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01 October 2004

Hugo Gernsback: The man who invented the future

Part 3. Merging science fiction into science fact

Michael A. Banks

Hugo Gernsback, the man who invented the future.

By 1924, Hugo Gernsback had moved deeper into publishing, finding even more money there than in radio parts. Among his magazine titles were Practical Electrics, Radio Amateur News (later Radio News), Radio Review, Your Body, Science and Invention (formerly Electrical Experimenter), and Radio Internacional. He was also publishing short-run technical books for radio amateurs with titles like Radios for All, and contemplating still more topical magazines. Possibly for legal or tax reasons, some of the publishing was done under the name of his brother, Sidney Gernsback.

With his magazines selling tens of thousands of copies each month (under the aegis of “the Experimenter Publishing Company”) and his radio parts business thriving, Gernsback decided to branch out into radio broadcasting. He applied to the Commerce Department and was granted a license to transmit at 1160 kilocycles, with the call sign WRNY.

Broadcasting began on June 12, 1925. Rented rooms in New York's Roosevelt Hotel served as the station's home, and the transmitter was located near Coytesville, New Jersey. Lee De Forest was among the speakers during the first day's programming.

The investment was tremendous, but some of the load was borne by a partner, Robert W. DeMott, and the relatively new business of radio advertising quickly amortized the station's 500-watt transmitter, broadcast antenna, and other equipment.

In addition to selling advertising and broadcasting music, Gernsback used WRNY to promote his publications (and vice-versa; Gernsback magazines carried the station's call sign on their covers). He also gave frequent lectures on such topics as gravitation and the future of space flight.

All along, Gernsback's radio and electrical magazines were carrying more and more speculative material. The readers responded well to the fiction, which gave Gernsback a notion that there might be a market for fiction based in science. To test this he published an all-fiction issue of Science and Invention in 1923. The enthusiasm this generated was so great that Gernsback announced plans to publish an all-fiction magazine called Amazing Stories. The magazine's motto would be "Extravagant Fiction Today...Cold Fact Tomorrow."

While he was publishing science fiction, Gernsback's "Apparatus for landing Flying Machines" was granted U.S. Patent Number 1,392,140 on 27 September 1921. Click image to enlarge.

The idea of an all-fiction magazine was not new, of course. There were already scores of fiction titles to be found on newsstands. As Amazing Stories would be, these magazines were printed on the cheapest paper available, pulp stock, and were, thus, known as “pulps.” There were western pulps, mystery pulps, pulps filled with “spicy” and “saucy” tales, and still others devoted to romance, aviation, war, and mysterious super heroes. Gernsback decided that his fiction magazine would target a hitherto unidentified audience: the science-minded. It would carry only stories set in the future, or involving elements of unknown or highly advanced science and technology.

Such fiction was not yet recognized as its own genre. When they were distinguished from other fiction at all, tales such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Sleeper Awakes, by H.G. Wells, were referred to as “scientific romances” or simply “adventure tales.” Hugo Gernsback decided that speculative fiction with an emphasis on science needed a special name, so he created it. The fiction he would publish was, after all, scientific fiction, so he blended the words and came up with “scientifiction.” This soon evolved into the easier to pronounce “science fiction,” which has been the genre's label ever since.

Gernsback hired Dr. T. O'Connor Sloane to edit Amazing Stories. Sloane was an elderly chemist and university professor whose son was married to Thomas Edison's daughter, Madeline. For financial reasons, issue No.1 was not published until April, 1926. The first few numbers contained mostly reprints of fiction by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but sales confirmed that there was a large audience for science fiction. Ensuing issues offered more original fiction, and many of the authors became mainstays of the science fiction field. Reprinted tales were gradually phased out, and new fiction and leading-edge speculation became the norm.

As with his employees, Gernsback wasn't exactly generous to his writers. He offered payment as low as ¼ cent per word for stories, and was often slow to pay even this miserly rate. He could get away with this because Amazing Stories was the only game in town in the beginning. But slow payment cost him contributions from several noted writers, among them H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

This startling cover illustration from the June, 1915, issue of Gernsback's Electrical Experimenter magazine depicts what looks remarkably similar to a communications satellite. Click image to enlarge.

Gernsback continued to use his magazines as a platform for bold prognostications about the future—many of which would be realized in his lifetime. Among his accurate predictions can be found microfilm, computer dating, night baseball, radar guidance, cell phones, sleep learning, virtual reality (albeit by mechanical means), flat-screen television, birth control, and home FAX machines. He also predicted, more than once, that the first manned Lunar landing would take place between 1970 and 1975. Still, as with his inventions, not everything Gernsback predicted worked out. Teleportation by radio, anti-gravity, electronic weather control, and invisible force fields to protect cities from missiles electrified his readers, but missed the mark.

Fantastic or realistic, many of Gernsback's ideas were incorporated into stories by science fiction writers, that being one of his aims in making them. Another was to encourage real-world scientists to create the things he predicted. In a sense, he did accomplish this, as the origin of many a career in science can be traced to a young reader's fascination with the ideas presented in Gernsback's “scientifiction” magazines. He also brought together many of the early science fiction readers, first through publishing the letters they wrote to the magazine, and later in a magazine department that served as a forum for fans. Both provided free material to fill pages.

As he added more and more publications to his publishing list, Gernsback's output of inventions declined. He made up for it with the endless stream of predictions, speculations, and suggestions he poured into print, but he didn't abandon the real world entirely. Along with the speculative material in his magazines one could find more practical articles, such as “Electrifying the Holy Land,” “Radio Telephony and the Airplane,” and “How to Make a 13,000-Ampere Storage Battery.”

