Critical Essay—"We Can Be Heroes": The Rhetoric of Technology and the Cult of the Inventor

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Ron Scott, Walsh University


“‘We Can Be Heroes’: The Rhetoric of Technology and the Cult of the Inventor” locates the science fiction pulps in the creation of a specifically American techno-identity. The article argues that the cultural anxieties (using a term coined by John Cawelti) evident in the American relationship with machines drives a discussion about technology that resonates particularly clearly in science fiction. The stories presented in particular in the early issues of the pulps featured protagonists who demonstrate the type of mastery over technology that created a space in which readers could idealize their own places in this increasingly technological world, seeing themselves as capable of heroism in their control of the machine.

While Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction reminded the American public of the late, great era of the pulp magazines, pulp fiction has never lain too far below the American literary consciousness. Published on large broadsheets that made printing eight magazines as inexpensive—from a physical production standpoint—as publishing one, these popular sources of fiction encompassed a wide range of genres, ranging from detective stories to romances.1

Major publishers like Street and Smith produced these broadsheets of easily-digestible, formulaic prose that traced their roots as far back in the history of popular American fiction as the chapbooks of the colonists, and these texts met a demand for generic fiction that enabled the publishers of the pulps to be profitable even during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Photo of early news stand

Figure 1. City newsstands offered the benefits
of attracting customers, but also provided competition
for the magazine buyer’s dollar (Abbott).

Featuring colorful covers that attracted the potential buyer’s eye on a newsstand often loaded with dozens of magazines, the pulps relied on sales from newsstands and ad revenue advertisers ranging from trade schools, book publishers, and producers of self-help devices and other bizarre mechanisms. On the newsstands of both the pre- and post-World War II eras, the pulps provided a place for those who wanted to read tales of cowboys and Indians, Hollywood starlets, hard-boiled navigators of urban landscapes, and other quasi-mythological heroes of the American literary landscape.

While the wide range of stories available in the pulps met consumer desires for a multitude of disparate genres of fiction, for the scientifically-oriented the pulps of choice were science fiction. The science fiction version of the pulps arrived in 1926 with the publication of Amazing Stories, and these magazines continue to the current day, as the seminal title Astounding Science Fiction, first published in 1929, is now known as Analog and published by Dell Magazines. From the beginning of the genre editors and readers wanted stories that satisfied their cravings for science and technology,2 even if their definition of science bears little resemblance to what those practicing in the field might recognize.

Hugo Gernsback, publisher of the first science fiction pulps and founding father of the genre, marked the parameters of the genre in his editorial introduction to Astounding’s first issue by calling for narratives of “imaginative vision” that showed a scientific leaning (June 1926 3), and this combination of imagination and rationality is demonstrated by the stories that he chose, and that subsequently come to define the genre. Gernsback’s vision matched that of his readers, as the financial and cultural success of the genre shows, and the genre became a hotbed of discourse and community for those interested in science.

Science fiction spread from the pulps, and the genre has been more than just financially successful, of course, as its persistent widespread presence in popular culture underscores. Of the many reasons why science fiction has remained current, one of the most compelling and useful is the embodiment of science and technology that the genre offers to the American cultural zeitgeist. As evidenced initially in the pulps, science fiction provides readers with a protagonist who is, as John Cawelti, a scholar of formula fiction, argues, an “idealized self-image” (18). These characters are “heroes who have the strength and courage to overcome great dangers” or “inquirers of exceptional brilliance who discover hidden truths,” and whose “creation requires the establishment of some direct bond between us and a superior figure while undercutting or eliminating any aspects of the story that threaten our ability to share enjoyably in the triumphs or narrow escapes of the protagonist” (18-19). In the specific case of science fiction, and especially the science fiction pulps, these protagonists often understand how to manipulate and control technology, and this ability speaks to a larger cultural desire to find agency within an industrial society that often appears overwhelming.

Pulp Cover: Immersion

Figure 2. The technological future
of immersion in the machine (Dold).

In the texts these same protagonists also display an awareness of and fear for the limitations of their own power in the face of what often seems to be our pre-determined technological fate, an awareness that serves as a counter to the often idealistic and even utopic visions of technology that run through American discussions of our relationship with our machines.

