Time Capsule

When APA members gather in Toronto Aug. 6–9, it will mark the association's 117th meeting. The size and complexity of today's meeting would no doubt amaze the 18 psychologists who attended the first APA convention.

In the summer of 1892, the new science of psychology was about a decade old in America. There were psychology laboratories at Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Harvard, Indiana, Stanford, Cornell, Yale and Clark universities, and at the universities of Wisconsin, Kansas, Nebraska, Toronto and Iowa. William James's "Principles of Psychology" (1890) was the book of the hour, and the American Journal of Psychology was in its sixth year of being published by Clark University.

The components of a new scientific discipline seemed to be in place—laboratories and associated doctoral programs to train the new scientists and a journal where they could publish their research. But something was missing. There was no organization of the new psychologists, no society to establish a community, no place to gather and discuss common interests. That was about to change thanks to G. Stanley Hall, then president of Clark University and the man who had established America's first psychology laboratory and first journal. Adding to his list of firsts, Hall created America's first psychology convention where America's first psychological association was formed. Hall wrote to his psychology colleagues in North America, inviting them to a meeting on July 8, 1892. Although Hall hosted the meeting, he did not preside over it. That duty was filled by George S. Fullerton of the University of Pennsylvania. The exact number in attendance at this organizational meeting isn't known, but the outcome was appointment of a seven-member planning committee to convene the first meeting. Fullerton and Hall served on that committee, as did William James from Harvard, James Mark Baldwin from Toronto, Joseph Jastrow from Wisconsin, George Ladd from Yale, and James McKeen Cattell from Columbia. Fullerton agreed to host the first convention at the University of Pennsylvania in December of that year, and Jastrow was given the task of organizing the program.

(December would be the traditional meeting time for APA conventions through 1930. The association met on college campuses, and the December dates were convenient for housing because students would be absent for the holidays.)

That first convention took place in the Penn Chapel on Dec. 27 and 28 where the 18 attendees heard 12 presenters. Hall, APA's first president, addressed the gathering on the "History and Prospects of Experimental Psychology in America." There were papers on vision, tactile judgments, aesthetics, reaction time and perceptual illusions.

A clear indication that institutional review boards (IRBs) did not exist in 1892 was evidenced in a paper entitled "Experiments upon Pain" by Herbert Nichols of Harvard. We won't describe the study here, but four words will give you some idea of its nature: "Bunsen burner" and "glans penis."

In one presentation, Hugo Münsterberg, newly arrived in America and head of the Harvard psychology laboratory, warned his colleagues about a psychology that was too bound up in precision of measurement and in search of physiological explanations of consciousness. He reminded his audience of psychology's debt to philosophy and called for a continued collaboration with the parent discipline in which philosophy would supply the critical questions that would guide scientific psychology.

In another presentation, Joseph Jastrow described the plans for a two-room psychology exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair, which was to open the following year. This exhibition would mark the first public display of the new scientific psychology in America. One room of the exhibit was devoted to a battery of mental tests (sensory, psychomotor and cognitive) that members of the public could take.

Press coverage of the convention was limited to one small item in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Dec. 29. The article described only one of the reported experiments, a study on dreams that was conducted by Mary Whiton Calkins in Edmund Sanford's laboratory at Clark. In the time-honored journalistic tradition of scientific misunderstanding, the paper reported on "a series of experiments made with two persons kept in bed for six weeks." Based on awakenings at varying times of the night, Calkins found that dreams occurred more frequently after 4 a.m., a finding that is explained today by the greater percentage of REM sleep in the later hours of sleep. (Calkins became APA's first woman president in 1905.)

The convention also included a business meeting where attendees decided that the new organization they formed would be known as the American Psychological Association. Qualifications for membership were not specified and were left to the judgment of a seven-person council. Annual dues were set at $3 and collected from 21 members at the first meeting, providing a treasury of $63 which was more than sufficient to cover the meeting's expenses of $12.70. Attendees accepted James McKeen Cattell's offer to host the second meeting at Columbia University and elected Ladd to serve as APA's second president.

After the second APA meeting, Cattell was instructed to have the program abstracts and meeting summaries of the first two conventions published in what would become APA's first publication: a 29-page pamphlet printed by Macmillan and Co. Only seven of the 300 copies printed are known to exist today. If you want to see a facsimile copy (the original was Cattell's), it can be found in Sokal (1973).

Although APA dues are higher today and the convention crowds too large to meet in a chapel or be housed in a college dormitory, the purpose of the annual meeting is still largely the same: a time and place where psychologists and their students share their discoveries and insights with colleagues. In Toronto you may not hear any presenters describing their use of Bunsen burners, either in research or therapy, but chances are you will find much of interest in a program that will include more than 1,350 invited addresses, workshops, symposia, papers and posters.

Ludy T. Benjamin Jr., PhD, is professor of psychology and educational psychology at Texas A&M University and historical editor of "Time Capsule."

Suggested Reading

Ross, D. (1972). G. Stanley Hall: The psychologist as prophet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Sokal, M.M. (1973). APA's first publication: Proceedings of the American Psychological Association, 1892–1893. American Psychologist, 28, 277–292.


Sokal, M. M. (1992). Origins and early years of the American Psychological Association, 1890–1906. American Psychologist, 47, 111–122.