The Wonders of Scientific Imagination: Hugo Gernsback and the First World War

The recent release of the film Interstellar proves once again that science fiction is capable of great imagination about the future of human technological development. The film envisions interstellar space travel and some of the real and fantastical stellar phenomenon we might encounter when we travel beyond the confines of our planet. For more than a century, this scientific imagination has shaped stories, art, and movies.  In this post, we examine one of the founding voices of science fiction, Hugo Gernsback, and some of his technological imaginings during the First World War.

Born in 1884, Hugo Gernsback was a German-Jewish Luxembourger who immigrated to the United States in 1904. In 1908, he started the Electro Importing Company, which manufactured radio equipment, and Gernsback started publishing magazines about electrical devices to encourage interest in the relatively new technology.  His first “science fiction” story was titled “Ralph 124C 41+, which was a play on words, meaning “One to(12) foresee(4C) for one another(41+).”  It was first published in 12 installments between 1911 and 1912.  It described the world of the year 2660 and all the technological marvels of the age.  It was not well written by any means, but Gernsback was one of the first authors to imagine where the new technology of the 20th century might take civilisation. In the time of radio and flight, humanity was breaking barriers of space and place in once unimaginable ways.  Humanity could now fly across the land and have their voice transmitted through the air instantaneously.  If all that had been invented in the last few decades, Gernsback wondered what might happen in a few centuries.

Hugo Gernsback, alongside Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, is acknowledged as one of the founders of science fiction literature.  He invented the word “science fiction” in 1929 after losing the rights to his original name he had created for his publication Amazing Stories, “scientifiction.”  This change was probably for the better.  He is best known for the science fiction magazines he published, like Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Science-Fiction Plus, and though there were science fiction stories before Gernsback, he was arguably the one who made it into its own genre.  Less well known is Gernsback’s earlier publication, The Electrical Experimenter, which ran from 1913-1920 during the midst of the First World War and thanks to the Internet Archive, you can read through some issues online

The Experimenter began as a publication dealing with the technical side of electrical engineering and venue for electrical equipment advertisers, but during the First World War it took on a more speculative approach.  Gernsback began to imagine what this new electrical technology might accomplish on the battlefield and directly asked for fictional stories about scientific discoveries.  As one of the comprehensive studies of Gernsback argues, this marked an important change:  Fiction went from simply invented stories to stories meant to educate and inspire. That distinction would be a defining element of science fiction.

After his adopted home the United States entered the war, the magazine became even more overtly patriotic, advocating for universal military service alongside new technological innovations.  Browsing through the pages of the Experimenter reveals all sorts of strange ideas about how the war could be won.  An article on “Trench Destroyers” theorized how tanks, just recently introduced in 1916, could be made into electrical machines. In “The Magnetic Storm,” a team of scientists invent a device that will destroy all electrical equipment in Germany to end the stalemate of the trenches.  One article in particular caught our eyes, a story from the June 1917 issue that was introduced with this evocative artwork. 

The article featured in the cover art was “Shooting with Electricity.”  Gernsback describes in detail how this electrified hose might be used in the trenches, though demonstrates the limits of scientific imagination as well. Like many of his ideas, it’s a bizarre mixture of speculation, science, and creative thought.

Strapt to a soldier's back is a lead-lined metal tank carrying a solution of diluted sulfuric acid of about 1200 degrees specific gravity. (A solution of chlorid of zinc or even ordinary salt water could be used.) By turning a knob on the outside of the tank a small quantity of zinc or iron fillings is thrown into the acid and immediately hydrogen gas is evolved, causing considerable pressure inside of the tank.  This causes the acid to be forced out thru the hose attached to the tank and from the hose the acid passes thru the long nozzle carried by the soldier.  The acid leaves in a fine stream, less than a quarter of an inch in diametre.

Now, back in the trench (or behind the lines) there is a 10-H.P. gas engine driving a 5 to 8 H.P. Alternating Current Generator. The latter is connected to a step-up transformer delivering from 10,000 to 15,000 volts.  A thin but extremely well insulated cable connects with the nozzle carried by the soldier.  This cable is connected one side of the transformer; the other pole is *grounded* to earth.  If now the stream hits an enemy soldier (who is not insulated from the ground), the high-tension current passing thru the stream of highly conductive acid, runs thru the man's body and thence thru the earth, back to the transformer.  In this case he probably will be electrocuted or else knocked senseless by the powerful current.  Even standing on a piece of dry wood or a stone will not help him, for the acid running down from his uniform will turn the wood or the stone into an excellent conductor and the enemy will almost certainly be rendered unconscious.

When used by the soldier, however, it is self-evident that his equipment must be such that he himself will not be electrocuted. To that effect he wears a special "high-tension" rubber shoe, capable of withstanding 20,000 volts. Then too he uses "high-tension" rubber gloves, and in addition to this the nozzle is heavily insulated from his hands by means of a special insulator, as grafically shown on our front cover.  The tank of course must be well insulated by soft rubber pads from the back of the operator. ... In order to prevent the wind from driving his own acid spray against the operator's face, he is also equipt with a soft rubber mask.

Numerous problems plague Gernsback’s idea. Besides being unwieldy, the weapon could easily electrocute friendly soldiers by accident.  Even to operate effectively and safely, it had to depend on a lot of things not going wrong (which, as any engineer or historian knows, is unlikely).  It had little place on the battlefield of the First World War.  It would have had a far more limited range than say, a machine gun, and like flamethrowers, would be an extremely easy target for the enemy.  One bullet would quickly destroy the device or kill its operator. While an interesting idea, the electrified hose was not likely to appear in the trenches.

But Gernsback wasn’t really interested in feasibility – he was interested in potential.  He didn’t know what the future would be, but he foresaw that electricity and other technological discoveries held incredible possibility for humanity. The world was changing and Gernsback was eager to imagine what that changed would, or could, mean.

The Electrical Experimental is well known among science fiction scholars, but should be just as fascinating for historians of the First World War or technology. The world Gernsback envisioned was an incredible one shaped by technology in profound ways.  It reveals the emerging role of science in the Western World and its relationship to one individual’s understanding of the Great War far from the frontlines. Though the details are inaccurate, conceptually Gernback provides greater insight.  For instance, his electrical hose story is somewhat ridiculous, but it correctly predicts that technology would change war in terrible ways. We never saw hoses that could electrocute a battlefield of soldiers (at least, not yet), but modern warfare had other inventions just as horrific.

Gernsback understood the value of scientific imagination and the genre of science fiction itself. He wrote in an April 1916 editorial explaining the motivation behind his speculative stories:

A world without imagination is a poor place to live in. No real electrical experimenter, worthy of the name, will ever amount to much if he has no imagination.  He must be visionary to a certain extent, he must be able to look into the future and if he wants fame he must anticipate the human wants. ... Imagination more than anything else makes the world go round.  If we succeed in speeding it up ever so little our mission has been fulfilled.  There can be no progress where imagination is lacking.

It has been a century since Gernsback’s first forays into science fiction. The genre is now firmly embedded in popular culture as science fiction stories have been told in many different ways, from magazines, to books, to radio, to television and film. Imaginative stories like Interstellar underline the compelling truth of Gernsback’s words. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has already commented on what Interstellar got right and what it got wrong (spoilers), but like Gernsback’s stories and magazines, Interstellar serves a different purpose. We must continue to wonder what the future will be, and (hopefully!) continue to inspire new discoveries and a new generation of scientists.