We suppose that just about every science fiction fan has been asked at one time or
another just what it was that attracted him or her to science fiction in the first
place. For us, it was the so-called 'sense of wonder' that's characteristic of
well-written science fiction. From there, it was just a short step to attend a
convention in hopes of meeting a favorite author, and before we could stop to catch
our breath, we were publishing a fanzine. In other places and much earlier times,
such as pre-war Great Britain, fandom wasn't yet widespread enough to be easily
discovered, but that original 'sense of wonder' influence still existed. The
following article is an example of this...
There was also a speculations spot telling you just what to invent of you wanted to become a millionaire. One illustration for a money-maker showed a whole town going up in flames with just one house standing untouched amidst the inferno. It was coated with fireproof paint! Hugo pointed out such stuff didn't exist, but anyone inventing it could write their own check. Naturally, I had a bash, but I'm afraid my mixtures of water, dirt, old paint, salt, sugar, vinegar, and so on failed the trial 'houses' I made from cardboard boxes. I never did become a millionaire.
The January 1924 issue bore the headline, "$12,000 IN GOLD OFFERED AS PRIZES!" but the small print inside, revealed that this was broken down over a year into twelve monthly installments of $1,000 each. This sum was further subdivided into progressively smaller 'prizes' of $100, $50, and on down, for ideas, articles and photographs. All of which meant Hugo was simply filling his magazine for peanuts.
The cover illustration depicted a buxom female tootling merrily along on a bicycle which picked up its power from an underground cable. This was "soon to be tried in France," a typical Gernsbackian ploy whereby his more outrageous ideas were always being developed as far away as possible, usually in darkest Europe where none of his readers were likely to be spending the weekend.
Then there was a display of the winning ideas in a toy-designing competition. Believe it or not, but the first prize of $5.00 (NOT $12,000 in gold), was for a toy roundabout powered by cockroaches hidden in its base!
"Latest Patents" showed us what inventors had in store. This depicted a winged auto. It was claimed that this idea would not only reduce tyre ware, but allow the vehicle to leap over an oncoming car to avoid a head-on prang. I often wondered what would happen if two such cars met. Another bright idea was for a shoe-salesman's footstool equipped with a built-in air conditioner to waft away pongs from customer's feet.
Gernsback also proposed a 'loud hailer' to be mounted atop skyscrapers. Called 'The Municipal Announcer', it was to broadcast items of civic or national importance, along with details of robberies, accidents, or murder. All this fascinating information would be heard "up to five miles away." Presumably the people who were to live and work in these buildings would be recruited from the ranks of the stone deaf. Making matters worse, Gernsback's design also called for aircraft landing platforms on the lower decks to add to the racket.
One device which foreshadowed today's Tachygraph, was a gadget "of German manufacture." Fastened to your car, it would immediately show if your chauffeur was taking illicit joy rides in your absence.
Even salvaging sunken ships was not beyond Hugo's inventiveness, This was to be done by constructing a giant floating refrigerator, moving it into place, then sinking it down to surround the wreck. Turn on the juice, freeze the derelict into a block of ice, and LO! Since ice floats on water, up would come the giant ice-cube bringing the wreck to the surface. Ah, the wonders of science.
By the thirties, Modern Mechanix and Mechanics Illustrated were more sophisticated versions in the science and technology field. Covers still supplied the stimulus to buying them with such weird ideas as, "Uncle Sam's Flying Tank." We were also told to expect such wonders as... "A Mid-Ocean Aerodrome," "Hydrofoil Liners To Cross Atlantic At 100mph!" and "A Flying Car In Your Garage." Inside the mag, brief articles would waffle about the past history of such ideas (in fiction). Then came the usual phrase, "a German inventor has proposed..." I suspect whoever he proposed to must have turned him down.
Other fascinating articles would tell you how to build a hunting cabin in your back yard, turn an oil tank into a sunken swimming pool, or make a saxophone out of an old bicycle. Such ideas were way outside the experience and lifestyle of a 12-year-old. One tempting perennial was a soap-box car powered by an old washing machine motor. Washing machines hadn't penetrated to Sheffield in those days, let alone old ones. Our washing was done in a galvanized iron tub with the aid of a wooden plunger, scrubbing board and blue-bag. Hot water had to be heated over the kitchen fire.
