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Gernsback, Hugo (1884-1967)

Gernsback, Hugo (1884-1967)

An American publisher, editor, and author, Gernsback is perhaps best known as the founder of the modern science fiction literary genre. It was his publication of Amazing Stories (1926) that gave him this distinction and drew Americans into reading stories about an unknown future. Indeed, Gernsback's imagination was not only limited to the abstract—not in the sense that what he wrote about was impossible—but his speculation about future technological advancements had a solid basis in science … as any good science fiction does. In this sense, he was one of the twentieth century's greatest visionaries.

Gernsback immigrated to the United States from Luxembourg in 1904 and established The Electro Importing Company, the first electrical importing business in America. In 1905 he designed and produced the world's first home radio set and began publishing a mail-order catalog, which he filled with articles discussing new technologies. By 1908, Gernsback's mail-order catalog had grown and evolved into Modern Electrics, the first electronics magazine of its kind in the world.

Gernsback began experimenting with science fiction as a way to speculate on the new technologies that exploded on the scene at the start of the twentieth century. He serialized his first such story, "Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660," in Modern Electrics from April 1911 to March 1912. Though clumsy and simplistic by today's standards, "Ralph 124C 41+" was based on solid scientific principles and made a number of remarkable technological predictions: fluorescent lighting, plastics, synthetic fabrics, stainless steel, juke-boxes, hydroponics, tape recorders, loudspeakers, microfilm, television, radio networks, vending machines, nuclear weapons, and solar energy. Gernsback's story proved so popular among his mostly young and technologically curious readers, that he began including at least one such story in each issue.

Gernsback sold Modern Electrics in 1912 and started a larger periodical, The Electrical Experimenter, in 1913, which he retitled Science and Invention in 1920 (later absorbed into Popular Electronics). By this time Gernsback was publishing two or more stories in each issue of Science and Invention as well as in its companion publication Radio News, and he began to suspect there might be a market for an all-fiction science magazine. In August 1923 he found out when he published a special "Scientific Fiction Number" of Science and Invention, which contained six new "scientifiction" stories (Gernsback's term for the new genre) and cover art depicting a man in a space suit. It was so successful that on April 5, 1926, the enterprising Gernsback launched the first magazine in the world devoted exclusively to science fiction, Amazing Stories.

Aware of the "historical interest" posterity would have in this new genre, Gernsback stressed both literary quality and scientific accuracy in his new magazine. At first he filled its pages with reprints of stories by Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.G. Wells. But Gernsback quickly attracted such visionary writers as E.E. "Doc" Smith, Jack Williamson, Ray Cummings, and John W. Campbell, whose groundbreaking stories would map out science fiction's major themes. Gernsback also hired Austrian-born artist Frank R. Paul to provide illustrations for many of the magazine's covers and interior stories. Paul's bold style, vivid use of color, and imaginative depiction of scientific gadgetry, future cities, and alien worlds gave Amazing Stories a distinctive look and was an important factor in the magazine's success. Bolstered by that success, Gernsback followed Amazing Stories with an expanded edition of the magazine titled Amazing Stories Annual, which was so popular Gernsback immediately changed it to the more frequent Amazing Stories Quarterly.

Gernsback lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929 in a bizarre legal maneuver rumored to have been orchestrated by one of his competitors. Within a month, however, the crusading editor launched four new science fiction magazines: Science Wonder Stories, Air Wonder Stories (both merged in 1930 as Wonder Stories), Science Wonder Quarterly, and Scientific Detective Monthly. Gernsback's new magazines were an overnight success, in part because of Gernsback's solid reputation, but also because he took with him Frank R. Paul and many of Amazing Stories' best science fiction writers. But it is Gernsback's editorial in the first issue of Science Wonder Stories that is of particular interest to the history of popular culture. It is there he gave the world the term "science fiction."

Scholars have noted that if Gernsback had not launched the first science fiction magazine in 1926, someone else would have seen the market opportunities and published something very similar. As important as timing was in the success of Gernsback's magazines, however, his contribution to the genre goes far beyond having an uncanny business sense. Gernsback had a genuinely altruistic, though perhaps simplistic, belief that technology could bring about a human utopia, and he saw it as his role to instill a love of science and technology in his mainly adolescent readers. His argument that science could not only be extrapolated but also taught through fiction was one he returned to over and over, and one that was not lost on his readers.

Throughout his life Gernsback continued to invent electronic devices, patenting nearly 80 before his death in 1967. And though he published more than 50 magazines devoted to such diverse topics as radio, humor, sex, economics, crime detection, and aviation, it was with the publication of Amazing Stories that he achieved his lasting fame and exerted his most profound influence on popular culture. Shortly after its publication, magazines and newspapers began to carry science fiction stories geared for a wider audience and science fiction quickly began appearing in nearly every artistic medium including books, radio, film, comic books, and television. Moreover, Gernsback's actions inspired two generations of readers and writers and played a major role in establishing science fiction as an independent literary genre. As a tribute to Gernsback's overall contribution to the field, in 1953 the prestigious Science Fiction Achievement Awards were named the "Hugo" Awards.

—Anthony Ubelhor

Further Reading:

Aldiss, Brian W. Trillion Year Spree. New York, Avon Books, 1988.

Moskowitz, Sam. Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction. Westport, Connecticut, Hyperion Press, 1974.

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