The Handbook as Genre: Conflicting Concepts in 1950s Physics Publishing

Why should researchers publish printed books in an age when everything is expected to be available online and when print is widely deemed outdated? Similarly, from 1955 to 1988, physicists who published articles in the 78-volume Handbuch der Physik—Encyclopedia of Physics had to explain to their colleagues why they were participating in a project that many thought too slow, too heavy, too expensive, too definitive, yet not dependable or up-to-date enough. Some authors were assailed by doubts themselves since publication dates were pushed back by the publisher time and time again. (Surely, the editor would have declined his own role in the project, had he known that the series would take some 33 years to complete.) Looking at the early period of the making of this handbook reveals some interesting aspects of the characteristics of science publishing in the mid-twentieth century, right when the struggling German publishing industry was seeking ways to gain traction,[1] and just before journal publishing as a stand-alone publishing model picked up pace.[2]


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In 1949, a publisher’s representative declared enthusiastically that “the Handbook should for some decades be the standard work on physics."[3] All specialties of the broad field were to be covered, all eminent authorities included, and trilingualism adopted (with the half-hearted inclusion of French). This handbook series, this would-be standard work, was bound to adorn libraries of each and every college and university with physics courses—libraries all over the world. Although this might sound overly optimistic now, maybe even slightly delusional, the publisher had a lot of experience with producing and selling so-called standard works. German had been an important common language among scientists trained before World War I,[4] contributing to the fact that about half of the turnover of Springer’s exclusively German-language scientific publication program was sold abroad at that time.[5] Export numbers rapidly declined with World War I, improved in the 1920s, and declined again after 1933, when the National Socialists took over the country. Any boycott of German scientists and German scientific institutions meant specialized publishers suffered the consequences, too. After World War I, German as a common language among scientists picked up again, but this did not hold true for post-World War II science. Thus, although the handbook’s exclusively German-language predecessor (published between 1926 and 1929) had been in high demand all over the world, a similar outcome for a new series exclusively in German could not be expected.

On the eve of the 1950s, Springer Verlag was eager to present itself to the scientific world as risen from the grave of National Socialism by stressing the internationality of the new project: “Handbuch der Physik—Encyclopedia of Physics” was chosen as its main title. Ferdinand Springer (1881–1965) was an enthusiastic advocate of German as a language of science. Having a bilingual title was a major step towards internationalization, which was much more vigorously enforced and further expedited by his successors after 1965. As early as 1946, his employee of ten years Paul Rosbaud (1896–1963) had called Springer’s attention to arguments in favor of active internationalization, and the prospect of losing out on international revenue helped convince him to open his business to multilingual publications. Rosbaud had moved to London after the war, where he helped set up a British subsidiary for Springer and also acted as Springer’s tipster for publishing in Britain. According to Rosbaud, competitors in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States were planning to emulate Springer’s most successful titles; if they did not want to come out on the short end, getting British scientists onboard all large book projects should be a priority.[6]

In his letters to potential editors, the adviser seemed to know which chords to strike in order to persuade them to get on board. Doubts about the viability of the format had to be avoided. If doubts were raised, they should be met by fanning fears of a competing scientist taking on the task instead. When addressing potential editors, the publisher’s representative kept the focus on the fame of the handbook’s predecessor. Physicists could be counted on to be familiar with the famous “blue handbook” or “das blaue Handbuch,” also known as “the Geiger Scheel” after its two editors.[7] Who would refuse to have their names printed on a heap of volumes destined to be “standard works,” recognized by all researchers in the various subdisciplines of physics?

Apparently, many dared to refuse. Fast-forward a decade and the discrepancy in valuation could hardly have been greater: “The very idea of an encyclopedia,” argued one physicist in a review, ”has become illusory."[8] Instead of publishing survey articles in a handbook format, the author, himself the editor-in-chief of the journal Nuclear Physics (published by North-Holland, which later merged with Elsevier), suggested abandoning encyclopedic projects in the sciences altogether, not least because of systematics, namely, changing subject groupings. This stance had nothing to do with a resentful attitude. “Insistence on criticism,” he noted, “ought not to obscure the essential fact that the production of this monumental encyclopedia is a magnificent achievement.” Indeed, several other reviews penned by him took a much more favorable tone. For example, his review of volume 46/1 (Cosmic Rays) lauded its “homogenous and well-ordered content,” although at the same time he hinted that other volumes were less coherent.[9] Nuclear Physics silently ceased to review further volumes, however, and its editor concluded, “some more flexible type of publication is called for here.”

Despite some reviewers’ misgivings, the publisher did not stop issuing further titles. In 1984, the last volume in the handbook series, Encyclopedia of Physics 49/7: Geophysics 3/7 (that is, the seventh book of volume 49, being the third volume on geophysics and bearing the title Geophysics 3/7  ) was published—in two parts. Finally, in 1988, all the parties involved could sigh with relief when the last installment, volume 55, the general index to the whole lot, finally hit the shelves.

A small slice of the handbook (photo by author)

But didn’t I say there were 78 volumes? In fact, the 78th book to be published was listed as volume 55. Adding to the confusion, Springer maintained no chronology whatsoever in the titles it published individually. So what kind of handbook had the publisher and its editors envisaged in the first place?

As it turns out, their main aim was to replace the bestselling prewar Handbuch der Physik with a completely revised edition,[10] thereby making obsolete any wartime reproductions of the first edition produced in the United States. During World War II, the American Office of Alien Property had signed off on the reproduction of a whopping 238 Springer volumes from a total of 390 available titles. The difference between these two figures suggests that 152 volumes belonged to multivolume series such as Handbuch der Physik, insofar as U.S. officials had no reason to withhold permission on any volume.[11] In other words, such series had once represented a large portion of Springer’s sales and held out the promise of doing so again.

