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10 September 2004

Hugo Gernsback: The man who invented the future

Part 2. Writing, publishing and inventing

Michael A. Banks

Hugo Gernsback at work in his office. Click image to enlarge.

Early on, Hugo Gernsback tapped into the powerful force of bringing together people with shared interests. In the summer of 1908 Modern Electrics announced the establishment of a "Wireless Registry." This would be a "Blue Book of radio," listing amateur radio receiver and transmitter owners, their self-assigned call letters, and information about their equipment and its operation. The fee to be listed in the registry was 50 cents, which included a copy of the Blue Book. A competing magazine, Electrician and Mechanic, was quick to catch on to the idea and started a club for wireless operators, "The Wireless Club," that fall. Gernsback responded with the "Wireless Association of America" (WAOA) in January, 1909.

A year after its founding, the Wireless Association of America claimed 22,300 members, and Gernsback used his position as business manager of the WAOA as a mandate to represent the interests of amateur radio operators in Washington. He vigorously attacked legislation that might be unfair to radio amateurs and rightfully claimed responsibility for shaping the Radio Act of 1912.

Gernsback's empire continued to grow, with his Fulton Street factory employing over 60 workers. The turnover rate was often high, even in the office, as Gernsback wasn't known for paying the highest salaries around. A stenographer who might earn $20 per week in a medium-sized operation could expect $15 a week at the Electro Importing Company. But keeping costs down was important to Hugo Gernsback. While the company stayed afloat, it sometimes operated on the edge of solvency.

The cover of the May 1911 issue of Modern Electrics. Click image to enlarge.

One day in 1911, Gernsback found he had some empty space in the issue of Modern Electrics he was preparing. He was already writing forecasts about the future of radio and other technology, and the magazine's readers had responded to that well. So he went a step farther and started writing an adventure tale that focused on the technology of the year 2660. He was apparently inspired to create the story on the spot, as he stayed in the office late and wrote only enough to fill the available space, then stopped with a cliff-hanger. Of course, readers would demand to know what happened next, so he wrote an installment for the next issue. And the next.

Before it was completed, the story ran through 12 installments. Rather poorly written, it served mainly as a vehicle for Gernsback's predictions about what the world would be like in the future. (He always had more ideas than he could write about in one article.) The serial was eventually published as a novel, Ralph 124C 41+ , and remains in print today. (The title, while alluding to a future in which everyone is assigned an identifying number, is a play on words. Read it out loud, and change "1+" "all.")

This was the first of Gernsback's forays into science fiction--which didn't have a name back then--but by no means his last. He began including science-oriented adventure tales in each of his magazines. Part of the mix consisted of reprinted work, to keep costs down. Of the original stories, some were written by Gernsback under pseudonyms, while others came from writers such as A.A. Merritt and Ray Cummings.

The number of radio amateurs was growing by leaps and bounds, and in 1913 Gernsback started a second magazine called Electrical Experimenter. Like its sister publication, this magazine carried extensive speculation about the science of the future--or how contemporary technology ought to be used--in the form of editorials and essays written by Hugo Gernsback. This magazine also carried an irregular series of prototypical science fiction stories under the banner of "Baron Munchhausen's New Scientific Adventures."

Hugo Gernsback's speculations about life on Mars. Click image to enlarge.

These speculations presented in fact and fiction soon became a hallmark of Gernsback's publications. He tossed out ideas endlessly, but rarely developed them. He had the temperament of neither scientist nor technician; details usually eluded or bored him. Thus, while he could conceive of using a device to measure pulse rate connected to an alarm to awaken a person from a nightmare, he could not go on to build the device. It was rare that he even rendered workable designs for his ideas, doubtlessly hoping that others would put his ideas into effect. Some were too broad for one person to develop--or impractical. For example, he suggested that, in New York City at least, all automobiles be made extremely narrow, with only one wheel in the front and one in the rear. Such automobiles, according to Gernsback, would take up less parking space. Another space-saving idea was to eliminate cemeteries by launching the bodies of the deceased into deep space.

By this time, Gernsback had become well-acquainted with a number of the world's leading scientists, mainly by correspondence. His position as publisher of Modern Electrics and Electrical Experimenter helped gain the attention of such scientists as Guglielmo Marconi, Robert Goddard, Nicloa Tesla, Reginald Fessenden, and even Thomas Edison. He knew Edison through other connections, as well shall see. A persistent story maintains that Gernsback once went to see Edison in his New Jersey laboratory and nearly wore out the elderly inventor with his intensity. The story has it that Edison was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ideas Gernsback handed out during the five-hour visit.

Gernsback came to know Tesla particularly well. He was in literal awe of Tesla, whose ideas he viewed as the salvation of mankind. When Tesla died, Hugo performed one of the ultimate acts of hero-worship. He commissioned a death mask made at the funeral home that received Tesla's body, and published photos of it in Practical Electronics. Gernsback kept the death mask in his office for many years. It is now in the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. You can make a virtual trip to the museum at

Gernsback used the names of Tesla, Fessenden, and other radio notables on the charter of a new national amateur radio organization, the Radio League of America. This organization gained official organization from Captain W.G.H. Bullard, Superintendent of the United States Navy's Radio Service. Sponsored as it was by Gernsback's publication, it gave Gernsback greater influence with radio's amateurs than any other organization. All of this helped increase magazine sales to a market of radio enthusiasts estimated to number more than 400,000. Electro Importing Company sales rose, as well. By 1915 the company's catalog was up to 275 pages.

