How the “Father of Science Fiction” Helped Invent the Future
Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), a German-Jewish immigrant from Luxemburg, was fascinated by electrical technology. In 1908, shortly after he arrived in America, he formed the Electro Importing Company, which played a pivotal role in manufacturing radio equipment that the average citizen could afford. In addition, Gernsback popularized new technology through a variety of magazines he published. One of his magazines, The Electrical Experimenter (published 1913-20), provided information on radio technology and promoted developing concepts about engineering and science through news articles and fictional stories.
Although not well known today, Gernsback was a technological visionary through the middle years of the twentieth century. His most famous short story, Ralph 124C 41+, first appeared in his magazine and was later published as a novel. Ralph 124 C 41+ described the world in the year 2660, when science had transformed the world. The novel was intended to showcase Gernsback's marvels, for example, a radar-like gizmo more than a decade before radar was actually developed, and a proto-fax machine, which would not be in use for decades. Although Ralph was not a bestseller, it is still regarded as an early science fiction classic and was recently republished.
In addition to imagining the future, Gernsback participated in the creation of some of the 20th century's major inventions. In 1925, he founded the radio station WRNY. In 1928, in conjunction with Pilot Radio Corporation (run by Isidore Goldberg, another American Jew) he started broadcasting television programming, seen by approximately 2000 amateur enthusiasts in the New York City area. Gernsback often combined technological progress with showmanship – he bounced the first radio signal off the moon in 1946. In 1953, the radio industry honored Gernsback for his "inspiring leadership in radio-electronic art." When he died in August 1967, he held approximately 80 patents for everything from batteries to radio technology.
However, Gernsback is primarily remembered today as the "father of science fiction." In 1926, he founded Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine devoted to what Gernsback called "scientification." Initially publishing reprints of classic works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Amazing Stories became a venue for a generation of young writers such as E.E. Smith and Isaac Asimov. The pulp magazines were inexpensive, making them accessible to a young, financially strapped audience. In 1955, the World Science Fiction Association named its top award, the Hugo, in his honor.
Gernsback's career illustrates an important aspect of immigrant culture during the early years of the 20th century, which often found established industry closed to new arrivals. Gernsback entered a new frontier in which science and business intersected – in his case, radio and television. A similar point can be made about his involvement with science fiction, which he helped to evolve into a staple of popular culture.
This essay originally appeared in Ten Minutes of Torah on May 3, 2005. The cover of Amazing Stories is part of the American Jewish Archives collection.
Dr. Fred Krome is Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati.