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03 September 2004

Hugo Gernsback: The man who invented the future

Part 1. The early days

Michael A. Banks

Hugo Gernsback adjusts a spark coil, the device that first stimulated his interest in electricity when he was a young boy. Click image to enlarge.

Who was Hugo Gernsback?

The answer to that question varies, depending on who you ask.

"Gernsback published the first science fiction magazine!" a science fiction reader will declare. Ask an engineer, and you might hear, "Gernsback ... wasn't he involved in some early experiments with television broadcasting?"

Another engineer will remember reading a Gernsback book or magazine about radio as a youth. A radio historian will tell you that he owned radio station WRNY, introduced an affordable Marconi-type radio-telegraph that you could buy at Macy's in 1905, and championed the cause of radio amateurs.

On the surface, Gernsback seems to have led a scattered life. But everything he did had the same focus: the future. Hugo Gernsback was the modern world's first futurist, one who not only speculated about the future, but also worked to make it happen and guide others to it.

Hugo Gernsback was born Hugo Gernsbacher on August 16, 1884, to a moderately wealthy family in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. His father was a vintner. As a child in the 1890s, he became fascinated by electricity when a handyman at his father's winery showed him how to hook up a battery, wire, and a bell to make the bell ring. The shower of green sparks that occurred when he touched a wire to the bell's terminal to complete the circuit seems to have impressed him as much as the bell itself. In telling this story to others over the years, Gernsback would always remark on the "wonderful green sparks" that accompanied the bell ringing.

But young Gernsback was after more than sparks and bell-ringing. When he reached the limits of experimentation with the simple equipment on hand, he expanded his capabilities with an order of battery powered telephone sets, six-volt light bulbs, connecting wire, and buzzers from the catalog of an electrical supply house in Paris. He was determined to learn as much as possible about the practical aspects of this phenomenon called electricity. After further experiments, he successfully undertook to wire the Gernsbacher family home with battery powered telephone-intercoms and a six-volt lighting system.

This impressed everyone who saw it, and before long Gernsback was adding door buzzers and intercoms to neighbors' homes--and making a bit of money at it. He was even commissioned to install a complicated system of signaling buzzers in a nearby convent and nearly lost the job simply by aging. By the rules of the Church, no adult males were permitted to enter the convent. Gernsback was 12 when he accepted the job, but soon turned 13, the age of puberty. The convent had to obtain a special dispensation from the Pope before Gernsback could complete the job.

While he apparently did well with his electrical tinkering, Gernsback didn't keep his earnings long. Whenever he accumulated a pocketful of cash he headed for Luxembourg's Grand Café and lost it all in poker games. It was fortunate that he did lose, as the losses were probably why gambling did not become a habit.

In addition to electricity, Gernsback was fascinated by scientific speculation. When he was 10, a notable occurrence involving such speculation would fuel his future interest in science fiction. An insatiable reader, he found a translated edition of American astronomer Percival Lowell's book, Mars as the Abode of Life.

According to Gernsback, the thought of life on the Red Plant drove him into a two-day delirium, during which he babbled incessantly about Martians and their technology. He would continue to speculate on the nature of life and civilization on Mars the rest of his life--and so it may be that science fiction fans have Lowell to thank for first introducing Hugo Gernsback to science-fictional concepts.

Following his basic education, Gernsback was enrolled in a boarding school in Brussels. He proved to have something of a talent for language, and learned English quickly. This would serve him well in his future career as a writer, editor, and publisher. His studies in English led to reading western novels and the works of Mark Twain, which fueled a fascination with America and left him determined to travel to the New World as soon as he completed his education.

Gernsback next studied electrical engineering in Germany, at a university called the Technikum in Bingen. During his three years there he spent quite a bit of time perfecting the design for a portable radio transmitter. He also designed and built several examples of a high-amperage dry-cell battery that he was convinced would make him a fortune. In 1904 he bought a first class ticket to Hoboken, New Jersey, from Germany, taking two models of his battery with him. His family provided him with $100--enough to live on for perhaps six weeks, if he was frugal.

The young man hit the ground running and made his way to New York. Shortly after his arrival he applied for a patent on his battery (it was granted as Patent No. 842,950 in 1907), and began shopping it around, distributing business cards with the name "Huck Gernsbacher." He borrowed the new first name from his favorite fictional character, Huckleberry Finn.

Unfortunately, he learned that, while his battery produced over three times the current of any American battery, it was too costly for mass-production. But he was able to get an auto parts supplier to contract with him to build batteries of his design. Things went well until the parts company's major customer, the Packard Motor Car Company, cut back on purchasing in the wake of the financial panic of 1907. This resulted in Gernsback's small operation going out of business.

But business was good in 1904, providing Gernsback with more than enough to support himself. With time and a little spare cash on his hands, Gernsback decided to build a marketable version of his portable radio transmitter. There was only one problem: no suppliers in or around New York offered all the parts he had used in Europe. He sent to Germany for the necessary articles and waited impatiently for several weeks.

It occurred to him that other experimenters must be similarly frustrated; perhaps there was money to be made in importing electrical and radio components. And if he were to become a parts supplier, he would not have to wait for items for his own use. With this in mind, he brought in an investor-partner, Lewis A. Coggeshall, to help set up an import business. Getting an investor was probably not all that difficult. Electricity was the new wonder of the age, and, and the feeling was that anything to do with it would be a success.

