Hugo Gernsback, a Man Well Ahead of His Time
Part 1. Introduction and Chapter 1
By Hugo Gernsback
Introduced and edited by Larry Steckler
Copyright 2007, Poptronix Inc.
It was not a wonderful day. No, it wasn't raining. It wasn't even the slightest bit cloudy, but it was the day that Gernsback Publications Inc. was closing its doors forever. Our expenses had exceeded our income and it was time to cease publication. The January 2002 issue of POPTRONICS would be the last issue of any Gernsback Publication. It was some 94 years before that Hugo Gernsback introduced his very first magazine, MODERN ELECTRICS, in April 1908.
Six months later I was living in another city in another state and going through the dregs of the business – the old financial files, boxes of old magazines, boxes of old bound volumes and boxes of all kinds of assorted stuff.
In one huge heap of old musty paper I uncovered an ancient box that once was home for a ream of bond letter paper. Inside, yellowed with age, was the manuscript that comprises the body of this book. After reading it carefully, several times, it became obvious that this was Hugo Gernsback's autobiography. It was written in the mid 1950's, about seventeen years before his death. I deduced that it was an autobiography because of the editing notes on the text written in his stilted handwriting and by the style of the writing. In the text itself, he slipped once or twice and wrote in the first person, revealing himself as the author of the manuscript.
Figure 1. Cover of Hugo Gernsback, a Man Well Ahead of His Time.
Why the text was never before released will remain a mystery. Perhaps Hugo, despite his huge ego, did not want to see it published while he still walked on this earth. Perhaps, his family did not like the way it portrayed him. No matter what the reason, after reading the first few chapters, I decided it was worth publishing. This amazing man, relatively unknown despite his remarkable contributions, is worth taking another look at. I believe that this book does explain his efforts, his frustrations, and his success.
When I first went to work for Gernsback Publications in 1958, Hugo was alive and active in the business. We were located on the 4th Floor of 154 West 14th Street. I was a young man with three years of the U.S. Army and one year of experience of working for the RCA Service Company in New York City . I was eager and well-trained in electronics repair.
I had been a subscriber to RADIO-CRAFT and then RADIO-ELECTRONICS for some time, when I received a letter from the Editor, Fred Shunaman, asking if I would like to go to work for the magazine as an Assistant Editor.
I later learned that this letter had been sent to every subscriber who lived in the metropolitan New York area. I applied. I interviewed. I got the job!
Fred Shunaman was the Editor. Robert F. Scott (Bob) was the Technical Editor, M. Harvey Gernsback, Mr. Gernsback's Son, was Publisher and Editor, Hugo Gernsback, the Mr. Gernsback was the Editor in Chief and director of the company. He was indeed an impressive man. He also had an incredible and as I learned, well earned ego.
I remember being ushered into his office for the first time. I had already been interviewed by everyone else – Editors, Production staff, artists, office staff, secretaries and even, it seemed, the shipping clerk. But now came the big event. I entered his office, H's office, ushered in by his secretary Joan and sat through a 30-minute interview. Lots of technical questions, a few personal ones, and the most important one of all – at least to me – “how soon could I start?”
I was in! I gave my notice at the RCA Service Company and was ready to go. It was the start of some of the very best times of my life. Over the next 40 years, I went from Assistant Editor to Editor-in-Chief; Then publisher and owner.
Hugo Gernsback was a truly impressive and fascinating man. I remember only a few months after I began my new career, I was asked to edit his editorial about bouncing a radio signal off the moon. I read it quickly, but carefully, and discovered that if my calculations were correct, the time Mr. Gernsback said it would take for the signal to get to the moon and return was not quite correct. I ran the numbers about ten times, got the same answer each time, and knew that somewhere Mr. Gernsback had miscalculated. I asked our Editor Fred Shunaman what I should do. He said: “If you are sure that you are right take that editorial into his office and show him the correction.”
Needless to say, I checked those numbers several more times and then informed Mr. Gernsback's secretary that I needed to see him. In due course I was ushered into his office and explained the calculation. Mr. Gernsback took his typewritten manuscript from me, looked it over, grunted, and said “Good Editing! Thank you.”
