Hugo Gernsback

October 26, 2010

From October 1979 Radio Electronics

Hugo Gernsback, whose fame rests on his writing. publishing, and predicting not only future events, but the whole course of an industry, thought of himself originally as an inventor and engineer. Graduating from one of the best technical institutes in Europe, the Technicum at Bingen. he came to the United States as a young man of 19, with a patent on a layer-built battery he intended to exploit.

The young Hugo sought work with a battery company while trying to sell his invention. (It never did sell. While the idea was good—and was used many years afterward in heavy-duty “B” batteries—it cost nearly twice as much to make as the batteries it was designed to replace.) With the importance of cost now in mind, he designed a new, lighter, and cheaper steel battery case for his new employ-er. But here a typical Gernsback characteristic—one that was very valuable to him in his future career—came into play. His was not the plodding, painstaking approach of an engineer—he wanted to cut through to the final results without fussing too much with details along the way. Shipped to customers before being carefully tested for corrosion, the new batteries started to leak, customers began to return them, and his employer nearly went bankrupt before he could fire the brilliant young engineer.

Hugo and a friend were carrying on radio experiments, for which they had to import most of the necessary components from Europe. The two decided to start a small business and sell radio parts to fellow hobbyists.  Thus the Electro Importing Co., the world’s first company to specialize in radio materials, was born. From importing, it was only a step to manufacturing many of the components.

In 1906, the company sold the first radio ever offered to the public, advertising it in Scientific American. The Telimco Wireless Outfit (the name came from The ELectro I M porting CO) was a spark transmitter and receiver with a range of about a mile, completely powered by three dry cells (two for the transmitter and one for the receiver). These and other company products were described in a small mail-order catalogue. (Early editions of that catalog are worth their weight in gold.) Because little was known of radio, lengthy explanations accompanied the description of any new item, and the explanations formed a considerable part of the catalogue. Hugo decided to start a magazine and put the technical information in it. So, in 1908, his first magazine, Modern Electrics, was born. In spite of the name, it was primarily a wireless magazine.
Later (in the early ‘teens) he started the Electrical Experimenter, then Radio News, in 1918, and finally Radio-Craft, in 1929. (Modern Electrics was combined with a number of other magazines which finally became Popular Science; Radio News, after a few name and ownership changes is still published as Popular Electronics.)

Gernsback began his career as a prophet soon after starting his magazine. One of his first predictions was of the inevitability and necessity of television, and one of the articles in an early issue of Modern Electric’s was entitled “Television and the Telephot.” He was widely credited with inventing the word “television” but disclaimed the honor, saying that it had been used in France. (However, he was probably the first person to introduce the word to English.) In his book Ralph I24C 41+ (serialized in Modern Electric’s in 1911) he describes a televised opera in color, projected life-size on a wall made up of a mosaic of Telephots. The other predictions in that book read like a description of scientific progress through the first half of the 20th Century, and range from radar (his most famous prediction) through tape recording to night base-ball.

The Electrical Experimenter, Gernsback’s chief magazine of the ‘teens, was not so well adapted to scientific prediction, but Radio News (which reached its peak in the ’20’s) carried full-length articles—by Gernsback and other authors—describing the wonders (and often the absurdities) of the future. Two of the most important predictions in that magazine were the one-dial radio receiver (written when the better broadcast receivers had anywhere up to eleven controls) and the article, “Can We Radio the Planets?” in 1927. (When the results of the first Venus contact were announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the speaker began his report: “This was first proposed by Gernsback in 1927.”) Gcrnsback continued to press television, among other things as a useful instrument in war. An illustration for one of his articles shows a wall display of six large television screens, each looking at the same combat scene, from six different aerial viewpoints.

