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Polish popular science magazines until 1939 – a research report

Abstract: The emergence of popular science journals in Poland in the second half of the 18th century, their development at a varied pace and in subsequent periods, contributed to the creation of new areas of interaction between the scientist and society. Their role, regardless of the period in which they operated, was primarily to provide the reader with a certain amount of knowledge about the progress of science, the directions of conducted research, discoveries, inventions, the possibility of their application in everyday life, as well as to stimulate and shape the need to obtain information for cognitive, educational and self-education purposes. Thus, for a historian of science and a press historian alike, popular science journals are valuable and interesting research objects, both from the perspective of their interdisciplinary overview and the discovery of new research areas and methodological solutions. This publication, which is a report on a research project carried out in this field, funded by the National Science Center, is intended to discuss the various stages of this scientific work and present the results obtained.

Keywords: popular science journals, popularization of science, 18th century, 19th century, 1918-1939, press graphics, technology

Prof. Grażyna Wrona, Institute of Information Science, Pedagogical University of Cracow, orcid: 0000-0003-0004-2457, Prof. Agnieszka Cieślikowa, The Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences, orcid: 0000-0001-7634-7797, Dorota Kamisińska, PhD, Media Research Center, Pedagogical University of Cracow, orcid: 0000-0002-7442-1970, Ewa Wójcik, PhD, Institute of Information Science, Pedagogical University of Cracow, orcid: 0000-0001-8736-5130, Renata M. Zając, PhD, Main Library, Pedagogical University of Cracow, orcid: 0000-0001-7315-8616

Polish popular science magazines until 1939 - a research report1

The subject of the history of Polish popular science magazines taken up by the authors should be regarded as an attempt which, in its assumptions and content, was to tackle the ongoing domestic and foreign scientific debate on the theoretical and historical aspects of popularization of science, which has functioned in its many varieties and on various levels (Chassot 2008, Daum 2002, Lynn 2013, Schwarz 1998). It was in the sphere of scientific disputes and discussions that not only its definitions were born, but above all, the possibility of penetrating new areas of research was expanding. The discrepancy in the definition of the terms “popularization of science” and “popular science magazine”, which was noticed in the reading of scientific texts, was an additional impulse to join the debate and prompted the researchers to take a new look at the issues signaled. Therefore, justifying the selection of the research problem and the approach, it should be stated that popular science periodicals, as a type of popularization activity, constituted an important communication channel in the education of society, at the same time documenting the scope of knowledge about science and its achievements available to the potential reader.

These periodicals, which date back to the beginning of the 18th century in Poland, have not become the subject of a quantitative and analytical study, although some aspects were already the subject of various scientific publications (Bednarski 1967, Hombek 2001, Kolasa 1998, Rogoż 2000). Therefore, the basic research objective was to reconstruct the history of popular science magazines published in Poland from the 18th century to 1939 and to show the evolution of their form and content against the changing political, economic, social and cultural conditions, and above all, against the progress of world science and technology. It also proved reasonable to ask whether their emergence corresponded to pan-European trends and whether, despite the changing political situation, they were part of the model promoted in developed countries, or whether they fulfilled additional tasks resulting from political and social transformations.

The detailed objectives of the research, in accordance with the research procedures adopted in the press studies, are: to determine the size of the studied collection, to indicate its development line and conditions stimulating or inhibiting its development, both globally and in individual sub-periods, to indicate the circumstances of the creation of the titles, and finally to conduct a form and content analysis (program, editing, structure, content, authors, physical form, recipient). The formal characteristics were enriched by the presentation of the silhouettes of the entire collection, according to the adopted typology. A novelty, on the other hand, was to outline the evolution of the internal structure of popular science periodicals, which was carried out on the entire collection of titles. Thus, the authors tried to demonstrate an evolutionary character also in terms of their internal structure.

The detailed analyses were preceded by a fairly comprehensive review made from the standpoint of the conviction about the need to popularize science in society, the importance of science in the everyday life of every citizen, expressing not only a critical assessment of Poles’ awareness in this respect, but also aiming at changing the existing state of affairs which was strongly exposed by creators, publishers, editors of the popular science magazines, regardless of the epoch. The authors’ intention was to recall their views and beliefs, as they played a key role in the history of popularization of science in Poland, as the titles discussed became an indispensable channel in expanding knowledge popularization initiatives. Thus, popular science journals have been chosen not only as an object of research, but also as a source in research activities. Thus, the method of analysis of the content and form, which is of particular importance for historical and press research, was used in the research of the information structure of published texts, as well as their internal structure.

Moreover, in order to record and read the richness of the published material as widely as possible, it was necessary to conduct a multilateral analysis of the graphic material of selected Polish popular science periodicals and compare it to the similar European publications. Much attention was therefore paid to the thematic typology of the images and to the particular type thereof - technical drawing, as the graphic elements and their layout are, besides the texts, the basic components of a magazine. The comprehensive research of Polish popular science periodicals was aimed at systematizing and categorizing the elements that make up the layout and illustrations, establishing the authorship of the illustrations, and demonstrating the impact of this important part of a magazine on its aesthetic and educational value.