As you will learn elsewhere in this book, one of the ways Hugo Gernsback delivered his ideas was as Mohammed Ulysses Fips. Under this penname, Hugo wrote his annual April Fools article. Each one was carefully crafted to make the impossible appear possible. I was given the honor one January, to assemble a mock-up of a Paper-Thin Radio. It was needed for an illustration in that year's article. Yes, it did not really work, but it sure looked like it would and a large number of our readers asked where they could buy one.
Hugo Gernsback always kept a pad of paper and a pencil at his bedside. If he awoke during the night with an idea, he would get up and write it down for future development. One morning he decided that he needed a better way to do this task, He called me in and asked me to build an illuminated base to hold a sheet of note paper. He explained carefully what he intended. “Get a luminescent panel (at that time they were just becoming available as a night light – green of course), place it into a 5 x 7-inch plastic box. Mount a pushbutton switch that would turn the panel on and off. Mount the panel flush with the top of the box and attach a clip to hold several sheets of paper in place. Of course, it did need to be plugged into a nearby AC outlet. I finished the assembly in a couple of days, and as far as I know, he used it regularly.
In fact he mentioned the device in response to a rather interesting letter to a reader. Here is the original letter from that reader and Hugo's response. First the reader's letter:
Figure 2. Hugo Gernsback demonstrating his personal pair of Teleyeglasses, one of his “come to life” prophecies.
“Dear Mr. Gernsback:
“How does one go about being a prophet? It is amazing how so many of your prophesies have been realized. Do you think that many others, such as your " Teleyeglasses " will also soon come about? [ Teleyeglasses was a Fips April 1 article about a TV set you could wear like a set of eyeglasses. See the photograph on the facing page – Editor]
“Any practical advice an old ‘pro' could give might be very useful. How do you make these prophecies? Is it just shooting in the dark, or do you do careful research on each subject?
“This is, to me, an important question, since I believe science fiction is not merely fantasy, or shouldn't be, anyway, but also a means of expressing one's views on coming attractions in the way of science, civilization, etc. Also, do you believe it is a more effective method than plain, ordinary science magazines and such? Recognized, as you are, the father of all serious science fiction in America, I hope you will be able to spare a little time to answer this.
10 Studio Place
Colorado Springs, Colorado 80904”
And then, Hugo Gernsback's response:
“ May 4, 1964
“Dear Mr. Musick,
“First let me answer your question in regard to Teleyeglasses, which was published some time ago, to be precise, in the April, 1963, issue of my magazine RADIO-ELECTRONICS . The complete story was given at that time. In it I noted that this was by no means a new idea, but goes back to 1936. It was originally publicized by me in my former publication, SHORT WAVE CRAFT.
“Now as to your main question, technical forecasting or prophesying is not a simple endeavor. Perhaps the most important requirement is that you must start very early in life if you are to be successful at all.
“If you are serious, the first thing you must do is read everything in sight, particularly as to physics and science. I don't mean just magazines, but textbooks as well. You must have a vast foundation in physics and science, also electricity and electronics. If you do not have this sort of schooling, you will not succeed. It also helps to be a voracious reader and to know other languages, particularly German and French, since this will open new horizons to you. Many things routinely are not reported in English.
“Next, question everything; don't take anything for granted. Then remember that you must continuously do research -- research -- and more research. You must have an unholy amount of curiosity in every direction. This will help you in your work. Your curiosity must never flag.
“Once you are well grounded in the physical sciences, many new ideas will readily come to you. Make it a rule to write these new ideas down; do not trust your memory because you will have hundreds and even thousands of ideas as time goes on and you cannot work on all of them at once.
“Do not for one moment believe that every new idea you get, or will get, is brand new. Probably it was done in some way, somewhere, before -- or something very similar to it. I shall give an example.
“In my editorial, Multiplex Video, which I wrote for the March, 1964 issue of RADIO-ELECTRONICS, (see page 21), I showed the idea of a multiple-screen television set. This was picked up by TIME magazine (March 6, 1964), which gave it 3/4 of a page and considerable comment.
“The idea of multiple televisions is one that I had thought about long ago. Indeed, I used it as a cover on my former magazine, RADIO-NEWS, for the December, 1928, issue. This showed still another version of multiple television, one screen even with color TV!
“What I am trying to say here is that even ideas that look tolerably new are not necessarily new at all. Therefore, if you have a new idea, you must research it first.
