Science on the Air

Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television
By Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-46759-7

Chapter One

Tuxedos and Microphones

This is merely a matter of salesmanship. The station acquires a higher appreciation of science if science appears in tuxedos than if it appears in soft shirts and patched clothes.... Filtering down to a part of our audience, it has an elevating influence on them. AUSTIN HOBART CLARK, 1925

ON October 3, 1923, the head of the Smithsonian Institution had just returned from fieldwork in the Canadian Rockies when his clerk took a telephone message from the manager of a new Washington, D.C., radio station. "Radio Corporation of America desires the Secretary to speak for broadcasting some time between the 20th and 30th of this month, from 8 to 10 o'clock in the evening on any subject," the clerk's note read. Had Charles D. Walcott accepted the invitation, his appearance would probably have been a onetime event. The geoscientist was neither a dynamic nor a comfortable public speaker. After many months away, he had work to do in the "Castle," the redbrick Victorian-era headquarters for the museum complex. It was easy to bump this invitation down the line.

"I do not feel that I could undertake this personally, as my voice is not adapted to it," Secretary Walcott wrote to Austin Hobart Clark, a middle-aged curator in the Smithsonian's U.S. National Museum, "but it occurred to me that perhaps you might be willing to give a short talk and to make the necessary arrangements with the Company as to time, place, etc." Clark was very willing. Here, finally, might be an opportunity to make his mark.

If the request had been handed off to some other Smithsonian scientist, the result might have been less eventful. Clark, an expert on marine invertebrates like starfish and sea urchins, knew little about radio broadcasting, but he was smart, ambitious, and exuberantly confident in his intellectual agility. He also had an authoritative and patrician New England accent-an authentic version of radio's stereotypical voice of the 1920s. After his first successful appearance, Clark began, at the encouragement and invitation of the station, to arrange more "Smithsonian Radio Talks," inviting speakers from within his institution's various bureaus.

Those first programs now seem stark and unsophisticated. Succinct fifteen-minute talks delivered by ichthyologists, astronomers, and entomologists. No jokes, no banter, no clever sound effects. Clark's broadcasts found an audience, however, and they represent one of the first sustained efforts in the United States to use radio to reach the public with science, the first wave in steadily expanding popularization efforts. The circumstances surrounding these pioneering broadcasts illuminate an important moment in the history of science and of American life. From the 1920s through the 1940s, the scientific community became more concerned about scripting its public image for the sake of increased funding and political support, and therefore became more engaged in popularization. The extent to which prestigious researchers in the United States cooperated in and supported ventures involving radio-a medium they regarded as intrinsically sensationalistic-demonstrated begrudging acceptance of the need for popularization.

This preoccupation with image coincided with increasing audience interest in science. After World War I, provocative changes were occurring in "the patterns and channels and beaten ruts" of conventional thought. As each scientific insight or discovery reshaped the intellectual landscape, it also wiggled the lens of public understanding. From theories of relativity to theories about human psychology, from animal physiology to plant pathology to Tutankhamen's tomb, excitement surrounded popular discussion of science. Ordinary Americans were eager to learn more about scientists' accomplishments, about exotic aspects of the natural world revealed during expeditions, and about the science underpinning consumer technologies like radio. Topics "which in previous generations would have got into print only in the form of treatises that would have reposed on the shelves," historian Mark Sullivan observed about his own times, "were now among the books most in demand at public libraries." Newspapers and popular magazines like Collier's Weekly and the Saturday Evening Post played critical roles in satisfying the public's desire for quick and comprehensible explanations. In 1923 radio offered another tantalizing outlet for communicating about science.

Using radio to reach that potential audience proved to be as challenging as it was tempting. Within two years, Clark was declaring:

One never knows, of course, how long this will last. But all of those who have talked over the radio ... have acquired a wholly new concept of popular science, and the training they have received will not soon be forgotten.

