Roots of the SFF Genre: Hugo Gernsback, Patent Law, and Amazing Stories

[– Karen Myers –]

You learn something every day… With a hat tip to The Passive Voice, I recently discovered something rather astounding (or is it amazing?) — namely that “the genre of science fiction is deeply indebted to patent law and patent theory” via Hugo Gernsback.

This requires some explanation.

The first issue of Amazing Stories, Volume 1 No. 1 (pictured above) was published in April, 1926, by Hugo Gernsback. (A reprint edition is available on Amazon.) If you don’t happen to know, this is the fellow for whom the Hugo Award is named.

Hugo Gernsback emigrated to the USA in 1904, designed the world’s first home radio set, and began a mail-order business to distribute the device. As part of the effort, he began the Telimco catalog. This was followed by a series of radio and electronics magazines: Modern ElectricsElectrical Experimenter (later changed to Science and Invention in 1920), and Radio News (1919).

The reader response to some science fiction stories published in Science and Invention was great, and in 1925 he announced a forthcoming magazine specializing in science fiction called Scientifiction. Response was poor, so Gernsback changed the name of the new magazine to Amazing Stories. Science fiction had been regularly published in Argosy and All-Story Weekly, but there had never been a magazine singularly devoted to the genre.

Amazing had a 69-year run before being declared “officially” dead in 1995 after TSR failed to find a buyer for the magazine. The magazine was revived yet again in 1998, this time with an emphasis on media-related fiction.” …more

I don’t propose to discuss the long and elaborate history of Amazing Stories in this post (there’s lots of good info here, as well as more about the pulp magazine world as a whole.) I was the wrong age and in the wrong place to have been a buyer or subscriber to the various SFF periodicals as a kid, and mostly read only those stories that survived to be reprinted in books, plus his novel Ralph124C41+ (sound it out…). What purports to be a list of Amazing Stories contents (authors, titles) whose copyrights have been renewed (i.e., a partial list of individual works) can be found here.

Covers for the entire run of Amazing Stories here.

What got my attention was this article about how Gernsback’s scientific work informed his attitude about Science Fiction.

“Gernsback was also an inventor and serious scientific thinker in his own right. He died with over thirty patents to his name. In the early 1900s, he started a radio and electronics equipment company in New York. To support his business, he initially published catalogs for mail-order electrical components, but the catalogs soon morphed into full-sized magazines with titles like “Modern Electrics, marketed to inventors and amateur “tinkerers.” His magazines were full of information about patents and advice on patenting—which Gernsback deemed an essential step in the commercial success of any new invention.

At first, Gernsback started publishing science fiction stories—which he then called “scientifiction”—to fill space in his electrical magazines. These stories were sometimes little more than a few paragraphs of exposition about some speculative new device that might be used in the future, plugged into a generic adventure plot. For example, one story featured a genius from the future using (what we now call) “radar” to track down a Martian who had kidnapped the protagonist’s love interest in a Space Flyer. Despite the fictional elements, science and scientific plausibility were still all-important. Gernsback was fond of saying the recipe for good scientifiction was 25% science and 75% literature.

Readers loved it, and Amazing Stories was born. Gernsback knew he was on to something, and he frequently published editorials expounding on the virtues of scientifiction. These editorials, along with his unpublished manuscripts, reveal Gernsback’s theory that a good science fiction story is like a patent, but a much more “palatable” read. Although he did not articulate it in precisely the same terms, Gernsback’s justification for scientifiction echoes the language of patent law’s disclosure theory. Scientifiction, he wrote, provides both knowledge and “stimulus.” It inspires “seriously-minded” readers to learn about science and technology, and it supplies the “inventor or inventor-to-be who reads the story” with “an incentive” to “realiz[e] the author’s ambition” by perfecting the author’s science fictional inventions in the real world. Gernsback often drew the analogy to patents quite explicitly. The science fiction author, in his framework, was “an original inventor,” like the named inventor on a patent. The readers who got the author’s invention to work were like “manufacturers” who buy patents and commercialize the inventions therein “with but a few changes.” They were just there to profit from the author’s grand ambitions.

