Monday, 31 December 2018

Hugo Gernsback and the Electrical Experimenter Archive

Born in Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsbacher emigrated to New York at the age of 20, in 1904. In the USA, he soon displayed an entrepreneurial spirit, changing his surname to Gernsback and setting up the Electro Importing Co. to sell the latest specialist electronic devices from Europe. Always interested in developments in science and technology, he founded the magazine Modern Electrics in 1908 as a mail-order catalogue, with technical articles and instructions for home electronics enthusiasts. He also registered patents for such exotic items as the Isolator, a sensory-deprivation helmet intended to increase concentration and focus, despite looking more suitable for deep-sea diving.

Electrical Experimenter, which ran between May 1913 and July 1920, was the successor to Modern Electrics, where Gernsback had serialised his own novel Ralph-124C 41+ between 1911 and 1912. Although, like its predecessor, it concentrated on technical science for amateur hobbyists – particularly in the field of radio, or ‘wireless’ – its scope was expanded to include some early science fiction, among them his own stories. Alongside these were articles by Nikolai Tesla, who also published segments of his autobiography in the magazine during 1919. In a 1916 editorial, Gernsback argued that a “real electrical experimenter, worthy of the name” must have imagination and a vision for the future.

The monthly editions of Electrical Experimenter in 1918 largely focused on technology in warfare, with the First World War still raging in Europe. From January’s ‘Electro-Magnetic Depth-Bombs’ through the ‘Gyro-Electric Destroyer’ to ‘The Automatic Soldier’, Gernsback showed his pragmatic knack of seizing the moment. Although the August issue harked back to a more innocent era of transport speculation, presenting the ‘Aerial Mono-Flyer of the Future’, the year concluded with tanks and barbed wire. The magazine continued to run extensive advertisements for all things electrical, including Gernsback’s own Electro Importing Co., which was still in business. The archives of Electrical Experimenter can be found in several digital repositories; the bulk of them are at American Radio History, and the Internet Archive.

Though his magazines were both successful and influential, Gernsback was notorious for his sharp business practices, taking advantage of struggling writers. One of these was H.P. Lovecraft, who referred to him as ‘Hugo the Rat’. He went on to found Amazing Stories in 1926, accepted as the first major science fiction magazine (although Gernsback’s preferred term was ‘scientifiction’, which he initially used). He was declared bankrupt in 1929, losing control of his publishing empire, but recovered to launch Wonder Stories and other popular magazines; he founded over 50 different titles during his lifetime. Gernsback was involved in early radio and television broadcasts, and anticipated the rise of mass media and air travel as early as the 1920s. He continued to envision the future, invent and register patents, until his death in 1967. The prestigious Hugo Awards, inaugurated in 1953 at the World Science Fiction Convention, are named after him in recognition of his contribution to the genre, as is a crater on the Moon.

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