recess radio program

Ye Olde Science
    by Rita Smith

When John Newbery published the first books specifically designed for children in the mid-1700's the books had a dual purpose: to both amuse and instruct. Many of the books were imaginative literature, but some were non-fiction and some of the non-fiction books discussed the sciences. A very early example of this genre of children's literature was entitled The Newtonian System of Philosophy adapted to the capacities of young gentlemen and ladies, published by Newbery in 1761. The "Newtonian System of Philosophy" meaning natural philosophy, or science. In this book, a group of children, invite a knowledgeable young man, Tom Telescope, into their home to give them lectures and demonstrations on science. In the six lectures, Mr. Telescope ranges over all aspects of contemporary science and natural history, from matter and motion through the solar system, the atmosphere, meteors, mountains, rivers, springs, the sea, animals, vegetables, and minerals to the five senses of man and his incredible mind.

So The Newtonian System of Philosophy is packed with a lot of scientific facts, but Newbery knew that if he wanted the book to do well, he had to make it interesting and entertaining as well as instructive. Well executed copperplate engravings add visual interest and small woodcuts of globes, electrical machines and hot air balloons expand and enhance the descriptions in the text. The lectures are narrated with wit and imagination and are structured as discussions between Telescope and the group gathered around him, who interrupt and ask question or respond to the experiments with amazement or funny remarks. This interaction adds a sense of drama and some levity to the enterprise. Telescope brings in some fascinating scientific equipment including a telescope, a barometer, and a microscope, and explains how to handle these instruments and how they work, but he also utilizes nursery toys with which the children are familiar, thereby aligning science with play and fun and making the marvels of science an understandable part of the daily life of the child. Two different sized balls and a candle, for example, illustrate an eclipse and when talking about motion, Telescope points out that any child who has played with a top knows what motion is.

The combination of popular interest in the facts of science and the entertaining manner of delivering those facts proved successful. The Newtonian System of Philosophy went through several editions as society and science changed, but was a staple on children's bookshelves for over 80 years.


Newbery, John. The Newtonian System of Philosophy. London: Printed for Ogilvy and Speare, 1794.
Secord, James A. "Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls, 1761-1838" in History of Science, 23(1985) p. 127-151.

Copyright 2005 Rita Smith

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Wednesday, 23-Feb-2005 14:15:53 EST

"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."