Begun in 1949, when the publisher was by no means re-established, the new physics handbook project carried hopes for renewed fame. It could also restore the trust of contributing authors, many of whom had been disappointed by their publisher’s inability to secure royalties for wartime sales.[12]

The old handbook was to be replaced by an up-to-date, now multilingual edition, one that stood a chance of not being copied by competitors, one favored by the libraries of an increasing number of institutions involved in physics research and teaching.[13] Indeed, just as the books’ short, effective titling indicated (Spectroscopy I; Acoustics II; Astrophysics V, and so on), reviewers unanimously advised librarians to take note of the series and to acquire it for the use of researchers and students alike. Some articles were deemed excellent and timeless introductions for students; some were lauded for their character as extensive and up-to-date surveys worthy of their respective ever-expanding fields; and some less current volumes were nonetheless deemed helpful for their insights into bygone days.[14] From the perspective of the publisher, the reviewer’s point that the genre of the handbook might be obsolete was itself irrelevant. Just as the reviewer had suspected, individual scientists were not the publisher’s target audience, or else the publisher could have made individual articles available in installments. Instead, Springer chose to stick to a publishing model that favored “heavy Teutonic tomes.” As for the scientists who joined the ranks of the handbook authors, publishing in a widely circulated and highly esteemed series increased their visibility among colleagues, as is still true today.

In my current research, I am using the reactions to the publication of the Handbuch der Physik, as captured in a variety of reviews, as a point of departure to explore how scientists have negotiated scientific communication. Who was to say what was deemed an acceptable venue for the publication of survey pieces? Studying formats like Springer’s Handbuch der Physik promises to provide insights into debates about the proper codification and communication of scientific knowledge, a question about which there was little consensus in the 1950s, much like today. By following the ubiquitous adviser Paul Rosbaud through the archives of publishers such as Springer, Pergamon Press (acquired by Elsevier in 1991), Interscience (merged with Wiley in 1961), and Oxford University Press, I can trace the negotiations he was involved in, negotiations that produced a number of new journals, challenging academic publishing and even book publishing in its traditional sense.

Alrun Schmidtke is a PhD student in the history of science at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Her research on scientists’ roles in twentieth-century science publishing is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.


  1. Michael D. Gordin, Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), esp. 188–212, 267–91.  ↩
  2. Stephen Buranyi, “Is the Staggeringly Profitable Business of Scientific Publishing Bad for Science?,” The Guardian, June 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/27/profitable-business-scientific-publishing-bad-for-science.  ↩
  3. Paul Rosbaud to Siegfried Flügge, June 8, 1949, Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin, Historische Sammlungen, Julius Springer Verlagsarchiv (hereafter: SVA), B/F 1045 (Hdb. Physik).  ↩
  4. Gordin, Scientific Babel, 159–212.  ↩
  5. Heinz Sarkowski, Springer-Verlag: Stationen seiner Geschichte I (1842–1945) (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1992).  ↩
  6. Post-World War II correspondence between Paul Rosbaud and Ferdinand Springer, SVA, D 45–4.  ↩
  7. References are made frequently in Springer’s collection of reviews: SVA, Rz Handbuch der Physik.  ↩
  8. Leon Rosenfeld, book review of S. V. Flügge, ed., Handbuch der Physik—Encyclopedia of Physics, vols. 39, 40, and 42.,” Nuclear Physics 25, no. 7 (1959): 111–112, here 112.  ↩
  9. Leon Rosenfeld, book review of S. Flügge, ed., Handbuch der Physik, vol. 46/1, Nuclear Physics 27, no. 4 (1961): 693.  ↩
  10. Link to vol. 15 (Low Temperature Physics II ) in the revised edition of 1956: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-642-45838-5 (volume 14 is, for some reason, not digitally available in the SpringerLink database). Note how “SpringerLink” levels the earlier and the later edition when referencing the handbook series, thereby presenting a continuous project that its editors as well as its publisher Ferdinand Springer by all means intended to overhaul with the second edition: https://link.springer.com/bookseries/182.  ↩
  11. Springer books accounted for almost half of the scientific, medical and technology-related titles that were dealt with by the Office of the Alien Property Custodian. Heinz Sarkowski, “The Growth and Decline of German Scientific Publishing 1850–1945,” in A Century of Science Publishing: A Collection of Essays, ed. Einar H. Fredriksson (Amsterdam: IOS Press, 2001), 25–34, here 31.  ↩
  12. One famous example is Max Born’s textbook “Optik”. Ferdinand Springer made sure that Born received royalty payments as soon as company funds allowed, and his author recognized the publisher’s sustained effort by granting his very inexperienced new British firm, Pergamon Press, publishing rights for its completely revised second edition. See Frank Holl, Produktion und Distribution wissenschaftlicher Literatur: Der Physiker Max Born und sein Verleger Ferdinand Springer 1913–1970 (Frankfurt a.M.: Buchhändler-Vereinigung, 1996), 163–209. For Springer’s post-World War II company history, see Heinz Götze, Springer-Verlag: Stationen seiner Geschichte II (1945–1992) (Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1992).  ↩
  13. Daniel Kevles, The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977).  ↩
  14. Most of the reviewers touched upon each volume’s usefulness in the classroom. SVA, Rz Handbuch der Physik.  ↩