Enter the Hero (Science Fiction Version 1.0)

I should like to point out here how important this class of literature is to progress and to the race in general. (Gernsback, “Imagination and Reality”)

The science fiction portrayal of the miraculous machines of the future that Western industrial systems will create underlines the abstract nature of technology, even for hard-core futurologists who see technological progress as linear and pre-determined. As Gernsback notes in the epigraph to this section, the mission of science fiction derives its power from the cultural importance of understanding what scientists and those who develop technology are actually doing in their laboratories, work that feels hidden from the public eye due its complexity. Gernsback’s insight into science fiction’s cultural power demonstrate the genre’s position as a marvelous site from which to examine the American relationship with technology, a relationship both immersive and estranging.  The suitability of using science fiction to examine this relationship does not come from the genre’s accurate use of scientific facts or its ‘startlingly’ prophetic visions, since in the pulps in particular, these stories were rarely scientifically accurate or all that imaginatively prophetic.3

Instead, authors within this genre produce texts that identify and examine in a fictional setting some of the major components of the technological process, creating a fragmented, varied vision that nonetheless resonates with our cultural hopes and fears. These resonations come from the way that science fiction, like all types of generic fiction, reproduces the anxieties hard to otherwise duplicate. It also comes from the way that science fiction often performs the cultural work of assuaging these anxieties, in much the same way that Jane Tompkins notes sentimental fiction doing for American concerns about family and race in the mid-nineteenth century.4

Pulp Cover: If

Figure 3. The (successful) manipulator
of technology. Unfortunately, Heinlein’s
story is post-apocalyptic.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, science fiction does this cultural work by assigning characters to cults of personality that mark the specific agents and masters through which its fans seek to believe that they too can control and manipulate technology. These cults of personality focus on essential components of the technological process such as invention, engineering, and problem-solving, and the idealized self-image of science fiction protagonists allows us as readers to feel as if we are participants in the system.

The Pulps and Technological Identity

The pulp version of science fiction developed in the U.S. is loaded with characters who encapsulate Cawelti’s ‘idealized self-image’ for readers. The critical nature of science and technology to the American mission is highlighted by the work done in the pulps, helping to feed the strong American inclination for dreams of inevitable technological progress. Pulp science fiction in the U.S. featured adventure stories set in exotic locations, with enough science to meet audience expectations and thus generic conventions, and readers were encouraged—through editorial introductions to individual stories—to participate in the mission. This optimism came partially from the utopic exultation in technology that the pulp science fiction subculture exhibited, as narrative problems were often worked out through rational arguments.  For the most part, however, despite this narrative reliance on rational solutions, the energy and drive in the stories themselves came from the action undertaken by the hero to provide narrative resolution; even if the solutions to the fictional problems are rational ones, the most desirable feature is often the action through which these solutions are implemented. Members of the growing science fiction subculture wanted to get the girl while they became masters of the Machine.5

The protagonists of the pulp science fiction stories are often vastly different: politically, they range from conservatives to quasi-socialists; educationally, they come from all sorts of backgrounds, from major universities to trade schools or even the proverbial school of ‘hard knocks’; and in terms of occupation they range from engineers, academic scientists, and working men to entrepreneurs and idle aristocrats. Nonetheless, they share two main characteristics: they are Anglo-American males, and they are experts in science and technology. Their racial and gender makeup is not accidental, and their ability to control technology occurs despite the storyline; even in dystopic stories, the heroes of pulp fiction provided their readers with evidence that somewhere, someone was capable of directing the increasingly technologically-driven world of which they were a part.6 The creation of characters who resonated with their audiences played a large role in the success of the science fiction pulps.

Invention in the Pulps: Creating an American Techno-persona

How does an invention come about? How does a great song come into being? Neither the inventor nor the composer could tell you. They would call it inspiration, and leave it at that. ("Editorial")

A key element of the success of the fictional formula of science fiction pulps depended on their authors’ abilities to create characters who were not just adventurers who were also experts in manipulating the core components of the technological process. Of course, these characters also had to resonate with readers. While engineering skills and the ability to problem solve are key to developing science and technology, the process of invention;mdash;a critical piece of developing new technology and of carrying forward scientific research;mdash;becomes the first component pulp science fiction authors use as a trope. Inventors as main characters dominate the first few years of pulp science fiction, reflecting this broader cultural fascination with the process of scientific invention. These characters carried enough cultural significance to be used serially, and they provide a specific read of the hopes and anxieties in understanding how creativity functions in science and technology. While the resulting cult of the inventor becomes the first of these cults of personality to dominate the science fiction pulps, to be followed by the cult of the engineer and the cult of the hacker,7 the cult of the inventor actually originates with the initial development of science and technology in colonial America. Inventors became cultural heroes, helping build the national technological identity of the U.S, with early examples like Eli Whitney, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Fulton still resonant in American culture. Despite their differences, these inventors came to epitomize the type of imaginative genius responsible for American technical prowess. The pulp fictional representations of these inventors invoke the idea that technology is developed through the ingenuity of this type of brilliant individual, often working alone. In our cultural imagination their inventions are marked by the practical uses to which they can be put, even though practicality does not always lead to profitability, an important factor for the capitalists financing all this research. According to Carroll Pursell, whose book The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology provides a detailed, progressive look at the development of technology in the U.S., America needed to produce technological geniuses of its own in order to establish the national independence from Great Britain. Much as in the search for native artists, most innovation in the Colonies came either from recent immigrants or from craftsmen brought over by American merchants, and this continued reliance on the former colonial power contributed to the colonists’ inferiority complex. Thus, the American relationship with these technological innovators became one of nativist pride, and the inventions produced did not necessarily have to be profitable to make their inventor famous. For instance, Franklin published and distributed the design of the Franklin stove at his own expense, while Eli Whitney zealously guarded his patents in order to make as much money from them as possible. What links the inventors is the practicality of their inventions. Profitability was not as important as practicality in developing the cult of the inventor.

Pulp Cover: Incommunicado

Figure 4. As in so many other ways,
Gernsback was ahead of his time
in connecting music and technology.

Within the world of the pulps, the distinction between the practicality of an invention and its use in helping technological progress is constantly at stake. Scientists and crazy—i.e., unprofitable and impractical—inventors balance out the number of scientist-protagonists who make discoveries that have the potential to save the world. For every story featuring a mad scientist who threatened to become world dictator, there was another that offered a fictional scientist who working completely on his own developed the perfect ray gun that repels a Martian attack just in the nick of time. The process of invention can appear abstract and mystical, and it is as often portrayed in the pulps as foreign as it is given credit for making the world a better place. Within the science fiction pulps, portrayals of the process of invention are most characterized by the uncertainties readers have about those who are capable of performing it.

While the sermon-like tone of the editor’s page in each issue of Amazing encouraged the magazine’s readers to think imaginatively and to embrace the possibilities found in the incredibly rapid movement of science, the stories themselves reflected different representations of technological reality. Inventors were not worshipped unambiguously, even when they were not mad scientists; for example, as most of the selections that the editors ‘borrowed’ from H.G. Wells—for the most part restricted to the first two years of Amazing, after which new authors dominate—reflect, the inventive process often results in the creation of products for which we as a culture are simply not ready. While some of these stories feature the persistence of scientific vision in the face of bureaucratic and establishment disapproval, an equal number treat the inventor as an oddity, someone who is mostly out of touch with reality and who has very little concern for the consequences of their inventions. The importance of invention is not questioned, but the process by which it takes place is constantly in doubt.