What was that "new concept"? What did scientists like Clark believe they were accomplishing when they cooperated with commercial broadcasters? And did they succeed? As communications analyst Anthony Smith emphasizes, the "essence" of broadcasting is that editorial power over content is "fused with the ownership of the means of disseminating the product." This innate condition placed scientists-accustomed to controlling their own communications-at a disadvantage, especially when power over all aspects of broadcasting, from scheduling to scripts to access, became consolidated in the United States within a few corporations that owned the national networks. The dream of reaching enormous audiences was alluring. For the scientists and their organizations, the question eventually became whether they were willing to pay the price.


In the fall of 1923, radio dangled in the public imagination like a shiny new toy. Wireless transmission of sound to mass, undifferentiated audiences represented an astonishing prospect, one that frequently prompted predictions of national unity, universal education, and international cooperation. As one commentator observed, radio's success stimulated the dream that society "shall wake up one bright morning with an international consciousness ... and the dawn of mutual understanding and world peace will have come." To the individual listener, intent on an evening's entertainment, radio simply seemed magical-you tuned in a receiving set, which you might even have assembled yourself, and soon a disembodied voice or musical performance filled the living room.

And ever more living rooms contained sets. Diffusion of radio technology had progressed steadily since the war ended. Station KDKA in Pittsburgh had broadcast the first scheduled programming in 1920; by January 1, 1922, thirty broadcasting stations were licensed to operate in the United States; fourteen months later, there were 556. "The rapidity with which the radio craze swept the country between 1920 and 1924," historian Susan J. Douglas explains, "prompted analogies to tidal waves and highly contagious fevers." In 1922 science journalist Watson Davis compared "the story of radio" to "a rush to a new gold field":

Manufacturers of apparatus saw the possibilities of selling outfits if they broadcasted music and entertainment.... Radio became an industry. It ceased to be only a plaything for scientifically inclined boys. It came out of the laboratory into the world.

That year, U.S. sales of sets and equipment totaled $60 million, and the net profits of just one manufacturer, RCA, exceeded $3 million, up from $400,000 in the previous year. The price of sets had begun to come within the reach of more consumers, and the equipment was simpler to construct. All over the country, Americans were huddling around newly built sets or seeking better reception in the attic:

The little room upstairs, once sacred to the storing of books, linen and ancient relics, is coming into its own as the most popular room in many households. Cobwebs have been brushed from the old attic and family clans are gathering there to listen in on the radio voices of the air.

Radio fever was sweeping the East Coast. According to one government estimate, there were between five thousand and eight thousand radio sets, and somewhere between sixty-five thousand and seventy-five thousand regular listeners, in the District of Columbia alone in 1923. That October, as Austin Clark was arranging his first programs, station WEAF in New York City canvassed its listeners, asking them to return postcards with information about their occupations, the other consumer technologies they owned, and the leisure activities they enjoyed. Over twenty-six hundred New Yorkers responded. They were listening in via 409 sets, although only 250 of the households had telephones and 332 had phonographs. The majority of these WEAF listeners were professionals (for instance, accountants and physicians) or worked in some technical or engineering trade (such as telephone installers and telegraph operators), yet there were also many post office clerks, firemen, and actors. WEAF's handwritten tabulations provide a snapshot of an emergent "radio democracy," of the users of an egalitarian communications medium that was becoming available to all. As the price of sets dropped and rural sales increased, the potential audience for science expanded beyond literate, educated, middle-class urban residents. You no longer had to be well dressed or of a welcomed class, race, or gender to gain entrance to this electronic lecture hall. You only needed to listen in.

In 1923 "listening in" did require patience. There was only a minimum schedule and much static, even in major metropolitan areas. News and music programs were available regularly to New York City residents, for example, but true national broadcasting (whereby millions of Americans might listen to the same speaker or comedian at the same time) had not yet been realized. Most stations were on the air only a few hours a day. As Susan Douglas explains, the receiving devices were complicated, with multiple dials and adjustments. One "didn't just walk into a shop ... buy a radio, bring it home, plug it in, and hear orchestral music"; users had to learn "how to listen." Even though it was possible to hear broadcasts from several hundred miles away, early radio involved more promise than reliable delivery.