The initial assumption had to be verified that technical issues are very widely present in the periodicals studied, that the leap of civilization which humanity experienced needed to be “tamed” to the greatest extent by approximating its scientific foundations to the readers. Thus, more questions were asked. Did and to what extent did popular science magazines introduce their readers to the practical applications of life science achievements in technology and technical sciences? Did these periodicals provide information or predictions about the directions in which the inventions entering in everyday life would develop? Did the popular science press comment on the new technical solutions already applied in everyday life, which the reader already had the opportunity to encounter, e.g. explaining the principles of their operation? To obtain answers to these questions, detailed research and analyses were required, which resulted in interesting and valuable material.

However, the key task, allowing for an unambiguous qualification and selection of the collection, was to construct an original definition of a popular science magazine, which would guarantee the possibility of adapting it to the changing political conditions in Poland, and to indicate some universal, ahistorical determinants of this type of periodicals. Thus, the authors considered the popular science magazine as a periodical publication fulfilling the assumptions and objectives of popularizing science understood in terms of content, institution and organization, and disseminating scientific knowledge, addressed to non-specialists with different needs and degrees of preparation for the reception of scientific content. The formal determinant of this group of periodicals is the possibility of assigning them to a specific scientific discipline or group of disciplines. The authors considered the program declarations of editors or publishers characterizing the profile of the magazine and its purpose, on top of specifying the recipient as an important criterion for belonging to the examined collection.

Qualification dilemmas were also accompanied by controversies related to the choice of a classification system appropriate for the analyzed set of titles. This difficulty resulted from the fact that the systems of classification of sciences are not uniform in the examined period of time. Therefore, in order to create thematic groups common to all the periodicals, knowing that they may be debatable, it was proposed to divide the magazines into general-purpose periodicals, and then into those representing humanities and social sciences, natural sciences, earth sciences, medical and health sciences, and technical sciences. Inside the individual groups, further divisions were applied (Wójcik, Wrona, Zając 2018).

As early as the 18th, 19th and early 20th century the public debates were headed by slogans of science, its directions of development, achievements, influence on progress, and social functions. Its utilitarianism was particularly important in the aspect of successive scientific and technological revolutions and, as a result, technological progress. Therefore, it seems appropriate to state that due to the systematically growing role of science in the past centuries, its popularization became a necessity in shaping social consciousness, and in Poland lands it was also one of the numerous ways of expressing national identity. Thus exposing the need for popularization of science was, on one hand, a natural consequence of almost “everyday presence of science” in the life of every person, and on the other hand, the main indicator that defined the standards of the “thinking citizen” of that time, because it was to influence both, the development of the intellect, and through specific moral principles and ethical values contained in the content, it also shaped their character.

Ways and means of communication between the scientist and the society were sought, and disputes were raised both in terms of the content in popularization of science, its objectives, and tasks, on top of effective forms of influence and channels of dissemination. These initiatives were characterized by great dynamism, and the controversies growing around the activities were caused, among other things, by various clashing ideologies, pedagogical trends, and above all, special political conditions involving the loss of statehood, the partitions, and the regaining of independence in 1918, followed by the reconstruction of the state.

As a result of detailed analyses, 128 popular science magazines published in Poland from the 18th century (to be precise, from 1758) to 1939, were selected as the objects of research. The lower cut-off date was set by the year in which the first Polish popular science periodical, Nowe Wiadomości Ekonomiczne i Uczone (New Economic and Scientific News) was published, while the second one does not require more commentary. The examined collection included periodicals diversified both formally and in terms of content, 19 of which were published in the 18th century, 50 titles were dated between 1795 and 1918, i.e., during the period of loss of independence, while in the period between the two World Wars, the Polish press publishing market was represented by 61 periodicals. Most of them popularized natural sciences (42), while 41 of the remaining ones were of a general character, 27 were connected with medical sciences, and 13 with humanities and social sciences. The least numerous group were magazines popularizing technical sciences (5).

The periodicals under analysis were characterized by a short presence on the publishing market, caused by a number of factors, mainly financial difficulties, small numbers of recipients, problems with the inflow of valuable and interesting materials, as well as the editors’ inability to work out unambiguous and attractive formulas for the magazines. Undoubtedly an exception is Wszechświat (1882), one of the most interesting and best edited initiatives among the periodicals analyzed. It is also worth noting that the title is still being published and belongs to the longest-running nature magazines in the world.

The establishment, development and popularity of popular science periodicals in Poland, especially in the first two periods, were determined by two factors: the development of such publications in European countries on the one hand, while on the other hand, the lack of native equivalents created by Poles, and taking into account, of course, the intellectual capabilities of the recipient. Their goal was to provide the reader with a certain amount of basic or extended knowledge about the progress of science, directions of research, discoveries and inventions, possibilities of utilizing new achievements in everyday life, stimulating and shaping a need for gathering information for cognitive, educational and patriotic-educational purposes.

