Scientifiction: Gernsback's Legacy

Hugo Gernsbacher was born in Luxembourg in 1884, at a time of scientific innovation. That same year, Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber and Samuel Morse tapped out the first Morse code. The world was still experimenting with electricity, and when Hugo was a small child this became his chief fascination. When he was around six years old, a handyman at his father's winery taught him how to hook up a battery, wire and an electric bell. Soon after, Hugo was earning money installing door buzzers and intercoms in his neighbors' homes. This interest led him to pursue a formal technical education.

When Hugo was nine years old, he was given a copy of Percival Lowell's Mars as the Adobe of Life. According to legend, this made such an impression on him that he "lapsed into delirium" and was sent home "raving about strange creatures, fantastic cities, and masterly engineered canals of Mars for two full days and nights, while a doctor remained in almost constant attendance." His imagination was further fueled when, while attending boarding school in Brussels, he discovered the works of Mark Twain and stories of the American West. This instilled in him a strong desire to emigrate to the United States to pursue adventure and innovation.

After boarding school, Gernsback attended the famous University of Applied Sciences in Bingen am Rhein, Germany. While there, he developed a greatly improved dry battery. In 1904, he finally pursued his dream and took his battery design to the United States to patent it and make his fortune. When he attempted to market his new design however, he discovered that producing it would incur double the manufacturing costs versus preexisting designs. Disappointed, he took a job as an engineer with a storage battery manufacturer, Emil Grossman. During his time there, he developed a battery case that was cheaper, lighter and stronger than any currently on the market, but typical to his nature, missed a small detail that rendered the design subject to corrosion, causing the battery to leak. After this incident, Hugo decided that engineering was not the life for him.

Gernsback had been living in a boarding house in New York with Lewis Coggeshall, a railroad telegraph operator. In 1905, Gernsback and Coggeshall founded the Electro Importing Company to sell European-made radio and electrical components by mail order. Soon, the catalog was topping 60 pages, featuring products such as Gernsback's Telimco Wireless Telegraph, the first ever home radio set with both a transmitter and receiver, and a spark-gap transmitter with a one mile range. It is noteworthy that this catalog used the title Modern Electrics prior to the introduction of the magazine by the same name. Filled with detailed technical articles on the use of the components for sale, the catalog reached several important radio entrepreneurs such as Lee de Forest, Edgar Felix and Stanley Manning. Gernsback bought out Coggeshall in 1907, and proceeded to seek investments to expand the company.

In 1908, Hugo, with his larger warehouse and two retail locations, officially launched Modern Electrics as a separate magazine from The Electro Importing Catalog. This started out as a way for Gernsback to reach a larger audience and sell more merchandise. He believed that educating the public would stimulate their imaginations and involvement and thus increase his sales, so he began to include articles on ways to use the components he sold as well as other items of interest. For instance, he included articles on "Electrical Patents of the Month" and "How to Make an Electric Whistle."


Advertisement from Modern Electrics 1908

The Electro Importing Catalog and Modern Electrics solidified Gernsback's interest and passion for amateur radio. He was already well-known to enthusiasts, and they often made pilgrimages to his store locations where they could find almost any esoteric part of which they could conceive. In 1909, Gernsback organized the first radio club, The Wireless Association of America. Mischief-makers in the amateur radio population were causing issues with false alarms and other pranks despite Gernsback's warnings in his magazine and elsewhere. These incidents continued, and in 1910 several laws were passed to curtail these problems, but the laws also resulted in oppressive regulations on the hobby. Gernsback used his influence over the Wireless Association, causing over 8,000 letters to be sent to Congress, and enlisted the press to bring about changes. In 1913, the Alexander Wireless Bill was signed by President Taft, and it followed Gernsback's recommendations practically word for word. In his famous 1912 editorial on this subject, Gernsback wrote: "There should be a bill passed restraining the amateur from using too much power, say, anything above 1 K.W. The wave length of the amateur wireless station should also be regulated in order that only wave lengths from a few metres up to 200 could be used. Wave lengths of from 200 to 1,000 metres, the amateurs should not be allowed to use, but they could use any wave length above 1,000. If this is done, all interference with Government, as well as commercial station, will be done away with and the wireless situation will then be the same as to-day. The amateurs will have the same liberty and perhaps greater liberty than today, and complaints against them from Government or Commercial stations will cease automatically."