Hugo Gernsback

In Radio-Craft, Gernsback used his editorials to forecast the future. In November 1930 he assured his readers: “Television is coming to the home.” The editorial listed 27 experimental stations broadcasting TV (almost all of them by the Jenkins scanning method). In 1933 he says again: “The radio of 1953 . . . will have a television face-plate.” (Most people at the time thought of TV as merely an adjunct to the radio, with the TV sound of course going through the radio’s audio amplifier—some receivers of the ’30’s had an input jack marked “TV.”) Another prediction about the set of 1950 was not as fortunate: “The present broadcast band will probably be abandoned and stations will move to the higher frequencies.”

In 1935 he predicted CB: “A two-way radio in tomorrow’s car,” and pointed out its value in accident cases. “A special frequency will be needed,” he says, and it must be above 50 MHz. Gcrnsback did not let his career as a publisher get in his way as a radio inventor and experimenter. He patented some 80 inventions in his career, none of which, he said, made him any money. (It is credibly reported, though, that Crosley paid him royalties for the “book condenser” used in one of the early Crosley sets. The patent was on compression-type variable capacitors, and ran out before the trimmer capacitor became common.) He described a bone-conduction hearing aid in at least three issues of his magazines, but when one was patented several years after his last article, he made no protest. “I never intended to manufacture it,” he said. “Why should I bother someone else?”

Some of his circuits, notably the Interflex and the Peridyne, were published in Radio News. The Peridyne was the first circuit to use non-magnetic metal in the field of a coil, to trim it by reducing its inductance.

His last invention, which he did not patent, was a device for detecting the charge on an electret. The electret was placed on a sheet of metal, which was connected to one terminal of a small neon tube. The tube’s other terminal was attached by a wire to a disc of sheet copper about the size of the electret. Moving the disc toward the electret produced a high voltage that caused the tube to flash.

But Gernsback’s predictions remained the most important facet of his career. In later years they appeared in two forms: editorials in which he proposed, demanded, or showed how to achieve improvements in present equipment or practice, and in April Fool hoaxes, which described things a little too far out to be the subject of serious prediction. Those were realized, in fact, possibly as often as his more serious proposals. Automatic equipment testing, electronic sleep, and sound cancellation have all been patented, one within two years after it appeared as a hoax.

One of his most serious proposals, a computerized National Facts Center, on the other hand, may never be realized, because many fear invasion of privacy. And his most often reiterated prediction (or demand): television as a major means of education, is making slow progress, in spite of the obvious need for some better means of education than the traditional ones. Yet that was what Gems-back pushed most insistently, in numerous editorials, and even mailings to public officials, members of legislative bodies, and prominent individuals, from the President down. His multiple television receiver, which would permit a viewer to enjoy one program while keeping an eye on several others on small screens around the edge of the main one, is being manufactured in Belgium, but does not appear to be readily available.

So Hugo Gernsback may go down in history as a publisher—a science fiction and electronics publisher—rather than as a prophet. (Although, whenever a new development comes into being, there may always be someone to remember “Hugo Gernsback described this in 19—.”) Founder of the first serious magazines for the radio hobbyist and professional technician, an editor who was more interested in explaining new things in language his readers could understand, than in promoting the latest models of his advertisers or in maintaining a “scholarly” publication, his magazines have been the stepping stones by which countless intelligent youngsters have made their way to careers in radio and other branches of electronics.

In science fiction he is the acknowledged master—so much so that the Oscar-type awards the science fiction associations give the year’s leading science fiction author are called Hugos. Known in that field as the Father of Modern Science Fiction, he could equally well be called by electronics enthusiasts: the Father of Radio-Television publication. R-E


Hugo Gernsback was a true genius. Not only did he have the ability to cut through a mass of details to come to a conclusion, but showed up equally well when forced to handle difficulties of detail when they appeared. His ingenuity was fantastic. I picked up a little puzzle at a press conference by Pyramid Electronics—three or four small pieces that formed a pyramid when properly fitted together. It took me just three minutes to solve it. Then I took it to a person I considered about the smartest man on the staff. He worked with it for two minutes, then showed his intelligence by refusing to fool with it any longer. When I next took some editorial material to Hugo, I showed him the widget. Gernsback’s time-40 seconds. Fred Shunaman

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