Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback

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Hugo Gernsback with an early widescreen television

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Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967) was one of the most influential figures in American publishing.  A frustrated inventor with over 80 patents to his name, Gernsback gained immortality of a sorts from his prodigious talents as a publisher and his invention of the term "science fiction."

Born in Luxembourg, Gernsback emigrated to the United States in 1904 in an unsuccessful attempt to market a dry cell battery he’d invented. When the battery business faltered, he turned his firm, the Electric Importing Company, into the world’s first radio supply house.

This was a time when radio was experimental and ready-made sets were virtually unattainable, but there was an army of hobbyists who were fascinated by radio and willing to let soldering iron and screwdriver make up for what the pocketbook lacked so Gernsback filled his company’s catalogue with articles on the theory of radio and how to build your own sets. This proved so successful that the Electric Import Company catalogue became the first magazine dedicated to radio and electronics, Modern Electrics, in 1909.

 

Gernsback may have been a mediocre inventor, but he turned out to be a dab hand at publishing. Modern Electrics was the first of fifty magazines that Gernsback started. A quick glance at the covers of his titles, such as Electrical Experimenter, Science & Invention, and Radio News shows a man with a flair for promotion mixed with a genuine adolescent love of gadgetry unhindered by any sense of practicality or even the laws of physics. For him, science and technology were the stuff of romance. He loved his cover art to show old battleships being converted into monster tanks on wheels the size of skyscrapers, thought recorders, invisibility machines, and giant rocket ships. It was like a preview of the future.  Almost as if Gernsback had participated in conference calls to the future with yet to born architects, engineers and inventors.

In 1911, Gernsback serialised his novel Ralph 124C41+ in Modern Electrics. Set 600 years in the future, it is a combination of travelogue, romance, and adolescent power fantasy that predicted such marvels as radar, fluorescent lighting systems, videophones, and night baseball; not to mention absurdities such as train tunnels bored hundreds of miles beneath the earth, cities suspended in the stratosphere, and using radium to revive the dead. The novel also showcased Gernsback’s fondness for neologisms such as “hypnobioscope,” “helio-dynamophores,” and “teleradiograph.” Small wonder that Life magazine called him the “Barnum of the Space Age,” or that he went on to publish the first science fiction magazine in 1926. 

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