Hugo Gernsback was an inventor (more than eighty patents), showman, writer and publisher, who coined the term “Science Fiction” (at first “scientifiction”) and helped to make in an independent literary form. He launched in 1926 the first regular science-fiction magazine “Amazing Stories” which would influence countless of writers and artists (like Jack “Captain America” Kirby, Jerry “Superman” Siegel…) . The ideal Science Fiction story according to Gernsback should be “75% literature interwoven with 25% science.
Gernsback was popular among young fans, facilitating and supporting meetings (at first through published correspondence) of what he called “SF enthusiasts”. Clubs like The Science Correspondence Club (April 1928), were created after members started discussing with passion about the contents of Amazing Stories. 10 years after the launch of Amazing Stories was held the first Science Fiction Convention (on October 22, 1936) and Gernsback played a part in helping Science Fiction readers to become aware of each others. He organized contests, published pictures of the SF enthusiasts, advised them to start amateur fan magazines. One contest saw SF fans submit essays on “What Am I doing to popularize Science Fiction?”. Hugo Gernsback also founded the radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.
Gernsback was a great PR guy that helped radio and science-fiction go through puberty. He curated his personal brand, built a strong professional media presence. His salary as President of Gernsback Publishing in the 30’s was near 60K a year ($1045 a week on average)… while paying writers 1 cent per word (at some point, half a cent!), photographs $3 per image. There are a lot of tales of writers being not paid at all by Gernsback, some even sued him. Famously, H.P. Lovecraft got only paid $25 for “The colour out of space”, prompting him to nickname Gernsback “Hugo the Rat“. Hugo Gernsback usually paid authors “on or after publication”, meaning he could delay payment for months. He thought being published was enough of a payment, especially once the Great Depression kicked in. It’s been mentioned to me that when Gernsback had the cash, he could give “bonuses”. As for his editorial staff, Gernsback, as a publisher, let them run the show, with little interference. He did insist to look at the final product. He was friend with Nikola Tesla, who he helped obtain a pension, when he was ignored at the end of his life.
In the period that interest me, Gernsback dressed like a visiting dignitary, usually wore a monocle on his left eye, an expensive french suit, a silk patterned bow tie. He had a tendency to use too much European perfume, was not a smoker. Also, he always kept is strong accent from Luxembourg. Gernsback was well-educated, petulant, he had a great sense of humor, with the wit to joke about his numerous misfortunes.
The annual science fiction achievement awards, the Hugos, are named after him. (Personal Note: I hate it when Awards are named after people)
Before going through the Gernsback timeline, a brief, direct, answer on “is Gernsback the father of Science-Fiction?“.
For one, Louis Figuier assumed the same kind of role from 1888 to 1994, by publishing Verne, HG Wells, Camille Debans and more in “La Science Illustrée”. Also, speculative fiction existed long before Gernsback and if we look at past creations, we can find archetypes that would populate science-fiction stories;
ca. 160: Luciani of Samosata wrote “Vera Historia” , first “true” story of a trip to the moon, which you can read here. Luciani knew how to sell his work: lying about the content, promising a true tale, letting his reader believing there will be sequels…
1638: Bishop Francis Godwin wrote “The Man in the Moone”. Ancestor of space travel stories like Cyrano de Bergerac wrote “L’Autre Monde” (1657), Voltaire‘s “Micromégas” (1752, about an alien visiting earth), Percy Greg‘s “Across the Zodiac” (1880), Gustavus Pope‘s “Journey to Mars” (1894), Edgar Fawcett’s The Ghost of Guy Thyrle (1895) which also prefigures Doctor Strange.
1771: Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote “L’An 2440”, about a guy who wakes up in 2440. Imagine Fry in Futurama. Before Matt Groening‘s 1999 series, Félix Bodin wrote “Le Roman de L’Avenir” (1834). Bodin prefigures Hugo Gernsback, here, by writing a novel set in the future, that educates the reader on science. “Looking Backward 2000-1887”, a novel by Edward Bellamy also plays with the concept of time.
1805: Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Granville wrote “Le Dernier Homme”. Ancestor of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), Richard Matheson’s “I am Legend” (1954), Brian K. Vaughan’s “Y the Last Man” (2002)…
1818: Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Ancestor of the Incredible Hulk (1962).
