Bombs, Man-Apes, and Ancient Cities

A history of science publishing in images from the archives of Nature magazine.

The death of former Nature Editor John Maddox in April provoked a cascade of tributes to the man who reinvented the scientific journal. Maddox, who took the reins at Nature in 1966, inherited a venerable publication that was mired in backlogged submissions—about 2,300 of them—and quickly losing ground to its American competitor, Science. Maddox opened foreign offices, dramatically slashed the turnaround time for news of discoveries, and instituted a formal peer-review system for refereeing manuscripts. “John was a man of many parts but above all he was a journalist, and took pride both in the label and in the craft,”wrote Philip Campell, Nature’s current editor-in-chief in a eulogy immediately after Maddox died.

It’s tempting to assume that modern scientific journals have always operated under the same values and governance as science itself. After all, what use is the elegant, self-correcting structure of the scientific method if there’s not an equally elegant way to publish its results? But you don’t have to go too far back in time to find a publication that is drastically different than the standardized, peer-reviewed journals of today. In its early decades, even the prestigious Nature was a hodgepodge of rambling notes, idle curiosities, and general-interest articles.

As of 2008, it’s been possible to browse the entire history of that magazine that Maddox would so thoroughly reinvent. The sampling of article illustrations presented here tell the story of the journal’s evolution in form and mission over 140 years. From pencil sketches of volcanoes to schematics for poison-gas bombs, the first aerial photographs, and the splitting of a uranium atom, the images are a reminder that science publishing is prone to the same currents in style and sensibility as the rest of the world.

Click here for a slide-show essay on the best of the Nature archives.