Gernsback codified the importance of invention in the genre with an editorial in the third issue of Amazing (June 1926). For generic purposes, he wanted to find the originator of ‘scientifiction’ in order to help place its “lure” for readers historically, and he thus traces the genre to Francis Bacon and Leonardo da Vinci. These two Renaissance thinkers were clearly inventors in the most coherent sense of the word, and Gernsback wanted to validate his new genre by linking it to their respective places in history, privileging the importance of creativity over foresight:

There are few things written by our scientifiction writers, frankly impossible today, that may not become a reality tomorrow. Frequently the author himself does not realize that his very fantastic yarn may come true in the future, and often he, himself, does not take his prediction seriously. (195)

Part of the difficulty with the process of invention lies in deciding which imaginative leap will produce practical products, and Gernsback recognizes this difficulty, advocating that science fiction serves a sort of brainstorming function. In reality, these decisions are made in boardrooms and other such seats of institutional power, but for the pulps the utilitarian value of inventions was constantly in debate. By invoking Bacon and da Vinci, Gernsback equated his new genre with a philosopher responsible for creating the scientific method and with another figure popularly imagined as the greatest inventor in history, thereby ensuring his readers of the sanctity of the American drive for scientific and technologic progress, and also asking them not to worry about the plausibility of the ideas being put forth in his stories.  While in reality some inventions will be useful while others will not, the ability to determine which of these ideas would have lasting impact is a terribly tricky task, one that was nonetheless critical to continuing our American way of life. Pulp science fiction readers could—and did, enthusiastically—participate in making these determinations, thus lending more credence to the importance of technological prowess within their own psyches.

For Gernsback, the simple act of placing a wide range of ideas into the cultural zeitgeist would inevitably pay dividends for technological development, both directly and in the way that Western culture accepts technology and its inventors.  In the same editorial, he argued that “the seriously-minded scientifiction reader absorbs the knowledge contained in such stories with avidity, with the result that such stories prove an incentive in starting someone to work on a device of invention suggested by some author of scientifiction” (195).8

In this statement Gernsback claims with a fairly remarkable hubris that a portion of his readers would become inventors, and that they would subsequently get their inspiration from his authors. The actual number of inventors who spring from the pulps is obviously difficult to prove; however, more important than its accuracy is Gernsback’s attempt to create a platform from which readers can understand how invention works. Cause-and-effect should be clear in a rationally organized entity like technology, but this editorial call reveals yet another anxious moment about the inspiration, imagination, and creativity needed to move science and technology forward.  That this anxiety is not Gernsback’s alone is evidenced later in the same editorial, in which he explains the fanatical nature of the existing reader base for science fiction, people who he claims spend vast amounts of time looking through all sorts of venues for texts that will ‘fire their imaginations’. This firing, for Gernsback, is the ‘lure’ of the genre, the reason why readers respond to it: “scientifiction, in other words, furnishes a tremendous amount of scientific education and fires the reader’s imagination more perhaps than anything else of which we know” (195). For Gernsback and his readers, the power of invention lies in this imagination; invention is a critical part of technological development, but it is the process of invention that is troubling.

Motivating the Inventor

‘Geez, Charlie, I hope you haven’t lost your mind, like so many of those inventor fellers do.’ (Stone 176)

If the process of invention is problematic, and within the American technological identity lies the need to assuage cultural anxieties about our actual control of technological development, then a key thread within that discussion involves the inventor’s motivation. Ideally, inventors are motivated by accepted, institutionalized social virtues, such as an egalitarian desire for the good of all or a utilitarian focus on specific market needs. On the other hand, a thread in the conversation highlights a fear of inventors caused by the uncertainties of why they do what they do, often portraying them as megalomaniac sociopaths. In both cases, though, the psychological reason for the inventor’s need to invent is a source of anxiety, since the process of invention represents a proverbial black box of unknown origin or workings. The criticality of invention within science and technology makes its nature an often troubling enigma.

