The 1870s

  • description of image"I am very anxious about Nature. I can't help feeling that a very little more of something would make it a success". Macmillan's letter to Lockyer (pictured) reveals that, although Lockyer boasted of 5,000 subscribers and 15,000 readers (a circulation in reality not attained even by the end of the century), the future of the fledgling Nature was by no means secure. Macmillan gave it a competitive cover price — at fourpence, it was less than the sixpence charged by most weeklies. Science historian Roy Macleod has estimated that the four pages given over to advertisements would have accounted for only half the annual costs of producing the magazine and that there were in fact probably less than 200 subscribers in Nature's first year. At least the potential rival weekly Scientific Opinion ceased publication on 1 February 1869. Nature was not yet established as a preferred place of scientific communication in the 1870s. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.

The Editor and publisher clash

  • description of imageIn 1870, a fierce row erupted between Macmillan and Lockyer, and the journal very nearly lost its hard-working and dedicated editor. The cause is unclear, but Lockyer had been offered the directorship of a new 25-inch telescope in Virginia, USA, at around that time; it is possible that Lockyer could have used the offer as leverage in a dispute by threatening to leave for the observatory. A letter (pictured) reveals that a mutual friend, Archibald Geikie, acted as peacemaker and urged Lockyer "not to think anymore of this observatory in America". The quarrel was settled in Lockyer's favour when Macmillan agreed to pay him an extra £250 a year as a scientific adviser for a series of books, on top of his salary as Editor. Money may have been the source of the quarrel as Lockyer had a wife and nine children to support. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.

Pioneering editorial campaigns

  • description of imageLockyer wrote 66 leaders from 1869 to 1919; others were composed by subeditors working with a band of more than 100 contributors. Besides scientific articles on topics such as the Challenger Arctic exploration mission, transits of Venus and eclipse expeditions, Nature campaigned hard on issues such as research endowments, science reform, the rise of German science, and teaching in schools as the Technical Education Act laboured through government (see draft list of education leaders, pictured). By 1878, Lockyer seems to be satisfied that, through Nature, awareness of the right questions was on the rise as a result of the growing space given to such matters by the daily press: "The questions concerning scientific discovery, research and teaching, have now a much more direct interest to the public than they formerly possessed." See Ruth Barton's essay in the 'Editors and Eras' section of Nature History for more. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.

Early Content

  • description of imageThe 1870s were a decade of scientific advances, and the pages of Nature celebrated many of the most important such as the inventions of the typewriter, bathometer and perfect compass, and included notes on the telephone, duplex telegraphy and the application of electricity to lighting. But early Nature also had a less technical readership, as evidenced by correspondence featuring readers' observations on 'Ingenuity in a pigeon' and 'A carnivorous goose', as well as discussion of simple and amusing experiments (pictured). The magazine's popularist component is well illustrated by the then-fashionable anagram puzzles, the following of Henry Morton Stanley's epic journey across Africa in search of David Livingstone, and in leaders discussing and encouraging scientific ways to measure the 'psychic force' — Victorian England was awash with spiritualism and Lockyer obliged his readers' wider interests.

Helping hands

  • description of imageLockyer and Macmillan amassed a legion of scientific contributors for Nature from their friends, Fellows of the Royal Society and partners in previous publishing ventures. But Lockyer also needed office assistance to continue his researches. Assistants of some distinction soon arrived, many of them Cambridge graduates who would later be knighted. Alfred Bennett, a botanist from University College London, was biological assistant from 1870–74; Alfred H. Garrod (son of the Queen's physician) served as zoological and medical subeditor for a decade; John Scott-Keltie was Lockyer's educational and geographical subeditor from 1873–85, sometimes contributing up to a quarter of the items in each issue; Richard Lydekker reviewed geology and palaeontology; and John O. Earwaker reviewed genealogy and anthropology. Exiled Prince Kropotkin from Tzarist Russia recalled in a 1917 letter (pictured) that Nature's offices from 1876 offered "the most cordial reception and — work", though this opinion was not universally shared, for Lockyer worked his staff hard, even on weekends and public holidays. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.

