Once, When We All Were Scientists

By James H. Burns: There was a time, when we all were scientists…

Or many of us wanted to be!

There were certain hallmarks of growing up somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s, if you had an interest in science…

First off, were those amazing How and Why Books of Wonder. The artwork in many of which is still superb, and whose texts, in certain editions, remain first class introductions to their subjects!

The most unusual element to these volumes may have been what in New York, anyway, seemed to be their excellent distribution in pet shops!  In both local pet stores of my youth (one of which occasionally had a tiger on display!), were spinner racks filled with the books.il_570xN_656847232_ej5t

The Science Service Science Program books were another talisman of the times…

The Science Program 5-1/2 by 8-1/4 inch volumes, were offered as  a monthly subscription  from Nelson Doubleday Inc. Each sixty-four page “digest” was in two-colors, but their special feature was a centerfold of beautiful full color photo stamps, which the reader could then attach in the appropriate “boxes” throughout the book.

Album slipcases which could hold a number of the volumes were also included with the subscription membership.

(Doubleday also used this overall format for other series, including the National Audobon Society Nature Program and the American Geographical Society Around the World Program.)Science-Program-Advertisement-1960 COMP

z0205goz0rk9jnDifferent Introductory membership kits throughout the 1960s, could include a poster, as well as the Mercury model seen here.  By my era, in the early 1970s, the model offered was a lovely rendition of the lunar module on the moon, with Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin upon the surface.Science-Program_Membership-Card-Back

“The Science Service,” itself remains an active organization as the publishers of Science News magazine.

With a name-change to the Society For Science and the Public in 2008,the group also publishes Science News For Students online (as well as The Science News website), and is one of the sponsors of the Intel Science and Engineering Fairs and Talent Searches, and other events.

Its contributions to the children of another time were also significant, on many fronts.

The Science Service was launched in 1921 by newspaper publisher Edward W. Scripps and California zoologist William Emerson Ritter, under the name the American Society for the Dissemination of Science, as a news service to make the latest scientific information available to the public. One year later, they started distributing their own periodical, Science Newsletter to “satisfy curiosity from educators, and the general public.”

One of the group’s greatest boons to youthful encouragement was their series of small science kits, Things of Science. Each month, a new small blue box (or sometimes a manila envelope) would be sent out, containing several “samples;” or the parts to make a basic but effective apparatus (some times out of cardboard cutouts!)  or other material, along with a miniature pamphlet with experiments.

(Kits through the years included “Aerodynamics,” “Liquid Crystals,” “Pendulum,”‘ “Buoyancy,” “Hydroponics,” “Optical Illusions,” “Seeds….”)

Things of Science was evidently the invention of Watson Davis, who was director of the Science Service from 1928 until 1967. It developed when the Service would send out samples to accompany articles. Things of Science officially commenced in 1940, and it was soon realized that its main audience was schools and science clubs, and other youngsters!

(One early mailing contained dinosaur bones, pounded into slivers, so that every member could have his own prehistoric specimen!)

Things of Science was sold to another company in 1981, who kept the club going for another nine years.  Historian George B. Moody says that at some point, the Science Service reacquired the rights to the series….

There were other instruments of wonder in many like-minded American homes. I can’t remember a time when my Dad didn’t have a “Star-Finder” in one of his bookshelves.

And the Edmund Scientific catalog was filled with a cavalcade of delights.

Intriguingly, I don’t remember my family ever actually ordering anything from the catalog, but it was the possibilities that were always so enticing. (I must admit, I still would like six-foot weather balloon, although I’m not quite exactly sure why…)576d12a9f2e4e21d485e474299c2ee78

And then, there was the Gilbert Chemistry Set….  An astonishing amalgam of chemicals and equipment, and experiments neatly printed out on index cards. I set up my “laboratory” on an old desk in the basement.

What, exactly, was I hoping to discover, as a ten-year old?

But I can still remember the sense of trust implicit when my father said I could use the bunsen burner on my own. And the thrill when my folks picked me up my first Erlenmeyer flask.

Earlier, there had been the fun of working with the microscope my Dad passed on down to me. And there were always a couple of telescopes somewhere nearby. But for some skygazing, it was my father’s World War II binoculars, brought home from Europe in 1945, that seemed to be the most stable.

Somewhere around my house were copies of Popular Science, Mechanix Illustrated…  Set apart, in a special place, were the Life magazine issues from 1955 debuting “The Epic of Man” series (with extraordinary depictions of primitive humanity), and the still remarkable Complete Book of Outer Space, from 1954.

Surely, there were signposts of your own scientific life as a girl or boy.