Wireless Association of America Membership Insignia - This Amateur club had in excess of 22,000 members by 1912.

Modern Electrics changed its name several times, to The Electrical Experimenter in 1913 and then Science and Invention in 1920. Prior to the final change, the magazine focused mainly on radio news and articles, but when Hugo launched the dedicated Radio News publication in 1919, the goals of Science and Invention changed. Subsequent editions of Science and Invention concentrated on science and technological innovations, exposes of supernatural phenomenon and many other topics not related directly to the amateur radio hobby. Radio News was extremely successful at tapping into the vast and lucrative amateur radio market, having a readership larger than any other magazine of its type during radio's formative years.

In typical Gernsback style, Radio News was a great promotion tool for Hugo himself. The first article in every issue was a Gernsback editorial, where he frequently reported on trends in the industry and campaigned for future direction in innovation and regulation. By following current developments, Gernsback was often able to make his editorials predictive to the amateur. In 1923, he predicted the vacuum tube will eventually be found only in industrial works and had no place in radio reception. He said, "Other devices will take the place of the vacuum tube, as the coherer made way for the detector, and as the detector made way for the vacuum tube."

Experimenter Publishing applied for a radio station license, and in 1925 WRNY had its first broadcast from the 18th floor of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The first speaker was Lee de Forest. Gernsback had hit upon the perfect cross platform, advertising his radio station in his magazine and discussing his magazine topics on his radio broadcasts. Later, WRNY became the second station to broadcast television pictures to the general public. In April 1928, WRNY announced that television broadcasts would begin that fall with Pilot Electric Manufacturing providing the transmitting equipment; the image was 1.5 inches square.


WRNY Advertisement from 1928

Gernsback was always a promoter of technical education, and believed that Radio News should be "instructive first and last." It contained copious amounts of articles with technical drawings, diagrams and images of homemade devices. These pieces varied from scholarly articles written by Lee de Forest to one-page primers directed toward the radio beginner. Advertising generated much income for Radio News. In the early 1920s, the magazine averaged around 150 pages of content and housed advertisements for nearly 200 advertisers, but within the decade, advertising and content had both dropped off and the magazine was only generating interest for around 80 advertisers.

In 1911, Modern Electrics is where Gernsback published his first work of science fiction, Ralph 124C 41+ A Romance in the Year 2660. His motivation for writing and publishing Ralph was to fill pages of his magazine. He envisioned a story which would educate and blend science with fiction in such a way as to stimulate the imaginations and innovations of his fellow experimenters. The plot was shallow and the character development was virtually non-existent, but published in serial form, this story ran in a dozen editions of Modern Electrics and lay the groundwork for the modern 20th century science fiction pulp frenzy. It featured an "exhausting cavalcade" of predictive innovations such as radar, germicidal rays, micro-film, magnesium as a structural material, the wireless transmission of power and electronic weather control.


The Stratford Company 1st Edition, 1928

Published the same year as A Princess of Mars, Gernsback certainly didn't invent the science fiction story, or break new ground in literary fiction. What he did do however was popularize the science fiction genre and bring it to thousands of readers across America who would have otherwise not sought the format. Ralph was a brilliant success and generated much feedback. Gernsback realized he had hit upon something important, and continued to publish science fiction tales in Modern Electrics. He also realized that speculative fiction with an emphasis on science needed a special name and coined the term "scientifiction."

According to Gary Westfahl, "[Gernsback] uniquely realized that various and present works were in fact part of a single genre." Westfahl adds that Gernsback named that genre and forced the public to accept that it existed. Brian Aldiss however has a very different opinion, and calls Gernsback "one of the worst disasters to ever hit the science fiction field." Aldiss' main objection to Gernsback's influence on the science fiction genre is that Hugo believed science fiction should mainly be aimed at scientists to stimulate innovation and interest. Aldiss states in his Billion Year Spree, "Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts." This insistence on including scientific instruction in stories has led to the term "Gernsback Delusion." While supporters of Gernsback, like Sam Moskowitz, believe that Gernsback was under no delusion that reading science fiction led to greater education in the sciences, Gernsback editorials seem to support the delusion hypothesis. Gernsback himself has written that science fiction "furnishes a tremendous amount of scientific education and fires the reader's imagination more perhaps than anything else of which we know."