“How do you research such ideas? In the first place, it could have appeared in a magazine or some book. That means that you must go to the Patent Office and do research. This is not a cheap procedure, because patent attorneys have to be paid for this work.
“From all this you can appreciate that to try being a prophet is not a simple procedure; it takes a terrific amount of work and constant research. And this by no means is the whole story; there is still something else. As Edison said long ago, most inventions are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. This is as true today as it was in Edison 's day.
“How does one get inspiration? This is a moot point, but if you research long enough with various technical ideas, sooner or later you will get inspiration at any time of the day or night. I myself have a habit of keeping a special mechanical scratch pad with an electric light on my night table. Hardly a night passes that 1 do not switch its light on and make notes of ideas which come to me even while I sleep. And last, but not least, you need a fabulous retentive memory!
“As for the Teleyeglasses, yes, I believe that they will be manufactured sometime before 1970. They most likely will be made first in Japan .
“If all of this has not discouraged you too much, I say, full steam ahead and the best of good luck to you.
— H. G ”
[Looking through the latest issue of The Sharper Image 2006 Gift Catalog what do I discover? There on page 37 is the latest version of Teleyeglasses . In this catalog, Sharper Image calls it their View-Video Eyewear and it sells for a mere $349.95.
The headline reads “View video on a virtual 43-inch screen! The descriptive copy goes on to state: “A pocket home theatre for under $400? Great idea! View-Video eyewear connects to any video iPod ® and the LCD image you see looks like a huge 43-inch flat panel screen viewed from six-and-a-half feet! Also works for viewing of game consoles, TVs, VCRs, DVD players and camcorders. The lightweight, pocket size View-Video Eyewear easily fits over eyeglasses.” – Editor ]
As the years went by, after Hugo Gernsback's death, I continued to discover the full depth of his talents and his ego. He wrote sheet music. He registered names for the magazine ideas he had in his head. Once he even registered the name “NEW” as the title of a magazine with the Copyright office. At that time it was necessary to deliver a sample copy of the magazine you were registering. I still have the 4-page edition in my files. As I went through the old files, I found copies of magazines titled “ FRENCH HUMOR, MOTOR CAMPER AND TOURIST, FLIGHT ” and many more. The most complete set of Gernsback materials is available at Syracuse University, where his estate sent all of his papers after his demise.
Figure 3. Sharper Image's head mounted viewing system would have been recognized by Hugo Gernsback.
Figure 3 shows the system now being sold by Sharper Image. It creates a virtual large screen right in front of your eyes. It is quite a step up from Gernsback's original device, but I am sure he would tell us “It is exactly as I predicted”.
When Gernsback Publications closed its doors, another group of materials were sent on as well. To my knowledge, there are more than 50-linear-feet of documents in their collection. For more information about what is in the archive, you can go to http://library.syr.edu/ and search on Gernsback. A quick and easy search for Hugo Gernsback and Hugo Gernsbacher on Google ® will get you much of the same information. But for more comprehensive data use some of the other search engines as well [ AltaVista.com and Ask.com are the ones that come to mind first. – Editor] and you should be able to put together a really comprehensive source list
While working for his company, I also learned a bit more about his ego. This was a man who would go to a classy restaurant for lunch or dinner, well dressed as always, gold tipped cane in hand, and mysteriously, after he was seated (often at the Gramercy Park Hotel dining room) a page would walk through carrying a sign stating “Telephone for Mr. Hugo Gernsback”. I learned later that he would have his secretary phone the hotel and ask to have him paged. But it really wasn't an important phone call at all, Hugo just wanted everyone to know that he was there.
My memories of the many years I worked at Gernsback Publications are pleasant ones. It was a wonderful family to be a part of, and it was never work. So it is with great pleasure that I offer this book of autobiography to any and all who would like to know a bit more about this very special individual.
One final note before we move on into the body of this book. All quotations from any of Hugo Gernsback's publications appear exactly as they were published, except that a few obvious typographical errors have been corrected. Hugo Gernsback's English was very good, but during his earlier years you will find a few solecisms and awkward construction or usages. In such instances we have noted (sic) so the reader will know that there has been no error in transcription: the meaning is entirely clear. In the very few instances where the meaning is not clear, I have added clarification in square bracketing. In appropriate places I have also added editorial notes. Now, turn the page and discover the real Hugo Gernsback for yourself.