Over time, Gernsback developed a crazy idea. If science fiction authors are “inventors” who inspire others to reduce their inventions to practice, then shouldn’t science fiction authors be able to get patents for their prescient descriptions of future inventions? And shouldn’t science fiction serve as prior art against other peoples’ patents? In 1952, just after Congress had modernized the Patent Act, Gernsback made these ideas public. In a speech he gave to the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, he proposed that Congress should reform patent law (again) to give science fiction authors the ability to apply for “Provisional Patents.” “

(This was infeasible for many reasons mentioned in the article…)

“[But] taking Gernsback’s ideas seriously generates some surprising insights. Science fiction—of the type that Gernsback and “hard sf” writers like Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov wrote—has more in common with patents than it might seem. Publishing a work of science fiction confers no exclusive rights on the inventions it contains. But, like patents, works of science fiction are documents that disclose potentially useful information about science and technology. Like patents, science fiction stories can describe inventions that have not literally been reduced to practice; they can leave many details to skilled artisans to figure out. Both science fiction readers and patent examiners are also supposed to suspend disbelief, presuming the inventions described on the page are based on plausible scientific principles. See, e.g. In re Cortright, 165 F.3d 1353 (1999). If we think patents are an important part of the innovation ecosystem because they disseminate useful technological teachings and insights, then science fiction might be too.”

“…we can find circumstantial evidence of science fiction’s influence by searching patents. For example, specifications sometimes reference science fiction in the body, even if they don’t formally cite to science fiction as prior art. Search the patent record for “Asimov, “Three Laws of Robotics,” or “Star Trek,” and you’ll see what we mean. We can also find more direct evidence of influence—situations where inventors expressly state that they got their inspiration from science fiction. For this, though, we usually have to look outside the patent record. Inventors’ autobiographies, interviews, speeches, and marketing efforts can reveal clues. For example, Neil Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash features a virtual world called the Metaverse. Facebook and other tech companies are making their own virtual worlds and calling them by the same name. That, along with direct statements from employees that Stephenson is “our inspiration,” helps support that there was some degree of influence.”

“…At the end of the day, there is only one explanation for this: Some inventors read science fiction, and some science fiction matters to those people. Its ideas inspire them in ways that traditional sources (including patents) do not. Gernsback put it best. Science fiction “fires the reader’s imagination more perhaps than anything else of which we know,” leaving readers “deeply thrilled,” as their “imagination is fired to the nth degree.” Few people would ever say that about reading patents.”

“…Gernsback’s science fiction-as-patent theory also contains some wisdom for science fiction writers. A little more patent-style “enablement” in science fiction might do more for innovation than science fiction writers want to believe. There is nothing wrong with fantasy and so-called speculative fiction. It is often tremendously entertaining. But we call it science fiction (and thankfully not scientifiction) for a reason: it is based on kernels of real science. To quote Gernsback, what makes science fiction different from romance and adventure stories is that it is grounded in “scientific fact” and has the potential to be “prophetic.” It might one day come to pass.


Most of us probably write stories just to tell stories. It’s good to remember that there’s a greater opportunity to influence the future by writing intelligently about it, in ways that might come to pass. Don’t let it derail the story itself, but keep it in mind.

Have you written anything as part of the technology or culture(s) of the future that made you seriously wonder if it might actually happen someday?

13 thoughts on “Roots of the SFF Genre: Hugo Gernsback, Patent Law, and Amazing Stories

  1. I have never done this in a story but my father did it in real life. In the 1950’s he wrote an article about a new kind of microscope that wasn’t possible at that time. He basically described what I think became the scanning tunneling microscope. When the thing was actually invented in the ?1980s? and a search of the literature was done, his article turned up. So he’s always there in the deep background. “…described in the 1950’s by John A. O’Keefe, but not actually developed until…”

    N.B. He might have had a co-author, and the impetus for this might have been that his daughter, my older sister, had a cancerous mole that such a microscope could study. (Or I might have made up that connection. I wasn’t even born and just heard about this as a family story. They are both dead so I can’t check.)

  2. My short story Adaptability posted here a few weeks ago about a multi-tool AI would fall into this category. I don’t have to explain how it works, just its functionality, so lots of alien artefacts could potentially qualify.

    Alien or future human Science — yes. Magic — no. (Ah, but how to tell the difference? — h/t Arthur C Clarke )

  3. I wrote a story set on the Moon exploring the impact lunar gravity would have on people; the unconventional advantages it offers. I have a few others like that, showing how different gravity fields lead to different results (sort of like Herbert’s story “Fireproof.” The first story never got published.

    I have enough non-fiction to write that all my writing time is booked (at least until I retire from the day job), so the rest of the stories remain in outline. (I am getting paid for the non-fiction, and it is fun to write, so reinforce success, and work for the greatest reward.) It’s been 12 years since I wrote the story, but the ideas still hold up.

    1. Actually, Heinlein wrote about waterbeds twice before that, in ‘Waldo’ and ‘Mercy Flight’.

      His descriptions were detailed enough that you could make a functional waterbed without having to invent anything, thus they pre-empted any waterbed patents.

