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Nature journal digitises archive
By Arran Frood

Nature cover (Nature)

The entire archives of the prestigious science journal Nature, stretching back to the first issue on 4 November 1869, have been made available online.

Previously, only issues going back to 1950 were accessible on the net.

The pre-1950s Nature archives include seminal moments in science history, from the theory of mechanical flight to the discovery of nuclear fission.

Many discoveries first reported in Nature went on to win Nobel Prizes, particularly in the physical sciences.

50 years from now Nature could be in our brains by means of implants
Philip Campbell, Nature editor-in-chief
"There are so many gems," says Nature's current editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell.

"It's great to be able to sit at my desktop and visit a quaint discussion of the web-constructing ingenuity of a spider in a writer's back garden in Torquay, alongside the altogether more heavyweight letter from Lord Rayleigh on Darwin's theory of co-evolution of insects and the colours of flowers."

A place for advertisers to reach a very focused market

But the magazine was not immediately successful.

Despite the boom in periodical publishing in Victorian Britain in the 1860s, the fledgling Nature did not make a profit for more than 30 years and only survived because of the commitment and belief of its first publisher, Alexander Macmillan, co-founder of Macmillan Publishers, and the hard work of the first editor, Norman Lockyer.

An astrophysicist who discovered the element helium in the Sun's corona decades before it was found on Earth, Lockyer had a forceful personality which led to damaging clashes with many of the leading scientists of the day.

Indeed, some historians of science have suggested that Lockyer even encouraged controversies in the pages of Nature to raise awareness of the journal and boost its readership.

New paths

Nature under Lockyer featured numerous articles regarding Charles Darwin's theory of evolution written by heavyweights of Victorian science such as Thomas Henry Huxley, the man known as "Darwin's Bulldog".

After a mammoth editorship lasting 50 years, Lockyer handed over the reins to Richard Gregory, the son of a famous Bristolian street poet; and Gregory's humble upbringing brought a more socially oriented, but no less scientific, perspective to the journal in the years following World War I.

Nature cover (Nature)
With time, things have become a little more sophisticated
Gregory made weekly editorials on social and political issues a feature of the magazine, so much so that Nature was even dubbed "the most important weekly written in English" and banned in Nazi Germany for criticising the expulsion of Jewish scientists.

Memorable moments in science under Gregory's editorship included the discovery of the neutron and an entire special issue devoted to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

On the eve of World War II, editing the journal, by now an international institution, was entrusted to the two men: "Jack" Brimble and Arthur Gale.

Under their joint stewardship, Nature published seminal papers in palaeoanthropology, a string of papers on nuclear energy, and the discovery of holography and the laser - the latter famously dubbed "a solution looking for a problem".

The "Swinging Sixties" also saw Nature rejuvenated as John Maddox's journalistic zeal brought news to the fore.

During his tenure the modern incarnation of the journal was born, ably continued by later editors David Davies and Philip Campbell.

Emerging tools

A new website, History of the Journal Nature, has been launched to coincide with the release of the archives and hosts a multimedia fest which includes video, interactive timelines and specially commissioned essays that examine an aspect of each editorship.

For a journal spanning more than 14 decades, there have been just seven editors of Nature.

"The video interviews give a personal feel to the journal that is otherwise unavailable," says Campbell.

"But above all, I enjoy the timelines. I never knew how Nature had approached the early days of nuclear tests as described in the section about the 1940s."

Harry Kroto with a model of C60 (PA)
As with the research on C60, many Nature papers have led to Nobels
Full access to the archives requires a personal subscription, but most of the content of the accompanying history site is free, such as a blog where anyone can vote and comment on their favourite Nature paper.

Will the synthesis of C60, a spherical form of carbon that forms the backbone of many developments in nanotechnology (and a personal favourite of Campbell's) triumph over the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer, or perhaps any of Nature's odder publishing moments?

This is, after all, the magazine that gave the Loch Ness Monster a scientific name (Nessiteras rhombopteryx), investigated the science behind homeopathy, and published a test of the telepathic abilities of spoon-bending magician Uri Geller.

One thing is for sure: having survived nearly 140 years, Nature will be a part of the furniture of scientific publishing for some time yet, although not necessarily printed on paper.

"Print has an appeal, but 50 years from now Nature could be in our brains by means of implants or other types of extension," says Campbell.

"I'd love to think that Nature could be experienced multi-dimensionally in some way."

Arran Frood was Nature's web projects editor in 2007

Charles Darwin's works go online
19 Oct 06 |  Science/Nature
Darwin's letters archived on web
16 May 07 |  Science/Nature

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