meeting is not known, but the twin topics of science and publishing it would have dominated their early conversations. With their shared interests and friends (including poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson), they soon became friends themselves, travelling to France together in 1867 after Lockyer's second nervous breakdown (he suffered three, the first in 1864). Macmillan commissioned Lockyer to write a book about the Sun (a later photograph of a solar eclipse taken by his son, Joseph, is pictured). Then in 1868 he asked Lockyer to act as scientific advisor to his publishing house. This was lucky for Lockyer, for — despite his best efforts — the relaunched Reader was proving editorially and financially troublesome and his career path at the War Office was uncertain. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.

Lockyer proposes a new journal of science

  • description of imageThe second incarnation of The Reader having failed, Lockyer approached Alexander Macmillan in early 1869 with plans for a new scientific journal. It was a zenith in Lockyer's early career: he had discovered helium in the Sun's corona in 1868, which earned him election to the Royal Society the following year (pictured). Macmillan's and Lockyer's relationship was mutually beneficial: scientific publishing was prominent in Macmillan's long-term publishing strategy and, if he were to undertake the risky venture of a new scientific journal, Lockyer was the man to take the helm. After all, as Hooker pointed out, the record of eminent men of science in publishing "was dismal". Lockyer's organizational and editorial skills on The Reader had attracted praise — for example, Thomas Hughes wrote to Huxley: "Lockyer ... knows the machinery ... has the science already in the right grooves and is not above taking advice". Moreover, competition loomed from the new science weeklies Popular Science Review and Scientific Opinion. Image courtesy of the Royal Society archives.

The title "Nature"

  • description of imageIt's not clear who proposed the title "Nature", but a letter in July 1869 from Huxley to Lockyer reveals that Macmillan made the final decision: "Macmillan told me yesterday that he had nailed his colours to the mast and was going for "Nature", pure and simple. I am inclined to think it is the best plan on the whole." In a letter to Lockyer, the mathematician James Joseph Sylvester enthused wildly on the potential: "What a glorious title, "Nature", a veritable stroke of genius to have hit upon. It is more than a cosmos, more than a universe. It includes the seen and the unseen, the possible as well as the actual, Nature and Nature's God, mind and matter. I am lost in admiration for the effulgent blaze of ideas it calls forth." The image (courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections) shows a later letter from Sylvester to Lockyer asking when Nature would "reveal herself to the world."

The first issue

  • description of imageThe first issue of Nature (pictured) begins with what today would be called a mission statement. "First, to place before the general public the grand results of scientific work and scientific discovery; and to urge the claims of science to move to a more general recognition in education and in daily life. Secondly, to aid scientific men themselves, by giving early information of all advances made in any branch of natural knowledge throughout the world..." The journal carries essentially the same message to this day. These bold assertions were not unique to Nature as the prospectus of both Scientific Opinion and The Reader made similar rallying cries for men of science and laymen to have at their disposal a specialized organ for communicating science to scientists and the masses.