Whether or not one would like to believe that Gernsback founded the genre or was a positive influence on its development, one cannot deny that he was influential. Recognizing that science fiction was indeed a genre that needed promotion, Gernsback launched Amazing Stories in April of 1926. The distribution quickly rose to over 100,000 readers. This magazine had a rough life, changing hands numerous times, but it did survive in some format for more than 80 years. It has been accused of "ghettoizing" the genre and never was regarded a highly influential publication. It did however spawn the pulp craze. Following Amazing Stories came Amazing Stories Quarterly, Amazing Stories Annual and Wonder Stories, to name a few.


Amazing Stories, April 1926. Cover Art by Frank R. Paul.

Gernsback had built a publication empire, and was responsible for publishing many significant writers including E. E. "Doc" Smith, Philip Jose Farmer, Jack Williamson, Clifford D. Simak and Raymond Z. Gallun. Despite his success, he often alienated his authors by offering low pay, or sometimes no pay at all. After Donald Wollheim sued Gernsback in 1935 for failure to pay, Gernsback received the reputation of "payment upon lawsuit." Other Gernsback detractors, such as Barry Malzberg, are quite vocal with their opinions. Malzberg stated in an article on "prozines" published in the Science Fiction Writers Association Bulletin, Volume 43 that "Gernsback's venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the financial rights of authors, have been so well documented and discussed in critical and fan literature, that the founder of genre science fiction who gave his name to the field's most prestigious award and who was the Guest of Honor at the 1952 Worldcon was pretty much a crook (and a contemptuous crook who stiffed his writers but paid himself $100K a year as President of Gernsback Publications) has been clearly established." This reputation did not cause new and potentially influential authors to flock to his stables, especially after Astounding Stories was launched by William Clayton in 1926. One might argue that Gernsback's largest contribution to the science fiction field was to actually spur Clayton into developing Astounding Stories, which of course would later become the consistently influential and respected Analog Science Fact and Fiction.

Gernsback's other large role in the growth of the science fiction genre was in the realm of fan participation. Fandom is at the heart of science fiction, and continues to influence the genre in modern times, but in the 1920s and 1930s, it was crucial. Gernsback's magazines promoted contact between fans, encouraged debate and input from the populace and inspired fans into an entirely different level of interaction with literature. Early in his reign as a science fiction editor, Gernsback published fan letters with addresses attached in his discussion column.

The first letter giving a fan's address is a prime example of how the promotion of science fiction led people, especially young men at the time, to organize and further explore the genre and its related fields. It was written by John Mackay and published in 1927, and in part reads as follows: "A number of young men and myself have started on the project of forming a Science Club and also a laboratory. It is with this in mind that we ask you to publish this letter in your column with a request that any young men interested in science and ranging from 18 to 23 years, communicate with me. If enough members are secured it will be possible to realize our project. The purpose of this association is to get the young men together and experiment and discuss any scientific subject. It will be possible from them to experiment either as an individual or in groups, all according to their own whims."

In 1934, utilizing the pages of Wonder Stories, Gernsback launched the first major fan organization, the Science Fiction League. Hugo's success with motivating the fans of amateur radio played itself out once again in his promotion of science fiction fandom. "The League" grew in membership, soon opening chapters in the US, UK and Australia. Unfortunately, when the magazine changed hands in 1943, editor Sam Merwin dropped the organization.

Gernsback published around 50 different magazines in his lifetime, and has gone down in history permanently associated with the science fiction genre, but he wasn't just a publishing mogul. He was also an inventor, and a constant predictor of the future. At the time of his death, Gernsback held over 80 patents for items such as the isolator and the television eyeglasses. Gernsback's inventions were not particularly successful, and none made it into full production.


