The History of Science -- We have come a long way!

David T. Crowther, Associate Editor, EJSE

For the holidays I received the Popular Science Book, Science: Year by Year, which discuses and illustrates the major discoveries and inventions in science from the last century – that is in just the last 100 years. Initially, I thought that this was just another coffee table book, but as I perused the chapters I realized that this was a substantial piece of work.

The National Science Education Standards (NSES) state that one of the eight content standards that must be taught is the “History and Nature of Science” (NRC, 1996 p. 6). The standards then separate the nature of science from the history of science in separate standards. The standards for grades K-4 state that “Through the use of short stories, films, videos, and other examples, elementary teachers can introduce interesting historical examples of women and men (including minorities and people with disabilities) who have made contributions in science. The stories can highlight how these scientists worked – that is, the questions, procedures, and contributions of diverse individuals to science and technology” (p. 141). In grades 5-8 the standards include the K-4 statements and then add two more standards including: “In historical perspective, science has been practiced by different individuals in different cultures. In looking at the history of many peoples, one finds that scientists and engineers of high achievement are considered to be among the most valued contributors to their culture” (p.171). And, “Tracing the history of science can show how difficult it was for scientific innovators to break through the accepted ideas of their time to reach the conclusions that we currently take for granted (p.171). Historical components of science become even more specific and detailed in the grades 9-12 standards (refer to the NSES) (NRC, 1996 p. 201 – 204).

So, with the established need to include the history of science into our classrooms, let me give a few very interesting examples from the book, Popular Science - Science: Year by Year (2001) published by Scholastic publishers, that took place just about 100 years ago.

1900 – “Austrian Physician Karl Landsteiner has discovered that each person has a slightly different type of blood. He has identified at least three types or groups of human blood, and has called them A, B, and O. His discovery may explain why people react in different ways when given a blood transfusion, because blood from a donor - the person giving the blood – may not match the blood of the person receiving it…. thus causing red blood cells to clump together, which can be extremely dangerous” (p.9).

1900 – “The German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, is marketing a new pain-relief drug under the trade name “Aspirin.” The drug was synthesized by a Bayer chemist, Felix Hoffmann, six years ago, when he was looking for a remedy to relieve his fathers arthritis. It is rumored that Aspirin – or acetylsalic acid – can also cure headaches” (p.15).

1903 – “December 13, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina: Orville and Wilbur Wright have just made the first flight in a powered, heavier than air machine. “The Flyer,” the name of the first air machine flew for 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet with Orville at the controls” (p. 15).

1905 – “Dr. Albert Einstein, a 26 year old working in the Swiss patent office in Berne, has impressed the scientific world wih his “special theory of relativity.” The theory is based upon the same idea that the velocity of light remains constant, whatever the relative motion of its source and an observer. The theory has amazing implications. IT states, among other things, that mass increases and time passes more slowly when an object is traveling close to the speed of sound” (p.21).

1905 – “A species of giant, meat eating dinosaur whose fossilized bones were unearthed three years ago in Hell Creek, Montana, has been named Tyrannosaurus rex by Henry Osborn, curator of the department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The name means “ruling tyrant lizard.” The bones were discovered by the famous fossil hunter Barnum Brown in rock strata indicating that the dinosaur is tens of millions of years old.

1909 – “Would you like hot buttered toast without the bother of holding a toasting fork in the fire? Then the new electric toaster, marketed by the General Electric Company of Schenectady, New York is for you. The toaster has a heating element made of wired that glow when plugged in. All you do is lay the bread over the wires and sit back. When one side is brown, you turn the bread over, and then your toast is done. The toaster’s main draw back is that you have to keep an eye on the toast and be ready to remove it before it burns. But, in spite of this problem, the toaster still seems likely to catch on” (p.28).

1909 – Sren Peter Srensen, a Danish Chemist, has devised a new scale for expressing acidity or alkinity of any chemical solution in water. The scale is called the “pH” scale and runs from 0 to 14. Neutral solutions (neither acidic or alkaline) have a pH of 7, while strong acids such as sulfuric acid have a pH in the range of 0 to 2. At the other extreme, strong alkalis such as caustic soda have a pH of 14. The pH of a solution is a measure of its concentration of hydrogen (H+) ions, The term pH means – potential for hydrogen” (p.29).

OK – so that was roughly 100 years ago – the book gets more startling when we look at some of the more recent things that we now all take for granted. In 1981IBM introduced its first personal computer and Air Bags were introduced in the automobile. In 1982 France Telecom introduced the first on-line service. 1984, the Apple computer is introduced, 1985 the hole in the Ozone is confirmed, 1987 DNA is used as evidence to convict a criminal and Prozac was approved for use in the U.S. In 1991 the World Wide Web (www) was introduced. In 1996 the first clone was made of a sheep. 1998 the DVD is introduced. And in 2000 the first draft of the human genome was completed.

So, what will the next 100 years offer? Or with the development of technology, what will the next 10 years have to offer? The history of science in important and we can learn about how to solve problems, what to do, what not to do, and the contributions of many individuals that have made our life what it is today. So, this next month or two, enrich your science program and teach a little of the history of science.


National Research Council (NRC), (1996). National Science Education Standards (NSES). National Academy Press. Washington D.C.

Popular Science: Science Year by Year (2001). Scholastic Publishers, New York.

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