Hugo Gernsback

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What we dream we become” wrote Henry Miller, offering a curse as much as a promise, wary as he always was of science and technology and America.

Nobody in the U.S. has ever dreamed more than Hugo Gernsback, immigrant technological tinkerer and peddler of science fiction, and he was sure the most outré visions would come to pass: instant newspapers printed in the home, TV eyeglasses, teleportation, etc. Some of these amazing stories proved to be true and others…perhaps someday? In Gernsback’s view what separated fiction and fact was merely time.

From James Gleick’s wonderful New York Review of Books piece about The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction:

Born Hugo Gernsbacher, the son of a wine merchant in a Luxembourg suburb before electrification, he started tinkering as a child with electric bell-ringers. When he emigrated to New York City at the age of nineteen, in 1904, he carried in his baggage a design for a new kind of electrolytic battery. A year later, styling himself in Yankee fashion “Huck Gernsback,” he published his first article in Scientific American, a design for a new kind of electric interrupter. That same year he started his first business venture, the Electro Importing Company, selling parts and gadgets and a “Telimco” radio set by mail order to a nascent market of hobbyists and soon claiming to be “the largest makers of experimental Wireless material in the world.”

His mail-order catalogue of novelties and vacuum tubes soon morphed into a magazine, printed on the same cheap paper but now titled Modern Electrics. It included articles and editorials, like “The Wireless Joker” (it seems pranksters had fun with the new communications channel) and “Signaling to Mars.” It was hugely successful, and Gernsback was soon a man about town, wearing a silk hat, dining at Delmonico’s and perusing its wine list with a monocle.

Public awareness of science and technology was new and in flux. “Technology” was barely a word and still not far removed from magic. “But wireless was magical to Gernsback’s readers,” writes Wythoff, “not because they didn’t understand how the trick worked but because they did.” Gernsback asked his readers to cast their minds back “but 100 years” to the time of Napoleon and consider how far the world has “progressed” in that mere century. “Our entire mode of living has changed with the present progress,” he wrote in the first issue of Amazing Stories “and it is little wonder, therefore, that many fantastic situations—impossible 100 years ago—are brought about today.”

So for Gernsback it was completely natural to publish Science Wonder Stories alongside Electrical Experimenter. He returned again and again to the theme of fact versus fiction—a false dichotomy, as far as he was concerned. Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were inventors and prophets, their fantastic visions giving us our parachutes and submarines and spaceships.•

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Hugo Gernsback may have been America’s first professional futurist, and while he wasn’t always right he was always interesting. Gernsback invented the first home radio kits right after the turn of the nineteenth century and sold his gadgets by mail order from his Brooklyn offices. He loved science fiction as much as science–saw them as complements, really–and published some of the earliest examples of the form in his publications, including Amazing Stories. The sci-fi Hugo Award is named for him.

Gernsback never stopped trying to amaze with outlandish inventions and predictions. Just four years before his death, the July 26, 1963 issue of Life profiled the man in “Barnum of the Space Age,” which reported his prophecies for the future. An excerpt:

A Hugo Gernsback print advertisement.

“Science is now so big, so flamboyant and so barnacled with politicians, press agents, generals and industrialists that Hugo Gernsback, who invented it back in 1908 (and has re-invented it, annually, since) can scarcely make himself heard above the babble of the late-comers. Although he is now 78, Gernsback is still a man of remarkable energy who raps out forecasts of future scientific wonders with the rapidity of a disintegrate gun. He believes that millions will eventually wear television eyeglasses–and has begun work on a model to speed the day. ‘Instant newspapers’ will be printed in U.S. homes by electromagnetic waves, in his opinion as soon as U.S. publishers wrench themselves out of the pit of stagnant thinking in which Gernsback feels they are wallowing at present. He also believes in the inevitability of teleportation–i.e., reproducing a ham sandwich at a distance by electronic means, much as images are now reproduced on a television screen.”


It’s been 17 years since Wired sent sci-fi legend William Gibson to chronicle the spotless dystopia that is modern Singapore, but it’s hard to believe much has changed. The resulting article,Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” looks at a country that’s run with the brutal efficiency of a corporate theme park, and one that has disappeared any trace of its own history. An excerpt:

“Singapore is a relentlessly G-rated experience, micromanaged by a state that has the look and feel of a very large corporation. If IBM had ever bothered to actually possess a physical country, that country might have had a lot in common with Singapore. There’s a certain white-shirted constraint, an absolute humorlessness in the way Singapore Ltd. operates; conformity here is the prime directive, and the fuzzier brands of creativity are in extremely short supply.

The physical past here has almost entirely vanished.

There is no slack in Singapore. Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.

But Disneyland wasn’t built atop an equally peculiar 19th-century theme park – something constructed to meet both the romantic longings and purely mercantile needs of the British Empire. Modern Singapore was – bits of the Victorian construct, dressed in spanking-fresh paint, protrude at quaint angles from the white-flanked glitter of the neo-Gernsbackian metropolis. These few very deliberate fragments of historical texture serve as a reminder of just how deliciously odd an entrepot Singapore once was – a product of Empire kinkier even than Hong Kong.

The sensation of trying to connect psychically with the old Singapore is rather painful, as though Disneyland’s New Orleans Square had been erected on the site of the actual French Quarter, obliterating it in the process but leaving in its place a glassy simulacrum. The facades of the remaining Victorian shop-houses recall Covent Garden on some impossibly bright London day. I took several solitary, jet-lagged walks at dawn, when a city’s ghosts tend to be most visible, but there was very little to be seen of previous realities: Joss stick smouldering in an old brass holder on the white-painted column of a shop-house; a mirror positioned above the door of a supplier of electrical goods, set to snare and deflect the evil that travels in a straight line; a rusty trishaw, chained to a freshly painted iron railing. The physical past, here, has almost entirely vanished.”

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