Young Man from Luxembourg
Visitors to New York City were still sending home picture post cards of the Flat Iron Building as the world's tallest structure, when young Hugo Gernsback arrived by steamer from Luxembourg, where his father was a prosperous wine merchant.
Hugo was all of 19 years old, with a comfortable bit of change in his pocket and motivated by a burning desire to start a business as long as it had something to do with electricity or the just-born new science of wireless.
Figure 4. Hugo Gernsback at work in New York.
He was born Hugo Gernsbacher in the city of Luxembourg on August 16, 1884 . That was the year that Grover Cleveland was first elected president of the United States, Harry Truman and the Swiss physicist August Piccard were born, and the first practical steam turbine was invented.
His intense interest in electricity had been ignited at the tender age of six when the caretaker of his father's estate bought the boy a wet battery, a kit of wire and an electric bell. Any boy would have been fascinated by the mechanical equipment within the bell's wooden case, but that was not what most attracted Hugo's attention. What he watched with complete fascination was the spark between the contacts as the armature made and broke the circuit. That sparked off an immediate interest in electricity and electrical applications that would not only last the rest of his life, but lead him into a professional career far from the wine-wholesaling business.
This modest, simple equipment turned out to be endlessly fascinating for young Hugo throughout the remainder of his childhood and on through his adolescence as well. He continued to be fascinated by the mysteries of electricity and worked constantly to expand his knowledge and his activities. His degree of electrical expertise grew so great and so well known (in his home town in Luxembourg, at least) that even during his early teens his services were saleable, and he often contracted for installing electric bell and telephone systems.
A year later, he came upon a German translation of Mars as an Abode of Life, written by the American astronomer, Percival Lowell. The book contained not only the descriptions of the planet as then know to astronomers, but speculations on the meaning of what appeared to be “canals” on Mars – speculations that came close to science fiction. [Based on the latest Mars photos, those speculations appear to have turned out to be completely erroneous. Editor.]
That book sparked off another enthusiasm for Hugo that would remain lifelong, speculation on the logical extensions of what, at the time, was considered solid scientific fact – both long term and immediate possibilities. Hugo Gernsbacher immediately became what we now call a science-fiction fan; and although that enthusiasm played only a minor part in his early career, it would lead him to make fundamental contributions to what is now accepted as a genre of fiction.
At that time, however, there was not only no such thing as a science-fiction magazine – there was no general term for the kind of story which we now call science fiction. Hugo read the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, as well as short stories of a similar type which appeared in British magazines such as Pearson's, but apparently he did not read European magazines such as the French LaScience et la Vie or the German Der Orchideengarten .
This was not done without producing some consternation in the Gernsbacher family. His father was a successful wine wholesaler, affluent enough so that young Hugo's early education came from private tutors. He learned to read, write, and speak French and English, in addition to his native German, and would become familiar with literature in all three languages as well as scientific writing. He was being prepared to be a cultured businessman, since it was taken for granted that, when the time came, he would take over the family business.
That Hugo should show no interest whatever in the wholesale wine business can be appreciated only by a father who from the very day a son is born dreams of him as a worthy successor. But this, was not for Hugo. The boy had become consumed by the ever-spreading germ of electricity. Even his home town and the nation of which it was a part began to appear smaller and smaller as a field for the young man's expanding interests. America soon became a distant, misty dream.
In the meantime young Hugo's own business grew steadily. The townspeople looked upon him as a budding young genius, which indeed he was. He not only installed many of the electric bells of the community, but telephones as well. He also became somewhat of an importer of electrical equipment of various kinds from both France and Germany . Luxembourg did not have any manufacturing of that advanced kind.
Hugo's greatest thrill and his largest contract up to that time came from an undreamed of place, the nearby Carmelite Convent. Already a warm friend of Mother Superior Bedewing, young Gernsback, then only 13 years old, was filled with joy when the good Mother commissioned him to install an intercommunicating telephone system throughout the entire convent.
When the equipment finally was ready for installation, Mother Bedewing casually asked him how old he was now. “My birthday was last week,” piped Hugo.
