Hugo Gernsback and the invention of science fiction

When you write a really good mystery story or novel, you might be able to get an Edgar Award. The source of the name of the award is as obvious as the name of the professional football team in Baltimore.

But what do you get if you write a really good science fiction story or novel? A Herb (H.G. Wells)? A Jules (Jules Verne)? A Mary (Mary Shelly)?

None of the above. You get a Hugo.

Why Hugo? The award from the World Science Fiction Convention is named for Hugo Gernsback, whom that association considers “the father of science fiction” literature.

The award seems all the more odd because Hugo Gernsback was by no measure a great writer — or even a very good one. Nor was he a particularly nice person.

Gernsback was born in Luxembourg in 1884, and after training in science in his native country and Germany, he immigrated to the United States when he was 20 years old. He had invented a dry cell battery that he felt he could sell more readily in the U.S. than in Europe. Gernsback found an emerging interest in — and market for — the new field of electronics, and he got into the business of importing electronic parts from Europe.

In 1908 he founded Modern Electronics magazine and developed a particular interest in the “wireless,” which we know today as radio. With that interest, Gernsback struck gold. He founded the Wireless Association of America which gathered 10,000 members in its first year, By 1912, he estimated, there were more than 400,000 people in America involved with this new medium of communication. He then started another magazine that eventually became Science and Invention, a publication that contained stories not only about scientific developments but fictional tales about where these developments might take us.

He called these stories scientifiction, but the term never caught on. Instead, the genre was known as science fiction. Gernsback made his own fictional contributions to the genre, but they are considered mediocre and insignificant.

Gernsback’s business dealings were shrewd and often questionable. He gained a reputation for paying his writers as little as possible and for sometimes not paying them at all. H.P. Lovecraft, for one, referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

But Gernsback’s genius and legacy were recognizing the growing 20th-century appetite for the combination of scientific advancement and the human imagination.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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