In 1953 the sci-fi author Hugo Gernsback proposed provisional patents for sci-fi writers’ hypothetical inventions. 42 years earlier, he had predicted radar, television, remote controls, solar power, synthetic cloth, and videophones.
Hugo Gernsback is known as the Father of Science Fiction. How does one get that title? Well, he founded the first magazine dedicated to science fiction – Amazing Stories – and through that outlet defined the genre. The preeminent awards for science fiction writing are called the Hugo Awards, after Gernsback. And apparently he was a really bad writer. Just really bad. He had lots of interesting ideas but his prose was awful. In his first novel, Ralph 124C 41+, he spends many paragraphs extolling the virtues of an automatic packing machine. Here’s a sample:
The clerk making the sale placed the purchased articles on a metal platform. He then pushed several buttons on a small switchboard, which operated the “size” apparatus to obtain the dimensions of the package. After the last button was pressed, the platform rose about two feet, till it disappeared into a large metal, box-like contrivance. In about ten to fifteen seconds it came down again bearing on its surface a neat white box with a handle at the top, all in one piece. The box was not fastened with any strings or tape, but was folded in an ingenious manner so that it could not open of its own accord. Moreover, it was made of Alohydrolium, which is the lightest of all metals, being one-eighth the weight of aluminum.
The automatic packing machine could pack anything from a small package a few inches square up to a box two feet high by three feet long. It made the box to suit the size of the final package, placed the articles together, packed them into the box which was not yet finished, folded the box after the handle had been stamped out, stenciled the firm’s name on two sides and delivered it completely packed, all within ten to fifteen seconds.
Thrilling, right? It goes on like this for another six excruciating paragraphs. That novel, serialised in Modern Electronics beginning in 1911, is thick with ideas for inventions: radar, television, sound films, solar power, synthetic cloth, videophones, spacecraft, tape recorders, universal translators…
While Gernsback was an inventor as well as an author and publisher, he did not actually invent any of those technologies. So his proposal 42 years later – that sci-fi authors deserve some of the credit when their ideas are realised – is understandable. Gernsback suggested that sci-fi authors be granted provisional patents for thirty years, giving them time to realise their technological dreams. This never came to pass, thank goodness, because literary patent trolls would have produced some writing even worse than Gersback’s.