First appearing in the July 1925 issue of Science and Invention, the Isolator was designed to make office workers more productive by isolating them from all noise and focusing their attention only on the work in front of them.


Appeared in October 1936 issue of Short-Wave Craft the "teleyglasses" were intended for use with a regulation television set, but Gernsback imagined that eventually the units would be self-contained.

Despite his failings as an inventor, Hugo Gernsback was a visionary. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Hugo Gernsback made "us fall in love with the future." Gernsback saw the future as the ultimate utopia, with electrified fields producing triple crops and all the luxuries imaginable brought to the people through scientific invention. He so believed in this vision and his prescience that each Christmas, beginning in 1936, he released an exclusive Christmas greeting in the form of a miniature magazine called Forecast. This became a highly prized and anticipated publication for a variety of elite scientists, friends and business people. Gernsback had to limit requests to be on the mailing lists and refuse those asking for back issues. Forecast was a unique look into the mind of Gernsback. He utilized this Christmas greeting as a tool to philosophize and proffer his ideas of what the future could hold.


Forecast 1960 with artwork by Frank R. Paul. In this edition Gernsback postulates the possibility and functionality of electronic weather control by utilizing the Oberth Spatial mirror, invented by Professor Hermann Oberth in the early 1920s.

Gernsback is remembered as a predictor of future scientific breakthroughs. Nearly all of his magazines and books contained predictions of what he believed would come to pass - more than 10,000 predictions in all. With that number of forecasts, it is inevitable that some of his concepts would come to pass. The vast majority of predictions that he made were in fact foregone conclusions based on common-sense scientific progression. Further, ideas he was credited with creating, like radar, were not imagined by him at all. Pulp folklore asserts that Gernsback predicted radar in the publication of Ralph 124c41+ in April of 1911, but in fact German inventor Christian Hulsmeyer received a British patent in September of 1904 for a full radar system, called the telemobiloscope, which operated on a 50cm wavelength, creating the radar signal via spark-gap. While one can appreciate the amount of thought and positivity which Gernsback put into viewing science and technology of the future, one must also be cautious when crediting him with actual conceptual breakthroughs or true prophecy.

Gernsback's love affair with science and its future-improving potential lasted his entire life. In 1963, journalist Paul O'Neil published an article in Life magazine hailing Gernsback as the "Barnum of the Space Age." Gernsback's passion for electricity and telecommunications led to a productive relationship with Nikola Tesla in the early 1900s.


Hugo Gernsback and Nikola Tesla


Nikola Tesla Death Mask commissioned by Gernsback immediately upon Tesla's death. It now resides in The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

This relationship birthed a series of articles by Tesla, titled My Inventions, published in Electrical Experimenter in 1919. Gernsback considered Tesla's inventions to be the salvation of humankind. The collaboration was an unusual event that marked both Tesla's rare communication with the world as a whole, and Gernsback's influence and involvement in the scientific community. Upon Tesla's death in 1943, Hugo Gernsback was the first person to be notified. In typical fashion, Gersnsback immediately sent a sculptor to create a death mask of Tesla, which stood in his office until his own death on August 19, 1967.

Hugo dedicated his life to furthering public knowledge of science and its applications. His ultimate goal was to usher humanity into a future of luxury and innovation through the use of electricity and other scientific inventions. He foretold of a human race which would explore the galaxy and bring scientific enlightment to all. While doing this, he popularized the science fiction genre by recognizing it as its own separate form of literature. The World Science Fiction Convention has named its annual award "The Hugo" in honor of Hugo Gernsback, given for achievements in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. The first Hugo was awarded in 1953 at the 11th Worldcon in Philadelphia.

Hugo Gernsback's legacy is mixed. He is hailed as the "father of science fiction" and is remembered annually by The Hugo Award, but often is regarded as a self-aggrandizing man who was mainly concerned with his own profit above any real connection with, or respect toward, his writers or contributors. Whether he should be loved or hated is debatable. Nonetheless, the fact he brought about public appreciation of the sciences, and popularized the science fiction genre, is indisputable.

A full obituary for Hugo Gernsback published in Radio-Electronics can be read here.
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