It was a continuous process, varying both quantitatively and qualitatively. A characteristic feature of the 18th century popular science periodicals was the ephemerality and short-lived issuance, mainly due to a lack of audience. The low number of regular subscribers was due to the lack of interest in such publications and the low level of readership in the Polish society. The basic reading in the homes of the nobility, especially in the country, and in bourgeoisie homes, remained religious books and almanacs. As a political, scientific and cultural center, Warsaw was the main producer and consumer of “semi-scientific” magazines (as they were referred to), with only four of them appearing outside the capital city. These publications were most often magazines disseminating knowledge about new discoveries and inventions to Poland in order for them to be used in practice. Therefore, they popularized mainly economic, agricultural, medical, natural sciences, but also historical and scientific knowledge.

The increasing emphasis on the links between science and technology and, consequently, the hope of improving everyday life conditions, development and progress in natural sciences, was the basis for further intensification of popularization initiatives in the 19th century (Cieślikowa 2018). At the same time, there was a discussion on the new image of the scientist and the need to draw a positive one. During this period, the popularizers aimed at extending the offer of implementation tools, increasing the social range of knowledge disseminated, and started profiling the message, matching it to the level of the recipient. It was in that period when the first popular science magazines addressed to young readers appeared. Undoubtedly, foreign patterns, mainly German, English and French, became stimuli for the development of popular science magazines in the 19th century on Polish soil. The editors drew not only the finished texts from them, but also the publishing formulas and elements of internal structure. The next changes in the shape of the popular science magazines consisted in moving from imitating foreign patterns to creating a model based on domestic material, cooperating with Polish scientists, both in terms of content and the editorial board. The need to shape patriotic patterns of behavior was also important.

The restoration of independence created favorable conditions for the development of this category of periodical publications. The establishment of multifunctional educational institutions for adults, as did the rebuilding of universal, secondary and higher education fostered an increase in readership, increased the need for self-education and the development of knowledge about the progress of science. As a result, the group of people interested in science and technology, whose accelerated development took place after the end of World War I, was expanding. Thus, there were still some magazines popularizing Polish history, sightseeing, natural exact sciences, nature protection, and technical sciences. A special role was played by medical periodicals, which promoted pro-health behaviors, including hygiene, since the priority tasks of successive governments of the Republic of Poland were to combat social illnesses and improve the sanitary condition of the country.

During the analyzed sub-periods, popular science magazines also evolved in terms of editing and publishing form on top of their internal structure. The eighteenth-century magazines, usually printed in a 16 library format, did not have an extensive internal structure and were mainly reprinted from foreign publications. In the nineteenth century, a modern formula of a popular science magazine was developed in terms of editing and publishing, no longer having a title page, which was replaced by a vignette, and with an extensive internal structure that was constantly modified. In the next sub-period, 1918-1939, we see further transformations in the structure of the periodicals under study, but they did not take such radical forms. On the other hand, the short duration and irregularity of certain elements, a common feature of the sub-periods mentioned above, most often resulted from the randomness and diversity of the material coming to the editorial offices.

The presence of illustrations, technical drawings and photographs containing visual information in popular science magazines made it easier for readers to interpret the text and consequently strengthened their interest in the presented issues. The illustrations also introduced the reader to the scholar’s research workshop and familiarized them with the results of his work, aroused interest among adults and youth alike in the achievements of science and technology, encouraging them to their own studies and stimulating independent thinking. The success of the illustrated popular science periodicals proved the need for education in society, combined with curiosity and readiness to accept new content concerning the development of science and technology and the application of inventions in everyday life and work. After the period of reprinting foreign texts (until the end of the 19th century) in Polish popular science press, Polish authors developed their own style and way of reaching readers of different age groups with difficult content. Illustration became an important element of the articles, emphasizing the importance of the topics discussed due to their complex nature, requiring the reader’s effort and commitment to understand the new content. Thus, the illustrations performed an informative function, explaining and supplementing the content of the publications (Kamisińska 2018).

The reconstructed picture of the history of Polish popular science magazines, documenting the sequence of efforts, aspirations of their authors, publishers and editors, is characterized by a certain universalism in the scope of their functions, including, above all, the promotion of their program assumptions to popularize science. However, the different political, economic and cultural conditions meant that their quantitative and qualitative development, although uneven in the discussed sub-periods, was characterized by a common strategy in the activities of the publishers. And these were the already indicated utilitarianism present in the dialog between the author of the popular science message and its recipient. It was the individual or team press initiatives taking over the function of a medium that enabled the society to establish contact with scientists and their work, the effects of which the reader saw in everyday life.

However, the material obtained requires further research, especially in order to assess the informative quality of the texts, their typology, composition, timeliness, reliability and, above all, effectiveness. It is therefore worthwhile to draw the attention of researchers to these issues in the future as well.

Project implemented within the framework of a grant from the National Science Center Polish popular science journalism until 1939 (2014/15/B/HS2/01071); grant manager: Professor Grażyna Wrona


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1 Project implemented within the framework of a grant from the National Science Center - Polish popular science journalism until 1939 (2014/15/B/HS2/01071).

Dec 19, 2020