      That was back when patents and copyrights were (mostly) sane, though. Today trolls apply for ‘software patents’ by describing the problem to be solved without presenting even a hint at a solution. It’s like somebody patenting the abstract concept of ‘a flying machine’ in 1895 and then suing the Wright Brothers for building an airplane.

      Don’t even get started on the 1920’s – 1930’s aviation patent wars. So many people had patented so many bits and pieces that nobody could build an airplane without being sued into oblivion. FDR had to nationalize all the aircraft patents before anybody could build planes for the Army Air Corps.

      (Not that FDR was the least bit unhappy about nationalizing things)
      Dreams are all well and good, but it takes a lot of hard work to make them come true. If you don’t do the work, don’t whine about the lack of results.

  4. Some of the things I read in the 1980s about microchip implants to connect people directly to computers (aka “The Singularity”) sounded possible, as did some of the beam weapons. The latter seems to be a tiny bit closer to actually having been made workable. Tiny bit. I know the “implanted computer” goes way back before the 1980s, but chips had gotten small enough, and anti-rejection medications good enough, that it seemed more plausible.

  5. I’ve often thought that science fiction – or speculative fiction – for us is a way of acclimating us to advances, until we are ready to accept them. There were 19th century writers grappling with the notion of powered flight decades before it was technically possible.
    It’s a way of getting us accustomed to mind-bendingly new things. Everything from interstellar flight to zoom-wombs – and all the moral and physical quandaries associated with them.

  6. Lately I “invent” something for my crazy robot girlfriend characters to go fight aliens with, and then discover that guys are in fact really doing it. Example, I invented special rail-gun ammunition for penetrating the armour on a combat-zombie (they’re tough 😀) and then later found out something like that was in development.

    It also occurred to me that unless things out there are very different than we think, spaceflight is boring and stupid. Not useless of course, because some things you might want to do (like make antimatter by the pound) require space assets. But the true experience of it would be -more- boring than sitting in a submarine on the floor of the Pacific. At least in the submarine you’re not being slow-roasted by cosmic rays, right?

    Therefore, intelligent alien races would do everything they could by remote control. Nobody would really -go- anywhere, they would use FTL communication. Which we would not be able to notice, being that we think there’s no such thing as FTL. Example, entanglement. So what are we seeing in the news lately? Entanglement being developed into a -real- communication system. Turns out not to be FTL, but hey, entangled tachyons anyone? We can still get there. ~:D

    1. Hopefully they’ll invent the equivalent of a frequency scanner so we’ll know what to broadcast on… or not to.

      1. Wouldn’t it be nice, and smart, to detect the communications traffic first and just listen for a while before talking? That’s what I’d be doing, for sure.

        Less chance of getting a visit from the Space Cops, right? (That’s the answer to Fermi’s Paradox, btw. ~:D Space Cops.)

  7. Fair warning to anybody curious: Do not read Ralph 124C41+, it’s a terrible book notable only for its historical significance.

    On a different note:

    Science fiction had been regularly published in Argosy and All-Story Weekly, but there had never been a magazine singularly devoted to the genre.

    This is a touch problematic. Both magazines (and others), which were general-fiction pulps, did indeed publish stories now seen as SF. But pulps didn’t even begin to distinguish between (and specialize in) genres until either 1916, when Street & Smith began Detective Fiction Weekly, the first mystery pulp, or 1909, when Adventure began publication, if you accept that a category as broad as “adventure” counts as a genre. The first pulp dedicated to westerns didn’t happen until 1920. Each of those was seen as a genre before magazines were devoted to them, but science fiction was not. The closest you can find, prior to Gernsback, was H.G. Wells’s references to his early works as “scientific romances”.

    Prior to Gernsback, despite there being quite a few proto-science fiction stories by multiple authors (E.R. Burroughs, Ray Cummings, Murray Leinster, J.U. Giesy, Frances Stevens, and others), I’ve never seen any evidence that readers or publishers treated them as a distinct genre. The closest to a distinction being made prior to Amazing is the founding of Weird Tales, which published stories too “weird” for the general fiction pulps, and several pre-Amazing writers published stories now seen as science fiction there, including Edmond Hamilton and the fantastically-named Nictzin Dyalhis.

    When does a genre begin? Does the first example retroactively get included? Or does it only really begin once it has been identified, defined, and people start making it on purpose?

    I don’t know, but I do think it odd that the sentence just assumes (or implies) that people at the time knew what science fiction was, when nobody had ever marked out such stories as belonging together as a distinct genre yet.

  8. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    There is a vast difference between an idea and an invention. An idea is something that can be daydreamed up. an invention is blood sweat and tears, with frustration, lots and lots of frustration. Legally there is no monopoly on ideas. You need to show that your ideas actually work to have an invention.

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