Hugo Gernsback's publishing logo. Click image to enlarge.

Gernsback's strenuous promotional efforts also had a positive effect on sales. He left no stone unturned as he pushed every possible benefit of radio. His magazines emphasized the educational appeal of the medium, which as yet consisted of only radio telegraphy; radio-telephony for the masses was still in the future. He also pushed radio's potential as a job skill. Further, citizen knowledge of radio, he said, would be an important element of national defense in the future.

In one editorial he built a dramatic scenario that had invaders on America's shores being thwarted by a "wide-awake" youthful radio operator. Similarly, Gernsback excited readers with the possibility that they might play a critical role in the rescue of a floundering ocean liner by receiving its SOS signals. He even presented radio as a wholesome activity. Ads for the Telimco proclaimed that "Wireless will keep your boy at home!" A Lengthy editorials in the E.I. Co. catalog and in Gernsback magazines in the 1920s did likewise.

World War I nearly brought disaster to Gernsback's radio business. As a security measure, the U.S. government banned amateur radio operation for the duration. Had the U.S. Navy had its way, the ban would have been permanent. Gernsback was stuck with $100,000 in electrical parts that he could not sell--until he came up with a novel approach to selling his stock. He designed electrical gadgets that could be made with parts he had on hand. He then put out a line of electrical experimenter kits. Each came with instructions and all the parts necessary to build a given device and sold for $5.00. Before long, thousands of experimenters were building such items as "electric fish" and telephone sets with these kits. The instruction sheets for a given project also included plans for other gadgets, to encourage experimenters to buy more parts.

When the government grudgingly allowed amateurs to use radio again in 1919, Gernsback launched the very first magazine devoted solely to radio, Radio Amateur News. It proved to be immensely popular. To build circulation, Gernsback started a radio correspondence club, which, for a fee, supplied radio amateurs with the names and addresses of other amateurs. This move may well have had profound influence on the technical future of radio and television, as it brought together like-minded future radio engineers. He also started a short-lived short wave club.

Gernsback's efforts, combined with those of inventors and industrialists such as Reginald Fessenden, Edwin H. Armstrong, Powel Crosley, Jr., Eugene MacDonald, and dozens more, generated immense interest in radio. Voice broadcasting (radio telephony) brought radio to millions of Americans who hadn't even heard of it before the war. Between 1921 and 1922, the number of commercial radio broadcasters in the United States grew from a few dozen to more than 500.

Hugo Gernsback's variable condenser invention was assigned U.S. Patent Number 1,562,629 on November 24, 1925. Click image to enlarge.

Magnified view of Figure 2 in Gernsback's variable condenser patent. Click image to enlarge.








Somehow, between predicting the future and running a fast-growing publishing empire, Gernsback found time to develop and patent several new inventions. Noteworthy among these was a new kind of variable condenser, which operated on a compression principle; a radio speaker that followed elements of the human ear in its design; and several telephone-related ideas.


It is worth noting here that an oft-repeated tale about Powel Crosley, Jr. "stealing" Gernsback's condenser is false. To begin with, Crosley used an entirely different kind of condenser--called a "book condenser." He filed the patent for that in 1921. Gernsback filed the patent for his compression condenser in 1923. His was never used in Crosley radios, though it was used by at least one company, the Connecticut Telephone & Electric Company, which presumably paid Gernsback a license fee.

Gernsback also came up with an improved telegraph sounder in 1920 and an easy-to-use crystal detector in 1923, but both were just a bit too late to find a market, surprising from a man who was so concerned with the future. He had high hopes for a gadget called the "Ososphone." This was design to enable the hard-of-hearing to hear through their teeth via bone conduction. It didn't catch on, probably because it required the user to walk around holding a battery-powered widget in his mouth.

Then there was the Gernsback depilator, a system designed to remove unwanted hair from arms and legs. It involved tightly wrapping wax-backed fabric around the limb to be depilated, allowing the wax to harden, then ripping off the fabric--and the hair--along with it. Gernsback's idea was that this would be more efficient and faster than the conventional way of peeling uneven layers of wax away from the subject's skin. Despite its apparent utility, it didn't earn its inventor a cent.

Hugo Gernsback didn't limit himself to small ideas. His idea of a really fun amusement park ride was a giant Ferris wheel with a twist: instead of merely rotating, it would roll down a track into the Atlantic Ocean, dunking and raising passengers in sealed cabins as it went. Tagged a "submersible amusement device," this was patented in 1921.

Also patented in 1921 was Gernsback's idea for landing airplanes on the decks of ships or the tops of Manhattan skyscrapers. This involved giant electro-magnets that would supposedly bring an airplane to a safe stop within 20 yards. Neither of these made it to market or prototype stage; nor did a gargantuan offshore vacuum cleaner-like device designed to suck up entire schools of fish for commercial processing.

In Part 3, Michael A. Banks will complete his account of the life of the amazing Hugo Gernsback. Editor.

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