But all these ruminations lead me to one more pioneer of our nascent knowledge, someone who helped educate the young in years and temperament for over a couple of generations, through some of the most crucial periods of our history.

It also brings us to the aforementioned mystery that you just might be able to help solve…

When I was a little boy in the 1960s, there was a column in the newspapers, “Uncle Ray’s Corner.” (I suspect that the feature was in The New York Post, back when that was actually considered New York’s liberal newspaper.)

I can remember being disconcerted when Uncle Ray’s column was suddenly gone from the daily, just a while after I had discovered it. Like other kids, I had clipped and saved some of the installments, in a notebook which was now destined to have too many empty pages.

I remember “Uncle Ray’s Corner” as being a science column, an early stop for those enchanted by the era’s sense of exploration. But apparently, the articles were across a wide range of subjects, anything that might interest a school-age child.

My parents actually said they remembered “Uncle Ray,” from their own younger days, but I didn’t see how that was quite possible…

Until the dawn of the internet.

When I finally got actively online, later than many, in 1999. I’d occasionally look for information about Uncle Ray, but with little luck. Whatever kindness and good fellowship of awareness had been in his columns, had made an impression that lasted decades.

Suddenly, years later, I was able to begin finding listings for some of his old books.

Uncle Ray was Ramon Peyton Coffman. Beginning in the 1930s (if not earlier), he wrote such volumes for “young people” as The Child’s Story of the Human Race, Uncle Ray’s Story of the Stone Age People, Famous Kings and Queens, and New World Settlement.  (There was even a Big Little Book edition, Uncle Ray’s Story of the United States.)

Commencing in the late 1940s, Coffman was also responsible for Uncle Ray’s Magazine, subtitled “Adventures in Fascinating Facts.” It seems to have been devoted to any of the myriad of historical, scientific and current world events that might interest kids.

A few years ago, an obituary tribute to Coffman popped up from the Madison Wisconsin Central High School Records.

The obit says that Coffman was born circa 1896, in Indianapolis, and grew up in Madison.  He attended Yale and Columbia Universities, as well as the New York College for Social Research, and earned a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1927.  Coffman lived in Shorewood Hills, Wisconsin from 1935 until 1949, and then resided in several states, “often returning to Madison.”0_0_4858_6927

uncle ray clipping“Uncle Ray’s Column” was launched around 1925, “to teach children about science.” Appearing in many newspapers in the United States “and several foreign countries.” It ran, it seems, through 1970.

Coffman passed in June, 1989 in Palo Alto, California, survived by four children, Gratton, Peyton, Roger and Kathleen Davis.

Why all this curiosity from me about Coffman?  His column was from a time when more of our society celebrated the simple pleasure of knowing about things. It’s extraordinary to think that Coffman’s career as a popular educator spanned the time before jets, and the splitting of the atom, and, of course, the space age; from before the Depression, to the heart of the tumult and joy of the 1960s…

The internet must be a godsend for scientifically inclined children, but the beauty of a column like Ray Coffman’s was that it was there for anybody in the newspaper, from a precocious tot to a like-minded adult.

Surely, those who helped set so many of our paths of exploration should be remembered!

It strikes me as sad that someone like “Uncle Ray” has so little trace on the web. I’m hoping that some here can help expand our familiarity with this gentleman of elucidation.

I also have a somewhat selfish wish.

In the late 1960s, I sent in a request to the column: just for the asking, a reader could receive a special certificate proclaiming that you belonged to Uncle Ray’s club (or legion of fellow junior wonderers!).

I had that yellowish heavy-stock proclamation, attached to my science scrapbook from the 1960s, until less than two years ago, when due to an awful calamity, almost all my collection was destroyed.

I’ve found no sign of the Uncle Ray “diploma” anywhere on the net and would love to see it again.

(I had planned on scanning it, along with many other irreplaceable mementos from the era, and later, other histories.)

In fact, all the books and items seen here were once part of that assemblage.

But all these totems of the future, very happily, belong to all of us.

They are always nice to revisit, and remember such gifts of inspiration, and strive to create such passages for all our tomorrows.

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30 thoughts on “Once, When We All Were Scientists

  1. First!

    I don’t remember Uncle Ray.

    I do remember, however, the How and Why books. I had a Gilbert chemistry set. I also had an inexpensive microscope, and faunched over the more expensive model that had a built in light (as opposed to having to use a mirror).

    And I definitely belonged to one of the Doubleday clubs. I might still have that Man in Space poster, complete with the gummed label glue-in stickers, buried in some box somewhere.