The skillful radio owner could, however, sample from a wide array of content. The economic model that exists today-radio as an advertiser-supported medium that relies on sophisticated entertainment to attract listeners to the commercials-was still in an embryonic state. Many stations were owned by organizations like churches and universities, and few accepted any form of commercial advertisement. Talent was drawn from within the community. On a Saturday night in December 1923, Washingtonians might listen to local coloratura soprano Elfrida de Roda and violinist Karla Kleibe, and then roll up the rug and dance as the Meyer Davis Band played live from Cafe Le Paradis; or, with luck, they might tune in distant stations to hear sisters Mary and Jane King sing popular songs "in harmony" or Dr. David Wilbur Horn, professor of physics and physical chemistry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, lecture about "Atmospheric Comfort."

To Clark's first guest speakers, broadcasting's vaudevillian context might have seemed foreign, but they would have been quite familiar with the technological process of wireless transmission of sound. Even if they were not physicists or engineers, they would have been reading about radio technology for many years in journals like Science or Scientific Monthly, and some might have attended demonstrations at conferences and in colleagues' laboratories. This technological comfort level may have encouraged some scientists to perceive radio as merely an extension of the lecture hall, for many of them did not yet own sets themselves or else had only small crystal sets. California Institute of Technology electrical engineering professor R. W. Sorenson confessed in 1922 that, after fifteen years of studying the technology, he had only just become "a radio convert," with a receiving set at home and a regular listening schedule. Secretary Walcott and his wife did not purchase their first radio until a year after the Smithsonian series began and Walcott had spoken on the air. Those who did not own sets may not have realized the extent to which musical performances dominated the airwaves, thereby contributing to naive assumptions about how science should be presented and how it would be received.

Local station managers were at first delighted to broadcast talks by scientists from well-known institutions. The scientists filled out the station schedules without embarrassment and without added cost. If speakers proved popular with listeners, then they would be invited to return.

Commentators in the early 1920s hailed radio as humanity's "Next Great Step Forward," declared it ideal for promoting social progress or "education and happiness and democracy," and suggested that it would help to "civilize" America and unify a nation struggling with waves of immigrants. Understanding of science, many also assumed, would surely be part of that civilizing force.


In late 1918, Secretary Walcott had just resumed "the old custom" of sponsoring popular lectures by Smithsonian staff members as "a good means to interest the people in Washington both in the various activities of the Institution and also scientific work in general." Austin Clark's first programs transferred this same sedate approach, and similar topics and speakers, to the broadcasting studio.

To oversee the live presentations, Walcott had created the Committee on Popular Lectures, headed by biology curator Leonhard Stejneger, National Zoological Park superintendent Ned Hollister, and Bureau of American Ethnology chief J. Walter Fewkes. The committee selected speakers, sent notices to newspapers and local high school teachers, and succeeded in attracting large audiences to the (free) illustrated lectures on Saturday afternoons. Assisted by ample lantern slides, L. O. Howard from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had talked about "Harmful and Beneficial Insects," Fewkes had described "The Indians as Stone Masons," and Secretary Walcott had attempted to personalize geology with a talk about "My Work in the Rockies." When George P. Merrill lectured about meteorites ("these interesting wanderers in space"), the Smithsonian publicity release explained that Merrill would "take for his text the passage of a meteor over Washington" a few weeks earlier, thereby attempting to add relevance and immediacy.

These public lecture programs continued through 1920 and were thereafter extended through a modest national dissemination effort. Twelve talks, written by Smithsonian experts "in a style to be instructive and entertaining to a general audience," were mimeographed and distributed to YMCA facilities throughout the country, where they were read aloud by local speakers. These specially prepared talks described such topics as the physics of the sun, the geology of "natural bridges," and "antiquities of the Bible." Clark had written three of the talks-"Strange Facts in Nature," "Flying Animals," and "Interesting Animals and Birds from East Africa"-and his supervisor had rated them "very entertaining and instructive."

The Smithsonian leadership initially assumed that radio would provide the same appropriate and positive publicity as the lecture hall series. "It seems to me that this offers an opportunity to bring the public in closer touch with the Institution and might, therefore, be worth while," Walcott wrote hopefully to Clark. The scientists constructed the radio talks as if they were just another set of lectures, requiring no unique techniques, language, topics, or emphasis.


Excerpted from Science on the Airby Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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