A member of Cornell’s first four-year graduating class of 1872, Garrett Putman Serviss (1851 – 1929) studied science during his time in Ithaca. Though he later earned a law degree from Columbia, Serviss was drawn instead to journalism, aptly applying his undergraduate education as the science columnist for the New York Sun. Like fellow Cornellian Carl Sagan, he had a talent for explaining scientific concepts and discoveries in layman’s terms as well a passion for promoting astronomy to a wide audience. In the words of the Sun’s editor, Serviss wrote “the story of the stars…His mail exceeds that of any other contributor. He treats authoritatively on the science of astronomy, yet captures and holds the attention of the reader who has no technical knowledge of the subject.”
In addition to many essays on science, most for large-circulation magazines such as Scientific American, The Cosmopolitan, and Popular Science Monthly, Serviss published no fewer than ten books for the amateur astronomer, some translated into Chinese, Swedish, and Spanish. In 1892 Serviss wrote the script for “A Trip to the Moon,” a lecture employing the era’s state of the art special effects technology. A mechanical assemblage of “optical lanterns,” screens, reflectors, planetary models, and paintings illustrated eclipses, lunar landscapes, and celestial phenomena from several off-world perspectives. Always the enthusiast eager to share his love for astronomy, Serviss designed a cardboard Star and Planet Finder that aimed to show “the stars which are visible to the naked eye at any hour of the night, on any day in the year,” as well as the position of planets in relation to neighboring stars and the horizon. His script for the short silent film, The Einstein Theory of Relativity, if simplistic in light of today’s science, concisely defined the concept for mass audiences in 1923.
This Barritt-Serviss Star and Planet Finder (ca. 1906) was a movable planisphere designed by Serviss and illustrator Leon Barritt (1851 – 1938). Intended for both personal and classroom use, it was priced at $5, the equivalent of $132 in today’s market, according the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation.
Scientific American for April 9, 1892, featuring a cover story on “A Trip to the Moon,” an early example of “scientific theater” written by Serviss. Presented at Carnegie Hall in New York, it employed a variety of optical and mechanical devices to present “imitations of celestial and terrestrial phenomena.”
A selection of Serviss’s astronomical works for the layman, including a Chinese translation of Astronomy in a Nutshell (c. 1939).