Today in Literary History – August 16, 1884 – Hugo Gernsback, “the father of science fiction,” is born

Hugo Gernsback, an inventor, writer, publisher, and editor who is often called the “father of science fiction,” was born on August 16, 1884, in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

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Gernsback moved to the United States when he was 20 years old and, among other pursuits (such as selling the first kits for ham radios) he began to publish a variety of magazines.

In 1926 he founded Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine to publish and promote stories in the new genre of “science fiction,” a name he coined although he preferred his first coinage “scientifiction.”

The Hugo Awards, the most prestigious prizes for science fiction writing, are named after him.

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Amazing Stories began with republishing classic works by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Alan Poe, along with more recently published stories that Gernsback felt fit his idea of what the new genre should be.

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Soon, he was accepting submissions and commissioning stories by new writers. He said that his ideal story was “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science”

Gernsback is credited first with shaping the parameters of the new genre (basically dictating what did and did not count as science fiction) and for helping create a community of science fiction readers across America.

Gernsback printed the addresses of correspondents in his various science fiction magazines and encouraged fans to get in touch with each other through the mail.

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He also founded the Science Fiction League in 1934, the first sci-fi fan organization. It became important in building a community.

“The SFL changed a lot of lives. It filled a need. Science-fiction readers in those days tended to hide under rocks,” wrote Frederik Pohl in 1967. “The SFL was a way of getting in touch with other people who shared the same crazy, secret pleasure of thinking about other times and other planets.”

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Gernsback was a science fiction writer himself, although it is universally agreed that he was inept. His real contribution was in promoting writers in his various magazines. Not everyone thanked him at the time, however.

He paid himself over $100,000 a year as chairman of the Gernsback Publishing Group, but nickel-and-dimed his writers and frequently broke his promises to them. H.P. Lovecraft (admittedly not a cheerful sort) always called him “Hugo the Rat.”

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Gernsback demonstrating his portable television glasses invention.

Gernsback was always a tireless promoter of new technologies and many of his fictional predictions did come true. He described how what would become radar could work long before it was invented.

His first love was radio, but he was also a pioneer in envisioning the future of television in its infancy.

Hugo Gernsback died at the age of 83 in 1967, just two years before humans first set foot on the moon.

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