It is interesting to note that Gernsback, as progressive and open to speculation as he was, was a skeptic of the first order when it came to pseudo-scientific devices such as electromagnetic cure-all devices. He spent quite a bit of time editorializing against such. He was even more skeptical about astrology; in the 1930s he offered a $6,000 prize for anyone who could accurately forecast three major events in one year. Hundreds of self-styled astrologers and psychics tried to claim the prize, but none could validate the claim of accurately foretelling the future.

Gernsback introduced Television magazine in 1928, within months of initiating regular television broadcasts from his radio station, WRNY. Click image to enlarge.

Perhaps Gernsback's greatest technological achievement was in early television. In mid August of 1928, WRNY began regular television broadcasts with a mechanical television system devised by John Geloso of the Pilot Electric Company. The system used 61-cm (24-inch), 48-line scanning disks that rotated at 240 rpm. Gernsback published plans for a receiver with a postage stamp-sized screen in Science and Invention and invited radio amateurs to tune in the daily five-minute broadcasts. At the time it was estimated that there were some 2,000 viewers.

Not incidentally, that summer Gernsback began publication of a new magazine called Television.

Just as Gernsback's publishing empire reached its peak, catastrophe struck. Like many pulp publishers, Gernsback ran his operation on a nearly hand-to-mouth basis, paying printers for the current issue's print only after receiving the revenues from the preceding issue. A larger competitor who apparently had it in for Gernsback turned this against him. In April the competitor convinced printers and others who had extended credit to Gernsback's company to demand immediate payment. The fact that the competitor spent much more money with the printers and suppliers provided sufficient leverage to do the convincing.

With no way to pay the bills suddenly due his creditors, Gernsback was forced into bankruptcy. He lost Amazing Stories, Science and Invention, and the rest of his titles. In response, he sold the Electro Importing Company and WRNY. The latter brought in $100,000, which probably provided the stake for the new publishing company he immediately started, Stellar Publishing (later followed by Gernsback Publications).

Gernsback did not see radio as a male-only activity. Click image to enlarge.

His new companies published magazines that competed directly with his old titles, among them Radio Craft, Wonder Stories, and Everyday Mechanics. These were highly successful, and he continued adding titles until he was one of the major pulp publishers. His list of magazines was varied, reflecting his scientific and sociological interests, as well as a few odd subjects like risqué humor. A partial list: Aviation Mechanics, Everyday Science and Mechanics, Facts of Life, Fotocraft, French Humor, High Sea Adventures, Know Yourself, Life Guide, Milady, Moneymaking, Motor Camper and Tourist, New Ideas for Everybody, Popular Electronics, Popular Medicine, Radio and Television, Radio Electronics, Radio Listeners Guide and Call Book, Radio Program Weekly, Science Wonder Stories, Science Fiction Plus, Scientific Detective, Sexology, Short-Wave and Television, Short-Wave Craft, Technocracy Review, Woman's Digest, and Your Dreams.

In addition to magazines, Gernsback published scores of books for electronics experimenters and professionals in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, along with a few works of science fiction. Many of these books are as avidly sought after by collectors as his early radio and science fiction magazines.

In 2004, Gernsback's native Luxembourg honored him with a commemorative postage stamp.

As an inventor, engineer, designer, businessman, writer, editor, and publisher, Hugo Gernsback's activities touched the lives of millions. It is safe to say that many thousands of today's electronics, broadcast, and computer engineers and technicians were avid readers of Gernsback magazines and books early in their careers. The same can be said of science fiction fans and the various Gernsback science fiction magazines.

Gernsback's accomplishments did not go unrecognized. He is widely lauded as “the father of science fiction” (though he might be more accurately called “science fiction's rich uncle”). The World Science Fiction Society's Annual Achievement Awards—instituted in 1953—are called “Hugos” in his honor. He is also a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. At the same time, Gernsback is in the Consumer Electronics Association's Hall of Fame, and has been similarly honored by the National Electronics Industry and other organizations. He often shared podiums with such noteworthies as David Sarnoff and Isaac Asimov, and was sought after as a guest speaker by many organizations. Even his homeland applauded his achievements when, in 1954, Gernsback was named an “Officer of the Oaken Crown” by Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg.

Hugo Gernsback went into semi-retirement in the 1950s, but Gernsback Publications continued turning out quality publications for electronics and radio experimenters. He kept his hand in science fiction with Science Fiction Plus, but his low payment rates and a less-than-skilled editor kept the “name” authors away in droves.

Hugo Gernsback in his later years. Click image to enlarge.

Gernsback himself continued to promote the future until he passed away on August 19, 1967, at the age of 83. He was fortunate to see many of his predictions become reality, though he just missed the first Moon landing. As might be expected, Gernsback willed his body to the Cornell University Medical School, to be used for scientific or educational purposes.

Appropriately, a Gernsback magazine was on the scene when the first personal computer made its debut in 1974. Gernsback Publications' Radio-Electronics featured the Mark-8 minicomputer on the cover of its July, 1974, issue. Hugo would have approved.

The last electronic magazine connected with Gernsback lived on until January 2003. That was when Poptronics magazine—the successor to Popular Electronics, into which Gernsback's Electronics Now was merged—ceased print publication. But in a way at least one of Gernsback's radio magazines still lives on. After a number of name changes, Gernsback's very first magazine, Modern Electrics, was merged into Popular Mechanics, which is still published.

On the science fiction side, while Amazing Stories and Air Wonder Stories have breathed their last, Gernsback's legacy lives on in every science fiction magazine published.

Of course, Hugo Gernsback's legacy is more than publishing. It is the spirit of the future.

This concludes Michael A. Banks account of the life of the amazing Hugo Gernsback. Editor.

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