Amazing Stories was the first science fiction magazine and a catalyst for the new sci-fi pulp genre. Science fiction had been featured in other publications, but this was the first magazine completely devoted to the subject. It was launched 95 years ago in April 1926 by Hugo Gernsback and his Experimenter Publishing.
As a genre, science fiction picked up steam at the turn of the 20th century with imaginative tales of the future and bewildering inventions. Sci-fi stories were carving out a niche in pulp magazines like The Argosy, though some mainstream literary magazines like McClure’s and Munsey’s Magazine also printed a few science fiction stories.
In 1908, Gernsback started publishing the science magazine, Modern Electrics, and as its success was building, he began introducing some articles about imaginative science. This started with “Wireless on Saturn” in December ’08, then he started serializing his sci-fi novel, Ralph 124C 41+, in April 1911. Two years later, he sold his portion of the magazine to his partner and introduced Electrical Experimenter, which would also publish some sci-fi content.
In 1920, the magazine was retitled Science and Invention, featuring a combination of real science articles with science fiction. Soon after, he created Practical Electrics, which ran for three years until it was renamed The Experimenter in ’24. At that point, he sent a letter to subscribers asking if they’d be interested in a magazine that was completely devoted to science fiction, but the response was not strong enough to warrant a new publication. After two more years of combining sci-fi stories with real science articles, he dropped The Experimenter and introduced Amazing Stories.
The magazine was conceived as a mix of the educational aspect of a science text with the entertainment found in imagining possibilities free of real world constraints. Gernsback introduced the idea of “scientifiction” (the term “science fiction” wasn’t coined yet) in the first issue’s editorial, noting that the stories could educate and entertain. This was innovative thinking at the time since pulps were generally regarded as lowbrow entertainment.
The first issue featured all reprinted material, opening with the serialization of Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet, and accompanied by H.G. Wells’ “The New Accelerator” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” It also contained a few more recent stories, including “The Man from the Atom” by G. Peyton Wertenbaker and “The Thing from – ‘Outside’” – both reprinted from Science and Invention – and The Man Who Saved the Earth, which had been in All-Story Weekly. Then the first original story, “The Man from the Atom (Sequel)” by G. Peyton Wertenbaker was published in the May 1926 issue.
Editor T. O’Conor Sloane, who was editor on The Experimenter, took the same position for Amazing Stories. The staff included Conrad A. Brandt and Wilbur C. Whitehead, who were brought in to find stories they could reprint. Frank R. Paul, who had been working with Gernsback for several years and created illustrations for The Electrical Experimenter, was brought in as the cover artist.
The magazine was successful right off the bat, achieving a circulation of 150,000 within a year. Gernsback announced a competition in June 1926 to write a short story that would pair with a cover Paul had drawn. From the over 360 entries submitted, Cyril G. Wates won the competition, and he would go on to have three more stories published in the magazine. Seven other entries would be published in Amazing Stories, including Clare Winger Harris’ “The Fate of the Poseidonia” and A. Hyatt Verrill’s The Voice from the Inner World.
Some of the writers regularly featured in Amazing Stories included Jack Williamson, David H. Keller, and Stanton Coblentz, as well as Edward E. Smith with his space opera The Skylark of Space. It was in Amazing Stories that Buck Rogers saw his first appearance in print in Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon – 2419 AD.”
In 1927, Gernsback introduced a “Discussions” section where readers could comment on the stories and interact with each other. The audience for science fiction was still a smaller community, so this gave fans the chance to connect. Gernsback would print the full address for those who sent letters, which led to direct correspondence between readers. This forum for discussing the genre introduced the concept of the sci-fi fandom.
Gernsback also debuted Amazing Stories Annual in 1927 and when it sold out, he launched Amazing Stories Quarterly to be a regular companion for the main title.
Much of the stories featured gadgetry and inventions until Gernsback recognized that readers were becoming more attracted to fantasy adventures. He started serializing A Merrit’s The Moon Pool, a story that was more about the fantastical elements than scientific basis. The covers Paul created to accompany the stories were considered garish and some readers voiced their disapproval. After a toned down cover sold poorly, they returned to the more shocking covers.
Issues with the cover were coupled with some poor story quality because Gernsback was unable to secure bigger name writers. He gained a reputation for being slow to pay authors, so more established scribes like H.P. Lovecraft and H.G. Wells were reluctant to write for the magazine. This meant that some of the new stories published in the magazine were written by less talented authors looking to be published even if it meant waiting on payment.
Though the magazine was successful, Gernsback had invested in so many projects that he had limited liquid funds to pay contributors and creditors. In February 1929, his printer and paper supplier filed bankruptcy proceedings against him and Experimenter Publishing declared itself bankrupt a few days later. The magazine was sold to Bergan A. Mackinnon in April 1929.
Since then it has changed hands between publishers but has remained a fairly steady force in science fiction since it initially laid the groundwork for an entire genre in literary publications.