Popular History of Science for the American G.I.
Posted by Darin Hayton on 10/02 at 12:54 PM
Like many early historians of science, Sir William Cecil Dampier started his career as a scientist. He was trained by J.J. Thomson, who encouraged Dampier to undertake research in physics. His work at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge led to his being elected a fellow of Trinity College. His early work focused on dilute solutions—freezing point depression, conductivity, electrolysis. By the turn of the century, however, he had become interested in history, especially through his genealogy research. In 1909 he and his wife wrote a general, popular history of genetics and heredity, The Family and the Nation, in which they argued for selective reproduction—encouraging the “reproduction of good stock and the checking of evil strains.”1
Dampier had apparently found his calling, writing popular histories of science. Also in 1909 he published his Recent Developments in Physical Science in which he “applied his talent for clear writing to describing the work of others.” Twenty years later he first published his popular history of science from antiquity to the present, his A History of Science and Its Relations with Philosophy & Religion. By 1945 the book had gone through three editions and numerous printings both in England and the United States (the fourth edition with I.B. Cohen’s postscript was again reprinted by Cambridge in 1987).
Perhaps sensing that his A History of Science was growing too long for a popular audience, in 1944 he produced an abridgment of it: A Shorter History of Science. Or, perhaps, he wrote this shorter history at the request of the committee of the Council on Books in Wartime. The Council was a “group of trade book publishers, librarians, and booksellers that had formed in 1942 in to use books to contribute ‘to the war effort of the United Peoples’.”2 The Council developed a plan that ultimately distributed for free 120 million books ranging across more than 1,300 titles to U.S. troops overseas. This program produced the largest book giveaway in history, the Armed Services Editions. Small, portable, and disposable (publishers and booksellers did not want the domestic market flooded with these books when G.I.s returned from the war), these editions cost about 6¢ each to produce. The volumes were small, pocket edtions—they were printed in two sizes, either 5 1/2 x 3 7/8 or 6 1/2 x 4 1/2—that could be shipped, mailed, and transported easily and wouldn’t burden soldiers on bases or in the field. Most of the titles were reprints of available books, but a few volumes were only ever available in the ASE series.
It is interestingly coincidental that the same year Dampier wrote his A Shorter History of Science the ASE produced an edition for G.I.s:
It is unclear whether Dampier’s reputation was such that the ASE immediately wanted to publish his new book or the Council had solicited from him an abridgment to be published simultaneously as a trade volume and in the ASE series. In either case, Dampier’s work was one of the few nonfiction volumes in the ASE series, which suggests something about the popularity of Dampier’s larger text and the assumed importance of the history of science in the “war effort.”
As the blurb makes clear, the development of science made “our culture” special, something U.S. troops fighting in distant and foreign lands probably enjoyed hearing (or at least that’s probably what the Council assumed):
Dampier skillfully reveals the relationship of the growth of science to the rest of our culture—a truly amazing achievement in a swift-paced, compact volume.
The American Services Edition of Dampier’s A Shorter History of Science certainly doesn’t qualify as “popular” in the way that some people have been thinking about the term, but it does raise a number of questions about how the history of science was popularized and disseminated during the war.3 The list of ASE titles includes many popular texts, especially westerns, along with more standard classics. Further, all the volumes were aimed at a popular audience. That the Council on Books in Wartime chose to include a history of science title in the ASE series and that they chose Dampier’s text seems like more than simply an accident.
1This summary of Dampier’s career and quotations come from G.I. Taylor, “William Cecil Dampier, 1867-1952,” Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 9(1954): 54–57.⇑
2This summary of the American Services Editions and quotations taken from Books in Action. The Armed Services Editions (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1984).⇑
3Rebekah Higgitt has been musing on popular history of science here and here. Will Thomas has responded here.⇑