The name of Hugo Gernsback has come up several times already in my ongoing series about The History of Science Fiction and his name is going to keep coming up as I get closer to the present day. However the only way to properly encompass the significance of Gernsback to science fiction is to look at his life as a whole.
Gernsback was born Hugo Gernsbacher in Luxemborg on August 16th 1884 and emigrated to the United states in 1904 where he founded the Eletric Importing Company. A pioneer of amateur radio, he founded the Wireless Association of America which had 10,000 members within a year.
Hugo founded the radio station WRNY in 1925 and was also involved in the first television broadcasts, sending an image the size of a postage stamp to the crude scanners owned by 2,000 enthusiasts in the New York Area.
An avid inventor, he held some 80 patents by the time he died and some of his inventions included the Hypnobioscope for sleep-learning and the Osophone a bone conductor hearing aid.
But the reason that the name Hugo Gernsback is considered so important to science fiction fans is that he was central to the promotion of science fiction in the early part of the 20th century and in many ways a founding father of sci-fi fandom, publishing the addresses of people who wrote letters to his magazines.
Gernsback’s first magazine was Modern Electrics which he began publishing in 1908. He apparently became interested in the idea of science fiction after reading a translation of the work of Percival Lowell when he was a child and began to sneak science fiction pieces into his science magazines. The most significant of which is Ralph 124C41+ (the title us a pun of the phrase “one to foresee for one) which was a twelve part serial. The story was packed with a remarkable number of ideas and speculations, but was lacking in plot and character.
Hugo Gernsback was perhaps the first futurist and his love of science fiction, just like his interest in radio, tv and electronics was linked to his fascination with the future and all its possibilities. That driving interest was also the biggest weakness in his writing. Ralph 124C41+ was hugely influential and that style of storytelling remained dominant in the genre for many years, no doubt also fostered by Gernsback’s influence as a publisher.
Gernsback was the first to publish a magazine dedicated to science fiction with Amazing Stories in 1926. At this time the genre didn’t have a specific name and Hugo coined the term scientifiction, when that didn’t catch on he came up with science fiction. Dr. T. O’Connor was the original editor of Amazing Stories. The first issue contained mainly reprints of fiction by Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs for monetary reasons. However once it was clear there was a market, the magazine started to include original fiction.
Like many publishers of the time, Gernsback had a reputation for sharp and maybe shady business practices. Payment for stories was as low as a quarter of a cent per word and payment was frequently late. He would go on to found two further science fiction magazines: Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories (although these would be quickly combined into Wonder Stories). However Amazing Stories remains the cornerstone of his reputation in the science fiction field.
Gernsback published many magazines and remained passionate about science, continuing to invent and predict future creations. He died in 1967 at the age of 83 and donated his body to science.
The Annual Science Fiction Achievement Award which was created in the 50s and frequently refered to as the Hugo had its name officially changed in 1993 to reflect Gernsback’s significance in early fandom. In 1996 Gernsback was one of the inaugural inductees in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
In recent years there has been some movement to re-consider the significance of Gernsback’s influence on early science fiction. Some commentators have pointed to the poor quality of his stories and the effect that may have had in holding back the literary progress of the genre.
For all that it is hard to argue against the man’s passion and the fact that he provided a central rallying point for the genre in its formative years.eoghann.com..