  2. I had that Science Program. But uncaring, I allowed the books to be scattered and destroyed.

    I remember the Edmund Scientific catalog, too. For some reason, the searchlights always seemed desirable. Fresnel lenses. Huge lithium batteries. The list of desires was endless, and the money to fulfill them less so.

    Nowadays science is going to be done by others, because you’re too busy playing Angry Birds on your cell phone and posting offensive selfies.

  3. Ten cents for an Apollo Lunar Lander? Bargain. How much would the US Government pay for one?

  4. Great post!

    I had that Lunar Lander; had, lost and then re-acquired a slipcased set of the pamphlets and

    fairly frequently visited the Edmund Scientific facility in NJ. The catalog did not compare. They had a submarine’s periscope mounted in a vestibule; trays of minerals and rocks, military surplus, all kinds of dismounted electronics and telescopes. My first ‘scope came from Edmunds (wish I still had it!)

  5. I assume the Frank Pape who did illustrations for Uncle Ray was also the same Frank Pape who did illustrations for James Branch Cabell’s books?

  6. Relatively confident the US version of “King Kong vs Godzilla” a scientific consultant to UN-sanctioned TV coverage of the big fight (played by Harry Holcombe!) at one point uses a copy of one of the How and Why science books to back up or make clear some detail of the Kong/Godzilla millennia-long feud. The one with a T-Rex style dinosaur on the cover. I had one of those but never found the page with that key info.

  7. What about the Time/Life Nature books? They were a subscription series, one every month or two. I started getting them when I was 8 and they were a bit above me, but the pictures and sidebars drew me in. Later I read them cover to cover. There was also a Science series, which I also got but didn’t strike the same chord for me. Those books were a strong influence on me in pursuing biology and anthropology in college and later becoming a science editor.

  8. I was a member of that Science Program and corresponding one for the states of the union. Loved those stickers.
    Edmund Scientific was located in Barrington, NJ and I actually visited their huge store in the late 70s. It was a WONDERFUL place with both science toys and real scientific equipment. much of it made exclusively for Edmund. Sadly, some years ago they were bought by a Canadian firm which closed the store and stopped making all that neat stuff.

  9. I have a large stack of government pamphlets on all manner of sciences, mostly electricity and atomic energy. My father got them for my eldest brother. Interesting reading, if a bit jingoistic.

    Remember when NASA would send you a big envelope of photos and leaflets if you wrote them?

  10. How and Why books? Check.

    Science Program books (with slipcases)? Check.

    Gilbert Chemistry set? Check.

    All a major part of my life in 50s and 60s, and a big reason I have a B.S in Chemistry (which I only use nowadays to answer Jeopardy questions–but then, computer programming wasn’t much in the public eye back then).

  11. Edmund is still in business and selling sciency stuff.

    We had little kits for doing science and engineering stuff – they came in cylindrical packages and were, IIRC, from Revell. One was gears, one was lights and circuits, and I forget what the third one was.

  12. OMG the How and Why books! I recognize several of those from my childhood. And such is the nature of the reflexive tracking/counting function in my brain that I immediately noticed the gender balance on the cover of Beginning Science. We may have worn cute little dresses with Peter Pan collars, but by golly we could be scientists must as much as our brothers! (Hmm…looks again…as long as we were white, of course.)

  13. And the Jet Propulsion Science Kit (and was there ever a groovier font?) describes itself as “an experimenter-fun toy for thinking boys and girls”.

  14. I was a little late for some of this (having been born in 1968), though my mother had most of the Time/Life Science books. I did have a microscope, chemistry set, working steam engine, at least two different electronics kits, and one interesting kit of plastic tubes and valves that was basically a primer on how pumps worked.

    I was also pretty heavily into National Geographic World (now National Geographic Kids) for a while, which then got into things like Roy A. Gallant’s ‘Atlas of Our Universe’. I also had the illustrated version of the Cosmos companion book from the original TV series.

    We also had a small stack of Edmund Scientific catalogues, at least the local Efstonscience version; Efstonscience was a Canadian operation that resold a lot of Edmund Scientific equipment on this side of the border.

  15. I assume the Frank Pape who did illustrations for Uncle Ray was also the same Frank Pape who did illustrations for James Branch Cabell’s books?

    Yes, he also the dust jackets for Dennis Wheatley novels like The Devil Rides Out.

    The Uncle Ray was Ramon Coffman. It started out as Uncle Ray’s Corner newspaper column and later came the Uncle Ray’s Magazine.

  16. D’oh. I suppose I should read the whole thing before commenting. Couldn’t delete the last bit in time.

  17. James, I quite enjoyed this post.

    Spurred by it, I have uncovered evidence of fanzine-like activity as early as 1913 on the part of Uncle Ray– with bonus photo of his boyhood home on Monona Drive in Madison. The Typical Boy was not a fanzine but a specimen of “amateur journalism,” a hobby ancestral to SF fandom.