“Mon Dieu,” exclaimed the worthy Mother Superior, “then you are not allowed to come into the convent -- you are a MAN now, and men cannot enter a Carmelite convent without permission from Rome.”
And so, young Hugo's telephone and bell installation was stalled for several weeks. In due time permission arrived from Rome, with a dispensation from Pope Leo the XIII stating “that Hugo Gernsback (and a helper) was empowered to make a certain electrical installation in the convent, which was not to exceed two week's time.”
During the years that followed, Hugo not only expanded his business, much to the concern of his merchant father, but he also experimented with batteries, wireless and electrical equipment in general. The inventor, who wound up with 80 patents to his credit, was beginning to exercise a mind that was chronically creative in a range of subjects as diverse as invention, publishing, business, medicine relating to sex, and in a dozen other fields. As a creative creature, Gernsbacker was enigmatic. He was then and forever after difficult to fit into a formula.
Neither Hugo nor his saddened parents neglected his formal education during the days he was engaged in his electrical business and his experimental work, especially with the battery as a source of electricity.
Later, he attended L'Ecole Industrielle et Commerciale in Luxembourg . He then went on to study at the Technikum (today the Fachhochschule) in Bingen, Germany where he absorbed electrical theory like a stone-dry sponge. By the age of 18 he was ready for a big decision and made it courageously even in the presence of his weeping family who had never quite given up the hope of his taking over the wine business with his brother. Here was a ready-made success; money, the comforts of life and the continuation of the Gernsbacker dynasty. Surely no young man could want more. Here was a solid, guaranteed future free from worry, anxiety and uncertainty.
But no, Hugo now 19 years old and full of confidence in himself and in the future of wireless and electricity, desired most to spread his wings in a country where ambition was not circumscribed and thwarted by rock-ribbed conservatism and age-old customs. America was the big, unavoidable answer. Hugo stood stubborn and bull-headed in making this decision. Upon arriving in the United States, Hugo Gernsbacher simplified his name, changing it from Gernsbacher to Gernsback.
It was not money madness that helped Hugo Gernsback make up his mind. Money was in the wine business; there for the mere asking. Another much deeper urge took charge. The young man yearned to be somebody, to succeed in a new and exciting field that must have a great future. Whatever it was, Hugo's tremendously imaginative mind was not lost to the world by immersing itself in casks of aging wine.
That decision marked the end of the sedate, ordered and more or less prosaic life period of Hugo Gernsback. From that point onward in his life, he was to become the Man of Many Facets . From that point onward, the sweep of his mind, the multiplicity and divergence of his ideas, would leave even the most able biographer confused and befuddled as to where to tackle him. Upon which department of his life the emphasis should be placed. The prophet, the publisher, the business man, the inventor, the philosopher, author, physicist radio-TV expert or the sexologist he was for many years,
Hugo Gernsback was a complex man, with a restless, nervous, searching mind that was never satiated, In Luxembourg he was simple, a mere stubborn boy fascinated by and devoted to electricity. That simplicity of character left him, at the age of 19, when he set out for America full of hope and ideas that later were exuded like the spawn of shad roe. Ideas also that in so many ways helped shaped the technical destiny of America and the world.
An Editorial quoted from the science page of Time magazine, January 1944, bears out these statements.
“Hugo Gernsback is widely and affectionately known among U.S. inventors as a bottomless well of incredible notions. For more than 30 years fantasies have come in such profusion from his brain that there is hardly a modern invention he cannot claim to have anticipated. The father of pseudo-scientific fiction, he has started a number of pulp magazines such as AMAZING STORIES, WONDER STORIES, etc. As a radio magazine publisher, he has given laboratory workers some suggestive ideas. Gernsback himself has patented some 80 inventions.”
During the latter part of his crowded life, Hugo has been the subject of many other biographical sketches with the biographers always too flippant, too smart, to catch the significance of the man and the mark he has left – especially here in his adopted country, the United States of America. However, as in the case of TIME magazine, these biographers to a man are confused by Gernsback's complexity and his multitudinous activities. So it was with Howard Whitman and his biographical sketch about Gernsback in CORONET magazine entitled, “Truth Catches Up With His Fiction," Whitman goes on to say:
“A British newspaper once called Hugo Gernsback the greatest living prophet. Right to that title was earned by Gernsback in showing the world long in advance the forms of such modern realities as radio loudspeakers, chain broadcasting, television, radar, rocket planes and robot tanks.
