A Brief History of "The Amateur Scientist"

Scientific American's, "The Amateur Scientist" department has long been the definitive "how-to" resource for citizen-scientists. The column is famous for revealing the brass-tacks secrets of research and showing home-based experimenters how to make original discoveries using only inexpensive materials. Since its debut in 1928, "The Amateur Scientist" has stimulated hundreds of thousands of science fair projects, inspired innumerable amateur experiments, launched careers in science, and has enjoyed a place of honor in classrooms and school libraries all over the world.

Although always accessible to an amateur's budget, projects from "The Amateur Scientist" are often elegant and quite sophisticated. Some designs have been so innovative that they have set new standards in a field. Indeed, professionals often borrow from "The Amateur Scientist" to find low-cost solutions to real-world research problems.

Albert Ingalls

"The Amateur Scientist" traces its pedigree to 1928, when famed astronomer Albert Ingalls began the column as "The Back Yard Astronomer." Ingalls told amateurs how they could get personally involved in astronomy by building professional-quality instruments and carry out cutting-edge observations. The name of the column changed several times, appearing as "The Amateur Astronomer", "The Amateur Telescope Maker", and "Telescoptics." Eventually Ingalls chose to broaden the column's scope to include "how-to's" from all fields of science. When he did, he also changed the department's name to "The Amateur Scientist."

C. L. Stong

Ingalls wrote his column for almost 30 years. When he died in 1954 the publisher selected C. L. Stong to continue the feature. Stong was an electrical engineer for Westinghouse and a master tinkerer who brilliantly extended the column, frequently peppering it with extremely sophisticated projects including home-built lasers and atom smashers. Many working professional scientists say that they first got hooked on science through Stong's amazing columns.

In 1960 Stong compiled a book titled The Amateur Scientist, (Simon and Schuster) the only collection of articles that has ever been published from this column (besides this one). However, limited to paper and ink, Stong could only fit in 57 projects. Despite being only a partial anthology, never being advertised in Scientific American , and appearing long before the rise of home schooling, Stong's book sold over 10,000 copies. It went out of print in 1972 and is much sought-after today by amateur scientists.

Jearl Walker

Stong ran the department for over 20 years until he died in 1977. In 1978, Scientific American hired Jearl Walker, Ph.D. to take over. Walker had caught the publisher's attention thanks to The Flying Circus of Physics, a book Walker wrote which highlighted the fascinating physics of the everyday world. Under Walker's stewardship "The Amateur Scientist" presented fewer how-to projects, and instead focused on the physics of common phenomena. Walker's columns are still frequently consulted by educators and students alike.

Walker resigned from Scientific American in 1990 after 12 years. Collectively, Ingalls, Stong and Walker account for 90 percent of all articles.

Forrest Mims

After Walker left, Scientific American decided to rededicate the column to hands-on projects and so they hired Forrest Mims III, a renowned writer of books for Radio Shack and an accomplished amateur scientist. However, during a conversation between Mims and the publisher, it came up that Mims was an Evangelical Christian who rejects Darwinian evolution and advocated a creationist or intelligent design view of origins. Mims was later asked his views on abortion, and he replied that he was against it. Not wanting to be perceived as supporting Creationism (a movement that attempts to include the creation story of Genesis in biology curricula as a scientifically viable account of human origins), Scientific American fired Mims. Mims charged religious discrimination and the story was carried through most major US news outlets. Nevertheless, three of Mims' columns were published, along with several letters to the editor.

Although the incident didn't diminish Scientific American's commitment to the column, it did make them reluctant to hire another amateur scientist to write it. But professionals tend to be too narrowly focused in their own disciplines. The publisher invited many potential columnists to submit individual articles, and most of these were published under "The Amateur Scientist." But the magazine was unable to find anyone with both professional credentials and the incredible breadth of science knowledge necessary to recapture the popularity the column enjoyed under Stong and Ingalls. And without a regular columnist, the department languished, appearing only sporadically between 1990 and 1995. Most Scientific American readers stopped looking for it when they got a new magazine.

Shawn Carlson

In 1995 the editorial staff discovered the Society for Amateur Scientists. It's Founder and Executive Director was Dr. Shawn Carlson, a physicist and established science writer who had left academe a year earlier to devote his career to helping amateur scientists. Dr. Carlson took over the column in November of that year and immediately returned the column's focus to cutting-edge projects that amateurs can do inexpensively at home. Today, over 1 million Scientific American readers turn to "The Amateur Scientist" every month. The column has never been more popular.