    Here’s some more detail, with a fuzzy picture of young Master Coffman himself, age fifteen. The Curtis Publishing Company was pleased to tout his industriousness in its eagerness to recruit “thousands of the brightest, manliest boys in America” who would, like Ramon, peddle its magazines.

    (Obligatory snide 21st-century comment: If the bright, womanly girls of 1913 also needed spending-money, they weren’t going to get it from Curtis, I suppose.)

  18. I actually bought a six foot weather balloon from Edmund’s. As a grad student in physics in the early 70’s, three of us decided we wanted to make a statement and fly it over the physics building. (We had keys to the roof.)
    Alas, when the balloon arrived and we researched how much a tank of helium would cost, our pockets couldn’t afford it.
    We settled for filling it with air and bouncing it around the halls and on the quad.
    Note that when not filled to capacity, the balloon strongly resembled a breast complete with nipple, which we emphasized with some judiciously applied color.
    “Bounce Your Boobies” was popular on Dr. Demento back then…

  19. Thanks for the memories. Sure enough, I still have a slipcase of pamphlets from that Audubon nature program, stamps glued in place, as well as many alluring items I couldn’t resist ordering from the Edmund’s catalog, including a “low-friction air puck” (which worked, at least, on the dining room table) and a large chunk of optical glass, which might still serve someday as a murder weapon. I certainly envy your readers who say they visited the Edmund showroom; that sounds like paradise.

  20. How and Why! Loved those. Also the Time-Life books, and the leftovers of my brother’s chemistry and metallurgy sets. There’s nothing cool in chemistry sets nowadays.

  21. heh. Just remembered that when it was time to build a control panel for my model rocket launcher, we went to Edmunds to hunt for parts; I ended up with some neat dome lights for the status indicators (ready to launch, locked, etc), a key switch and a couple of toggle switches, not to mention the launch button switch (big and green!)

  22. Alas, when the balloon arrived and we researched how much a tank of helium would cost, our pockets couldn’t afford it.

    This reminds me of something I haven’t thought of in a long time–as a kid (late-70’s, early-80’s) I had this thing once that was essentially an extra-long, thin black garbage bag. You fill it with air, tie off the ends, and wait for sunlight to heat it until it is neutrally buoyant. (I distinctly remember laying it out, don’t remember how well it worked.) Guessing that it would likely be called a solar balloon, I just googled, and yep. This one looks like more or less what I had (though probably vastly more expensive than mine, even correcting for inflation.) For those of you playing along at home, you could probably build a functional one using a reasonably air-tight, thin garbage bag on a hot summer day.

    (Now that I think of it, these things probably used to be sold on those deceptive-ad-dense comic book pages back in the day.)

    Quick edit before time runs out–giant one on Amazon.


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  24. Ah, the memories! I had that exact same Gilbert chemistry set, and still possess a few pieces from it. (Strangely, I have never seen even a portion of one being sold at a flea market.) I also had a superb Tasco microscope set, probably the best “kid’s microscope” that they made, which I still have mostly intact (except for the methylene blue being dried up and the Canada balsam solidified.)

    My Dad bought “us” both a cheap Gilbert reflecting telescope and a far more impressive Tasco refractor on an equatorial mount (still sitting under a dust-cloth on its hardwood tripod in his garage.) I also got a great Skil-Craft geology set (regrettably sold at a flea market) and still have TWO Mineralight black-light sets with rock specimens that I got from Edmund Scientific, as well as one of their optical sets, some microscopy accessories, several of their own publications on astronomy and telescopes plus books by others, a hot air balloon that you tediously glued together panel by panel, star finders, prisms, etc., all of which I still have (except for the tissue-paper hot air balloon, which eventually tattered.)

    I had the 10 cent lunar module landing scene from the Science Service, and still have the slipcover with three or four volumes inside. And I LOVED the “How and Why Wonder” books – still have the Anatomy volume. I also had Revells’ “The Visible Man” and a “Visible Frog.”

    A few years ago I went into a toy store to see what they were offering kids now, and was appalled to see that the microscope sets were all plastic, including cheap plastic specimen slides with rounded corners, each with four specimens in a row TAPED on. Yes, you read that right – Scotch tape rubbed down over the bee’s leg, ant’s antenna, etc. air bubbles and all. For chemistry sets, all that they had was “Professor Snape’s Potions Lab” wherein you could make a giant reproduction of one of Ron Weasley’s boogers.

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