Raging controversies

  • description of imageNature's contributors were usually eminent men of science, often from the upper echelons of Victorian society, but this did not preclude private squabbles from becoming public — indeed, Lockyer seems to have encouraged controversy in the pages of Nature. 1873 saw perhaps the most acrimonious exchange, which was between physicists Peter Guthrie Tait and John Tyndall (pictured). Tait's review of Tyndall's book, Forms of Water, led to a resurfacing of bitter rivalries in the correspondence columns which spilled over into other journals, newspapers and even privately printed pamphlets. It was a damaging affair: Lockyer was privately chastised, and Tyndall and Joseph Hooker later withdrew their names as contributors to the journal. Writing to T. H. Huxley, Tyndall bemoaned that "My notions against him [Lockyer] have been too undisguised", and Hooker stated that "My suspicions are strong against Lockyer, of whom I have heard much that I do not like". See Ruth Barton's essay in the 'Editors and Eras' section of this website for more on Lockyer and controversy.

Advertising versus Editorial

  • description of imageIt is unclear how much Lockyer would have known about the early finances of the journal, or how much pressure, if any, Alexander Macmillan would have applied to make the journal cover its costs. In 1873 Macmillan began using the columns of Nature to advertise Macmillan science books, telling Lockyer "it is the only way we can make the journal pay". Experience with The Reader would have taught Lockyer the importance of advertising revenue (pictured, note uncommon use of the word 'scientist') and he risked losing contributors to keep the money coming in. A letter written in May 1870 by John Brett reveals how contributions were edited to make space for advertisements: "...you cut some of my most careful paragraphs...for the sake of a trumpery advertisement...and I must conclude that three shillings and sixpence is more important to Nature than correct scientific information". Image courtesy of archives of Macmillan Publishers.

Continental copycats

  • description of imageNature's early international flavour may well have influenced a host of foreign rivals that appeared in the 1870s and bore the same name. In France, La Nature (pictured) was first published in 1873; then came the Norwegian Naturen in 1877, also the year when the Italian La Natura was launched — this even echoed the banner of its English counterpart with "Giornale Illustrato di Cognizioni" (or illustrated newspaper of cognitions). There was a Belgian Natura printed in Ghent from 1883–85, and the Dutch 'geillustreerd maandschrift' (illustrated monthly book), Die Natur, was published from 1881–94. Beyond Europe, the Mexican La Naturaleza started a second edition in 1887. Image courtesy Sotheran's Ltd.

Lockyer snaps

  • description of imageThroughout his life, Lockyer suffered from nervous exhaustion and bouts of depression. In March 1877 he had his third breakdown, probably due to the pressures of his professional commitments and caring for a sick wife and son. Lockyer's physician recommended to a Macmillan employee that he should spend some time abroad to recuperate. Alexander Macmillan obliged with a cheque and a note that "...the firm desires your acceptance of it with the love of all the members". Again, we see Macmillan's affection and solicitude in taking great care of his Editor. Lockyer recovered, but his son Frank and wife Winifred both died the next year, leaving him to care for their eight children. Image shows a letter from about 1878 from The Times asking Lockyer as "the most prominent literary exponent of science...to contribute occasionally to the columns of The Times. Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.

More pages...more science

  • description of imageThe journal had been making a loss since the first issue in 1869, but only after almost ten years did Alexander Macmillan raise the price of Nature from fourpence to sixpence, expanding it to 28 pages. Lockyer opened "what is practically a New Series for Nature" with a bold leader: "it is because Nature has become more and more widely recognised as the organ of science the world over that at last we are compelled to enlarge it to find space for the stream of communications that week after week come pouring in upon us from all parts." Picture shows Macmillan's original letter to Lockyer in 1869, detailing 24 pages at fourpence per issue as "quite high enough [a] price". Image courtesy of University of Exeter Academic Services, Special Collections.