1863: Jules Verne begins to write his “Voyages extraordinaires” with “Cinq Semaines en Ballon.” Interesting to note that Verne started to vulgarize science because he was pushed in doing so by his editor Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Other incredible travels were published in 1895: Jean-François Paschal Grousset ‘s “Atlantis” ; HG Wells‘s “The Time Machine”; “Frank Reade, Jr.” ‘s dime novels written mainly by Lu Senarens under the “NoName” pseudonym.
One example: in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man that was used up” (1839), we meet a general prosthetically improved so that he could keep on fighting wars. Edward S. Ellis’s “The Steam man of the Prairies” (1868) introduced us to genius Johnny Brainerd, physically diform, who create a steam man/ robot to compensate the failings of his body. Tony Stark, another genius, finds himself in need to wear an armor to survive a war injury, he becomes Iron Man (created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby in 1963). It is the same concept, which appeared in different ways, often after/during a war period. Post civil war & end of slavery, Viet-Nam war… Technology offers the possibility to heal those characters, reassuring the readers worried about thee end of USA’s imperialism (another variant might be James Cameron’s Avatar).
So, similarly to “who created digital comics?”: No one 100% invent something, I found you always start from somewhere, something. Hugo Gernsback, as Balak did with digital comics created “for” the screens, synthesized and encapsulated something that was already existing, but this… modern Science-Fiction needed steering. Something that Gernsback was not that much interested in providing.
1884: Birth of Hugo Gernsbacher, in the Grand Duché of Luxembourg. Third son of Moritz & Bertha (Dürlacher) Gernsbacher. His dad was a rich wine wholesaler. The Gernsbacher lived in Hollerich until 1902 and never approved of Hugo’s interests in electrics.
1890: Young Hugo learned of the wonders of electricity thanks to an employee of his father, Jean-Pierre Gorgen. He read Mark Twain’s works and used “Huck” as a nickname, in reference to “Huckleberry Finn”.
1890 June: XXth century edition of the Overland Monthly. This issue might be the first science-fiction magazine. Hugo Gernsback mentions having read it when he arrived in America.
1897: Pope Léon XIII wrote a special dispensation — in Latin — for young Hugo to enter the Carmélites covent. The mother Superior of the convent requested Hugo to install an electric bell.
Ca. 1900: Hugo Gernsback is failing at industrial school of Luxembourg, has poor grades.
1902: Hugo Gernsbacher, 18 years old, inspired by John Philippe Sousa military marches, composed “Rod, Weis, Blo“, a luxembourgish march.
1904 Jan 31: Hugo takes the boat from Boulogne to New-York on the S.S. Pennsylvania. One goal: try to register a patent for his first invention: a new kind of dry cell battery. He doesn’t succeed immediatly in selling his invention and has to take a job as an engineer at Emil Grossman’s Battery Manufacturing Company.
1905: An article he wrote about his battery is published on July 25, 1905 in “Scientific American”. He signed it using the name Huck Gernsback.
Sold his battery concept to Packard Motor Car Co. and with the money, opened with his brother Sidney, the Electro Importing Company (E.I. Company), which imported and sold high quality electrical components from all over Europa. One employee is Harry Winfield Secor, which will become a partner in publishing. The E.I. Company is located at 32 Park Place (moving at 231-233 Fulton Place in 1914, becoming the Radio Specialty Co. later on).
1908 April: First Issue of Modern Electrics published by The Experimenter Publishing Company, a subsidiary of the Electro Importing Company, owned by Hugo Gernsback. The first issue of Modern Electrics sold out (2,000 copies for the first print; 8,000 copies in total). Circulation in 1909 was of 18,000 the first year, 35,000 in 1910 and between 55,000 & 95 000 in 1911.
1911: Hugo Gernsback wrote and published his first novel Ralph 124 C 41+ (one to foresee for one all) in Modern Electrics. I find Gernsback not a good fiction writer, his storytelling sucks: whenever he mentions a new gadget, there’s a stop in the story, to explain scientifically and boringly what the device can do. Gernsback wanted scientifiction stories grounded in “good science”. Results are unmemorable stereotyped characters and flimsy stories which predicted some future inventions, like radar.
1913 Feb: Gernsback sold his shares of Modern Electrics and in May launched a new magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, a periodical largely devoted to radio.
1914: Frank R Paul started to work for Gernsback, collaboration which would last till 1953. Surprisingly, though, Gernsback wasn’t that fond of Paul’s work. Paul is also the cover artist for Marvel Comics #1.