Gernsback sold the Telimco Wireless Telegraph for $8.50 through his Electro Importing Company. The Telimco is generally accepted to be the very first home radio set. Click image to enlarge.

Gernsback rented space in a building at 32 Park Place in New York and established the Electro Importing Company for the purpose of selling radio components and electrical supplies by mail-order.
Once he had the proper supplies, Gernsback quickly perfected the small radio he had designed in Europe. It was a basic spark-gap telegraph transmitter with a one-mile range. It was sold under the name "Telimco Wireless Telegraph" for $8.50, and came with a companion receiver. Both transmitter and receiver were battery powered, and the receiver was set up to sound a bell in response to incoming signals. This is generally accepted to be the very first home radio set. (The name "Telimco" derived from the initial letters of "The Electro Importing Company.")

To publicize his invention, Gernsback wrote an article about the Telimco, which was published in Scientific American in 1905. But sales didn't take off until he placed ads in Scientific American and Youth's Companion magazines, as well as The New York Times, at the beginning of 1906. The little transmitter was soon copied by competitors--but not before Gernsback and his partner had succeeded in getting Gimball's, Macy's, and Marshall Field's to stock it. Hobbyists found the idea of owning a radio-telegraph transmitter and receiver exciting, and the astonishingly low price generated thousands of sales.

The Electro Importing Company's catalog. Click image to enlarge.

Not everyone was positively impressed. Some thought so inexpensive a device must be some sort of trick. Before the Telimco was introduced, the only radio transmitters most people knew of cost tens of thousands of dollars and were built and operated by companies like AT&T and the American Marconi Company. At least one complaint to the office of the Mayor of New York City accused the Electro Importing Company of perpetrating a fraud. This resulted in a policeman being sent to the offices of the Electro Importing Company to investigate. Fortunately, Gernsback and Coggeshall were able to demonstrate that the transmitter did indeed operate as advertised, and that they weren't running a scam.

The incident left Gernsback rather disappointed at the relatively low level of technical knowledge among the general population, and he resolved to do something about that. His campaign to educate the public about radio began with articles in the Electro Importing Company's catalog.

In addition to the Telimco set, the Electro Importing Company offered coherers, telephone sets (called "Telimphones"), and components such as spark gaps, wire, batteries, and more. As demand grew, three additional versions of the Telimco were introduced, the lowest-priced being $6.00.

Within two years the Electro Importing Company (better known by now to its regular customers as "the E.I. Company") had grown tremendously. Its illustrated 64-page catalog was sent throughout North America, and even Lee De Forest shopped the Electro Importing Catalog when he was developing his audion tube.

The Interstate Wireless Receiving outfit featured a galena detector and a 75-ohm receiver. Click image to enlarge.

Hugo Gernsback prospered along with the company and didn't hesitate to flaunt his success. He dressed in high style, with tailor-made suits and expensive shirts and accessories, all while affecting the manners and attitudes of European gentry. (Later, he topped off his flamboyant image with a monocle, which he did not need.) He regularly enjoyed dinner at New York's Delmonico's, as did Nicola Tesla, and was seen at the best theaters. Not surprisingly, he soon attracted, and in 1906 married, a young woman named Rose Harvey. She bore him a daughter in July, 1909. He would marry twice more--to Dorothy Kantrowitz in 1921 and Mary Hancher in 1951--and father a son and another daughter.

There was some problem with Gernsback's partnership in 1908. Whether Gernsback bought out Lewis Coggeshall, or the two simply needed more capital, is not known. But in January, 1908, Gernsback was running an ad in The New York Times seeking an investor. The ad read:

Partner wanted in well-established electrical
manufacturing business; good chance for right
party; have more orders than can fill; only
parties with sufficient capital need apply. H.
Gernsback, 108 Duane St

This advertisement was answered by the man who was to be a partner in the E.I. Company for the next 9 years, Milton Hymes. (Hymes was killed in a Pennsylvania Railroad train wreck in 1917.) With the new infusion of capital, Gernsback re-established the Electro Importing Company at 231 Fulton Street in New York. Soon after he opened two retail stores, one at 69 West Broadway and the other at 317 Livingston Street in Brooklyn.

The capital also enabled Gernsback to expand his radio education crusade with a magazine for electrical experimenters. In addition to educating readers, the magazine would, of course, serve to stimulate to Electro Importing's sales, and it might possibly bring in a profit itself. Thus was born Modern Electrics, the first of many magazines he would publish.

(Not incidentally, Modern Electrics published the first technical article to use the term "television." The article was "Television and the Telephot," by Hugo Gernsback, which appeared in the magazine's December, 1909, issue. Because of this article, Gernsback was often credited with coining the term "television," but he maintained that a French author had used it in print before him.)

Selling for 10 cents a copy, Modern Electrics proved to be an instant success. It carried how-to articles, information on new radio patents, and news of radio and radio operators across North America. Hugo Gernsback was publisher, editor, chief writer (and often ghost-writer), and also did layout and sold advertising. Milton Hymes was secretary and business and advertising manager for the magazine, while also serving as secretary for the Electro Importing Company.

In Part 2, Michael A. Banks will continue his account of the life of the amazing Hugo Gernsback. Editor.

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