If washing machines were unheard of, then "How To Service Your Refrigerator" dealt with artifacts from another planet. We kept our food cold on a stone slab down in the unlit cellar, alongside the sticks and coal. Despite such drawbacks, the magazines had enough interest to keep me coming back for more.
I read such tasty news items as, "British Police Try Out Speed King's Invention." This told of Sir Malcolm Campbell's plan to enable police cars to catch escaping bandits by means of a long steel pole fitted to the front of the police car. On the end was a grapnel. The police driver had to catch up to the bandit, his partner would maneuvre the grapnel on to its back bumper, whereupon gentle braking would bring both vehicles to a halt. I don't know where the pole was stored when not in use, or what happened if the pursued vehicle braked suddenly. I fancy a lariat or king-sized butterfly net might work equally well...
Other wacky inventions were dreamed up by people who must have had Rube Goldberg in their family tree. One gadget resembled an overwide and elastic-less catapult. This held your corn-on-the-cob for easy eating. Another character designed a personal air-conditioning system for people walking around on hot days. Small bellows were built into the soles of his shoes. From there, rubber pipes led up inside his clothes to finish in his hat. The simple act of walking circulated cool air inside clothes and headgear. Even crazier was the hat resembling a Mexican sombrero. If rain started, the pulling of a rip-cord would release a rain-proof shroud from inside its brim. Under development was a fireproof version to protect anyone daft enough to be caught in an inferno. For those who went around falling off ships, bridges, or into rivers, there was an inflatable rubber undervest.
"Lathe Hints and Tips" illustrated weird devices designed to help readers wreak mayhem on innocent chunks of metal. I had never seen a lathe, router, drill-press, or other such esoteric machinery, but according to the magazines, 'my shop' was not complete without them. In my innocence I wondered what they were on about. The only shops I knew a were the local ones selling beer by the jugful as well as cheese, food, paraffin, and firewood. Years later I learned that 'shop' meant 'workshop'. One lives and learns.
Despite such cultural barriers, I drooled over the magazines and taking my inspiration from the D.I.Y. projects, I made weirdly shaped 'ashtrays' with lethally sharp edges, by cutting bits of tinplate from old cans. Then there was my crossbow, scaled down in size (and considerably down in power) from the plans for a full-size deer-hunting version. Unlike Britain, in the USA citizens are allowed to hunt, shoot, fish, or pop off lethal weaponry in all directions. My crossbow shot a six-inch balsa quarrel at least two feet. Not exactly suited to hunting wild caribou or even the cat next door, but I had made it myself.
The magazines taught all sorts of strange things: re-wire your auto, re-time its ignition, or re-line its brakes. Not much use on my push-bike, I'm afraid. It was also considered de rigueur to convert your basement into a combined swimming pool, and recreation area, but it never explained what to do with the coal and firewood. I might have made a canoe out of the birchbark, but I couldn't identify a birch even if I was whacked by one. On top of that, the local River Don oozed its turgid way between pollution-emitting breweries and steelworks, and wasn't a good location for hunting trips.
"Mount Your Own Trophies" had promise, but I decided that our next-door neighbor would have been less than delighted to see her little Tiddles staring our from atop our sideboard. "Silverplate Your Model Aircraft" looked promising until I discovered one needed a piece of silver larger than the item to be plated. "Decorate Your House With Junk" was a complete non-starter; I'd been doing that for years.
Nevertheless, I loved those magazines. They gave me a lifelong love of gadgetry, gimmicks, D.I.Y. and the finding out of what makes things work. I still read the occasional issues of their descendants, but nowadays the gosh wow hydrofoils, moon rockets and mid-ocean platforms have all gone. In their place are reams of paper extolling Detroit's latest gas-guzzlers. A pity, but nostalgia isn't what it used to be.
All illustrations by Charlie Williams