1920 Aug: The Electrical Experimenter changed names and became “Science & Invention”. Until then, Gernsback magazines mainly showcased electronics experiments and described the processes thar went into the creation of mechanical inventions. In October 1920, Gernsback published in Science & Invention a profile on writer Lu Senarens presenting him as “An American Jules Verne”. This three pages article showed the new focus of Gernsback: valorizing science based fiction, here by introducing the forgotten Senarens to a new generation of readers. That kind of articles until now only concerned inventors, like Thomas Edison (Electrical Experimenter, April 1920, interviewed thanks to the relationship of Sloane to Edison).
Aug 1923: Important “Science & Invention” issue consacred entirely to scientifiction ( with the first contribution of Ray Cummings).
1924 July: Louis H. Silberkleit (future Archie Comics founder), who was Circulation Promoter and Manager at the New York Evening Mail, is hired by Gernsback. Silberkleit became Circulation Manager for the Experimenter Publishing Company, working a lot with Eugene Foley, sales and advertising manager. The hiring of new qualified employees like Silberkleit was necessary as Gernsback empire was growing. He needed to find a remplacement for the not competent Herb Foster ( circulation & sales manager), as he wanted to increase “Radio News”‘s circulation ( 280 000 copies in March 1924, 410 00 in November after Silberkleit hiring, numbers which had not been reached since the radio boom of 1921-22) and improve the falling sales of his Science & Invention magazine ( which went up with Silberkleit, but far from the 500 000 hoped by Gernsback). Anecdotally, the first relationship of Silberkleit with the world of the funnybooks came with the advertising of “‘Smatter Pop?” reprinting 50 pages of a famous comicstrip.
12th June 1925: Gernsback’s WRNY radio station started airing, used to promote his magazines. The station was one of the first to broadcast television, in August 1928. It operated until 1934.
1926: On April 5th, (Cover date) Amazing Stories #1, the first regular dedicated Science Fiction magazine, is available on the newsstands (March 10th in reality). In the first issue editiorial by Gernsback shows his awareness that this magazine is something special and mentions Verne, Wells and Poe as proto-scientifictioners. C.A. Brandt was a book collector, in charge of finding content suitable to be published in Amazing Stories.
Amazing Stories’s drawing of Jules Verne’s tomb in Amiens on its title-page.
1928: Gernsback and his associate editor Thomas O’Connor Sloane welcomed two writers in the August issue of Amazing Stories: Edward E. “Doc” Smith (writer of “The Skylark of Space”), Philip Francis Nowlan (Buck Rogers). Circulations numbers for Amazing Stories for 1928: 104 117 copies. Distributed internationally to 35 000 newsdealers.1929: On February, 21, Gernsback lost his company and magazines thanks to sloppy business procedures/ extravagant spendings that ended up in bankruptcy proceedings. 80% of the staff on the Experimenter magazines was kept after the sale of the company to B. A. McKinnon (for $336 000). [I’m not developing the subject as it will be featured in its own blog post]. The April issue of Amazing Stories would be the last editer by Gernsback. Within months, he launched new magazines: Radio-Craft, Air Wonder Stories, Science Wonder Stories and later Television news. His new company was located at 96-98 Park Place, far from the plush accomodations from 5th Avenue where he had been for the last few years [again, there’s a LOT to say about The Park Place buildings, which I’ll tackle on in another blog post]. In October, Louis H. Silberkleit, now circulation manager at Eastern Distributing Co. (company which distributed Gernsback magazines at that time) is asked to feel is there’s a market for a mash-up of science and detective stories. A test issue of a new magazine “Scientific Detective Monthly” is issued in November, sent to NYC wholesalers and subscribers of Science Wonder Stories.
1930: Scientific Detective Monthly is officially launched in January, changed name in June 1930: Amazing Detective Tales and again in February 1931: Amazing Detective Stories. In January, 1930, Martin Goodman (who already worked for Silberkleit at Experimenter as a low-level rep) is re-hired by Louis Silberkleit, as assistant circulation manager, in charge of some of Gernsback books, mainly for Scientific Detective Monthly. Martin hired his brother David as a file clerk. Silberkleit and Goodman had little contact with Gernsback, who at the time, had other interests than SF publishing.
[The timeline will continue in three articles, yet to be written: “The Experimenter Publishing Co. 1929 Bankruptcy“, “The Park Place buildings” and “The Eastern Distributing Co. 1932 Bankruptcy“. There will be more content in the “Fathers of Marvel Comics” Graphic Novel ( Silberkleit pulps, Gernsback’s comics etc…)]