The first issue contained 110 abstracts and was divided into 10 sections:
- General Physics
- Electrochemistry and Chemical Physics
- General Electrical Engineering
- Dynamos, Motors and Transformers
- Power Distribution, Traction and Lighting
- Telegraphy and Telephony.
During the first year, a total of 1,423 abstracts was published at monthly intervals and at the end of the year an author and subject index were added. The author index is littered with names of eminent scientists including Ampère, Becquerel, Boltzmann, Coulomb, Dewar, Edison, Heaviside, Hertz, Laplace, Marconi, Maxwell, Michelson, Pérot & Fabry, Poincaré, Pockels, Planck, Röntgen, Siemens, Thompson, Townsend, van der Waals and Zeeman. The coverage extended to just over 100 scientific and engineering periodicals, thus providing a comprehensive record of principal papers published in Europe and America in the fields of electrical engineering and physical science.
Science Abstracts was the result of a joint collaboration between the Institution of Electrical Engineers and The Physical Society of London, who set up a publishing committee to organise and administer the abstracting service. An honorary editor, a Mr James Swinburne and a large team of abstractors were appointed.
The publication was provided without charge to all members of both societies and although the cost of the publication was mainly borne by the IEE and The Physical Society, financial contributions were also received from The Institution of Civil Engineers, The Royal Society and The British Association for the Advancement of Science
By 1902, the annual number of abstracts published had increased to 2,362, and in May of the following year it was decided to split the publication into two parts: A (Physics) and B (Electrical Engineering). This decision allowed the subject scope particularly in physics to widen and as a result a larger quantity of material to be covered. The year 1903 was also the first year that members no longer received free copies. A charge of seven shillings and sixpence (37.5 pence) was made for both sections and 5 shillings (25 pence) for one part.
The principle of charging was welcomed by the Electrical Review on February 6th 1903: "The value of the publication is unquestioned, but how many of its recipients fully appreciate it? We would not go so far as to describe the little red books as 'pearls' but we do know that some members at least, are in the habit of consigning them to the W.P.B. unopened."
During August of 1903, the entire publishing process transferred to the IEE with The Physical Society contributing to the expenses. 1903 also marked the year when closer links were made with a number of American Societies. In particular, the American Physical Society purchased copies of Section A for distribution to all its members, and the American Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) advertised Section B to its members at preferential rates.
The length of abstracts in the early years was variable, but usually much longer and discursive than those of today. This was mainly due to the fact that hard copy originals were less accessible than at present. In the early volumes typical lengths of abstracts could vary from an average of half a page to that of several pages including diagrams and complex mathematical proof.
It was not until the first World War that steps were taken to reduce the average length to one third of a page without impairing their information content. However, it was not until the 1950s that the use of author abstracts became prevalent in order to improve currency.
The question of currency was of great interest to the committee in those early days, and in 1905 they were pleased to announce that 40 per cent of abstracts in Section A, and 65 per cent of those in Section B, had appeared within one month of original publication; and 64 per cent of A and 80 per cent of B had appeared within two months.