“The modern Leonardo da Vinci is an inventor and publisher. He communes with the future in an old-fashioned downtown office in New York near the Woolworth Building . Among his 80 inventions are the osophone, to enable deaf persons to hear through their teeth, and the hypnobioscope, a device by which people may absorb education while they sleep. This may develop to be the complete answer to children's school homework worries, he says.”
Gernsback was interviewed many times during his colorful life, but the interviewers always left slightly confused. The man's many-sidedness confuses them and too many of those world-be reviewers, rather than show their ignorance or lack of penetration, become flippant and often silly in chalking up their appraisals of this man. Consequently and more or less tragically, little of value has been published about him, although the NEW YORKER Magazine came as close as any to assigning to him the position of dignity that he has long deserved in American sciences, in radio, TV and sexology in particular.
Shortly after Hugo had so hopefully set foot on Manhattan in February 1904 (which remained his home for the rest of his life), with $200 in his pocket and a stiff-necked determination that no matter how tough things got, he would never, under any circumstances, request aid from his parents. He never did!
Before he left home he had conceived and developed a greatly improved dry battery, but no one in his area was interested. Despite the fact that his layer battery could develop three times the amperage of any existing American unit, he had to abandon it as impractical when he learned that it could not be adapted to mass production. As a hand-produced product it would have to sell for ten times the cost of competing products.
He took a job with a storage-battery manufacturer, and having learned something about economic angles from the school of hard knocks, he developed a cheaper, lighter, and stronger battery case than any other on the market. Unfortunately, one of Gernsback's characteristics was a tendency to brush aside trivial details and get to the main object. That proved to be an excellent approach in the career upon which he would settle later, but it was fatal to anyone who wanted to make his way in practical engineering. He neglected to test the case for corrosion resistance. The result was that the new batteries started to leak in a discouragingly short time, and were returned in droves by dealers.
That put an end to his seeking to make a fortune, or even a living, as an inventor or engineer; not that he stopped inventing. He continued that as a hobby throughout his life, and obtained a large number of patents. The only one which he exploited was a compression-type condenser (the principle of today's trimmer capacitor). A few other patents were obtained to protect some of the 60-odd devices he developed for the importing company he later founded.
Teaming up with the playboy son of a well-to-do inventor of a fur-processing device, Gernsback formed the GeeCee Dry Battery Company . This company devised and built dry cell and dry storage batteries. His partner sold them to automobile companies for use in starting ignitions. Business in general was good, but little money came in. The reason, Gernsback discovered, was that his partner was intercepting the checks and spending them on wine, women and song.
Nothing daunted, Gernsback got his money back from his partner's father and formed a liaison with the largest distributor of motor car equipment supplies in New York, to manufacture batteries. This business went along quite successfully until the depression of 1907 resulted in the loss of a contract with Packard, and his company, after paying its debts, had to be dissolved.
At the time, Gernsback roomed at a boarding house on 14th Street in New York . One of the boarders was Lewis Coggeshall, a former telegraph operator for the Erie Railroad Company. Coggeshall was interested in both electricity and wireless.
The two of them decided to form an importing company to bring into the United States experimental and research material not them commonly available. These items included X-ray tubes, Geissler tubes and specialized electrical science equipment. This company, operating simultaneously with Hugo's less fortunate ventures was called The Electro Importing Company .
Having assembled a number of wireless transmitters and receivers before he left home, Hugo assembled a set and showed his newly-found friend how it worked, Under the spell of the flawless operation of the device, the two youngsters decided to expand their new company to make and market such amateur equipment. Although the sets would operate only over a very short distance, they did nevertheless illustrate the principles of the new science.
Once more meager recourses were eagerly pooled and a small walk-up office was rented at 32 Park Place, New York City . This was to become both the office and the factory of the Electro Importing Company, “manufacturers and importers of wireless, electrical and scientific equipment.”
Little did Gernsback realize at the time, that this little company would be patronized eventually by practically all of the men who would later bring perfection to the arts of radio, TV, atomics, etc.
Chapter 1 of Hugo Gernsback, a Man Well Ahead of His Time will be concluded in the July installment of The Citizen Scientist. The book can be ordered here. Editor.