The Father of Science Fiction
Hugo Gernsback

At the age of nine years old, young Hugo Gernsback slid into temporary madness after reading noted astronomer Professor Percival Lowell's book Mars as the Abode of Life (1893). An imaginative boy, the thought that there was life on another planet (the book's hypothesis, based on Italian astronomer Schiaparelli's observation that Mars had "canals" on it) was simply too much for him. The "madness" lasted for two days with 24-hour attendance by a perplexed doctor. This story set the scene for what would follow.

Luxembourg commemorative stamp - August 2005.

The father of science fiction, or as he called it "Scientification", Hugo Gernsback was born in Bivange, Luxembourg on 16 August 1885 and educated at the Ecole Industrielle (Industrial School in Luxembourg-Limpertsberg), and later at the Technikum in Bingen, Germany. He taught himself electrical communications whilst still at college, well enough indeed to be a teenage contractor. His invention of an improved battery, on which he was depending to make his fortune, was not economically practical, and so he left Luxembourg for New York, where he briefly took a job as Head of Research for a battery manufacturer. He arrived in New York in February 1904 - he was 19 years old. He found the job uninteresting and started his own part-time company dealing in electrical equipment.

The depression of 1907 found Gernsbach placing all his time and energy into his own company which imported European electrical and other scientific equipment not produced in the US. This Electro Importing Company led Gernsbach directly into specialised publishing. Starting with his own mail order catalogue in 1905, he then created Modern Electrics magazine in 1908. This became the vehicle through which he could not only sell his own goods, but also communicate his science orientated idea to everyone.

In 1905 he had designed and manufactured the first mass-produced home radio set. There was of course, no programmed broadcasting of radio, but the radio, called the Telimco Wireless, was a transmitter as well as a receiver - and a bargain at $7.50. His flair for dramatising science is demonstrated in his selling technique for the Telimco Wireless. He strapped a set on a man's back, and then had him parade up and down central New York demonstrating the archetypal walkie-talkie. He also advertised the event in his own magazine (Modern Electrics: January 1909 edition).

British 1950s version of Ralph 124C41..

Creating as well as importing electrical equipment he soon had his name in some of America's largest department stores. An example of the Telimco Wireless can be seen today at the Henry Ford Museum at Deerborn, Michigan as part of a priceless collection of Americana on display.

Meanwhile, his pioneering continued with the world's first radio store opening on Broadway in New York in 1909. In the same year he told his readers about "television" or photo transmission in Germany. In 1925 he created radio station WRNY, and just three years later he began sending out his own television broadcasts. The screen image, roughly the size of a postage stamp, was received by crude scanners owned by 2,000 amateur enthusiasts in the New York area. Among Gernsback's other inventions (he held 80 patents by the time he died) were the Hypnobioscope, for "sleep-learning," and the Osophone, an early bone conductor hearing aid. A year later he organised, through Modern Electrics, the Wireless Association of America, claiming 10,000 wireless radio amateurs as members. He became the Association's business manager with Lee de Forest (inventor of the vacuum tube - the hi-tech component without which wireless would not have been possible) as president.

In early 1911, when he needed more material to fill his April edition of Modern Electrics, Gernsback wrote a story that blended science with fiction for intellectual stimulation. He created a hero called Ralph 124C41+ and put him into a rudimentary plot framework knowing only that the next installment would continue to advance his (Gernsback's) own vision of future technology. It ran for a dozen issues, and developed into a utopian novel of 2660 AD with its punning title 124C41 (One to foresee for one). In it, Gernsback quite un-deliberately established the form of the early 20th Century science fiction story: a concern with science, technology and material things, with stereo-typed characterisations used merely to visualise the ideas.

1930 edition of Science Wonder Quarterly

To his surprise, Gernsback's story was immediately emulated by other writers, who naturally then wanted publication in Gernsback's magazine. The excitement for Gernsback and his emulators were "things" not "people". Tomorrow's unusualness was preferred over today's commonplace. Despite his unexceptional literary talents, Gernsback eventually pieced together a novel from the original story, subtitled A Romance of the Year 2660, and it is so jam-packed with ideas, predictions, prophecies, inventions and interpretations that it has been called "the first science fiction story ever written".

While Gernsback was learning to express himself during the first decade of the new century, elsewhere in Britain and America the market for cheap paper-covered "romances", or magazines, was flourishing. Writers at that time wrote for the magazines first, often appearing in a number of installments, and only later (and usually after further editing) would the story appear in book form. These magazines were produced on cheap grade paper (hence they became known as "Pulps") and featured such writers as Rudyard Kipling, Richmal Crompton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, A. Merritt, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs among many others. These writers were popular with the masses who quite simply could not afford these authors in hardback editions (even if they wanted to wait for them to appear). These were generalist magazines, in other words an Edgar Wallace murder mystery could appear in the same issue as a Haggard lost world story or a real-life romance.

Gernsback changed that. He created a series of titles, which not only contained futuristic fiction, but also true articles on the latest developments that science had to offer. They were an immediate success. The SF Pulp magazine had been born, and the genre defined.

Amazing Stories - January 1928

In order to make a long story short, by the mid-1920s Gernsback was owner, editor and chief of his own publishing house - the Stellar Publishing Company - with a string of successful magazine titles including: Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, Wonder Stories, and Air Wonder Stories and each bearing on the cover the inscription "Hugo Gernsback - Editor". Gernsback published stories from authors such as Poe, Wells, Verne and Burroughs - sometimes all of them appearing in the one issue (real value for money at just 25 cents). Each Christmas he would publish a miniature magazine called Forecast as a greetings card for friends (the 1935 edition of which forecast that by the year 2000, control of the weather would be possible by satellite) .

All this was to crumble in 1936 by which time sales of Gernsback's titles were gradually falling. Although the innovation was a success, the fiction was not. Many of the stories were 19th Century tales by Verne and Poe, but the public wanted more BEMs (Bug Eyed Monsters) and less science. So finally, rather than prostitute his beliefs in science within fiction, he simply quit. Gernsback was to surface a few times as editor of various magazines in the 1950s.

Gernsback died on 19 August 1967, aged 83, during his lifetime he had achieved several firsts, arguably the greatest of which was giving science fiction it's name, it's genre and a tradition that is being carried on today by writers such as Iain M. Banks. From 1960 onwards his name was used for the annual science fiction awards presented to new authors and for other achievements in the field. The list of Hugo Award winners includes: Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlon Ellison and many other luminaries of science fiction writing. Gernsback himself was presented with a special Hugo Award in 1960.

For anyone who would like to know more about this extraordinary man, I direct them to Gernsback's biographer Sam Moskowitz, or to the University Library of Syracuse (NY) where Gernsback's private papers form part of the Science Fiction Collections.


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