Pulp Cover: Nightfall

Figure 5. Asimov’s classic story
of the fear-based
destruction of progress

In the science fiction pulps, the answer to the question about the motivation of inventors can be seen in their portrayals. Mad scientists are after dictatorial power, and crazy inventors—i.e., those who create horribly impractical devices—are solely after wealth.  On the other hand, ‘true’ inventors never seek wealth or political power through their inventions. Instead, they often solve some sort of crisis, averting a catastrophe that represents a disruption in technological progress. One pulp text that exemplifies this tension is Austin Hall’s critical take on establishment science, “The Man Who Saved the Earth” (Amazing April 1926). In the story, Charley, a young boy, helps a scientist named Dr. Robold save the earth, which despite the utopic society created by science within the world of the story is being slowly destroyed by an unknown force. Charley is chosen to help Dr. Robold strictly based on what might be called his moral purity—he refuses to lie to Robold about breaking his window with a baseball, an honesty that earns him admittance into Robold’s inner sanctum. Robold needs a protégé because he has been kicked out of the scientific establishment, mainly because he felt unsatisfied with its politics. His dissatisfaction proves beneficial: while the scientists of the establishment are telling the population that the world is doomed, Charley tells his friends that scientists have forgotten the American ideals of the ingenuity of humans. In the end, he helps Dr. Robold implement the device that prevents the Martians from transferring terrestrial water onto their planets to alleviate their drought. As Robold says, Charley is the man who saved the earth.

Anxieties about inventors and their place in the scientific establishment abound in this story. For instance, Robold’s invention displays anxiety about the creative process: he is squelched by the establishment scientists, but still keeps his passion for invention going, a passion that is rewarded by his saving the planet. He is barred from the university because he exposed one of his colleague’s sophistry, making him in some sense morally pure, and thus distinguishing him from the mad scientist. The fear of the creative genius’s motivation is as powerful as fear of the intellectual tradition of science, and Hall’s text displays both of these anxieties, as the narrator explains:

We know the scientist and his habits. He is one man who will believe nothing until it is proven to him. It is his profession, and for that we pay him well. He can catch the smallest bug that ever crawled out of an atom and give it a name so long that a pro wrestler, if he had to bear it, would break under the burden. It is his very knack of getting into secrets that has given us our civilization. You don't question a scientist in our Utopia. It can't be done. Science is one of the very reasons why we began to believe in the miracle. (78)

Both in tone and phrasing, the narrator’s ambiguous relationship with science is evident, as he explains both the fact that science has given ‘civilization’ its Utopia, and that this utopia has unexpected burdens. As Charley’s character points out, Utopia has taken away the motivation to invent and discover and replaced it with a kind of uneasy reliance on the esoteric language and actions of scientists.  In the text, the scientists, however, panic at the first sign of a crack in Utopia, and only Charley—the reader’s idealized self-image, the young boy who believes in human ingenuity, plays baseball in the street, and admits to breaking a window—keeps his head and helps Dr. Robold defeat the Martians.

The need for a Gernsbackian ‘imaginative vision,’ in which all ideas, even those barely understood by the inventor, are valuable is particularly clear in this story. It was Dr. Robold’s vision that enabled him to start working on the exact device Earth would need twenty years before the need became evident. To have begun working on a cup-holder for a hover-car twenty years before hover-cars appear would make Robold crazy; working on this ray gun only to use it as a device for seizing political power in the U.S. would make him ‘mad.’ And of course texts in which the inventor works on his ray gun for twenty years only to have the Martians not show up also do not figure into the science fiction tradition. Robold is motivated by his desire to save the planet—the ‘right’ reason—marking the curious combination of ego and self-sacrifice that denote this character type within this thread of the rhetoric of technology. The inventor’s motivation is a key part of the process of making technological development emotionally safe within the culture. The science fiction pulp answers to the question of motivation point to several threads in the conversation about technology that the genre actively debates. For instance, in the generic fantasy, problem-solving rather than profit-seeking becomes a means of expressing the technocratic desire to solve political problems through technological means. This typology of motivation also demonstrates some of the cultural anxieties about capitalism and individual responsibility within the dynamic social structure of the U.S. Larger fears about the process of invention itself often resulted in inventors being contained within the world of the text by corporate or governmental research and development departments. Finally, inventors who were motivated for practical reasons, ones in which a market need was often assumed to be a social one as well, were assumed within the texts to receive financial rewards as an obvious corollary to their creative success. Even if the actual cult of the inventor had faded by the time of the pulps, the process of invention still invoked anxieties about creativity within the rhetoric of technology

H.G. Wells: The Inventor as Social Pariah

“To do such a thing would be to transcend magic. And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom. Drawbacks I saw none.” (The Invisible Man 103)

The continuing relevance of the inventor, even in the intervening years between the two world wars during which the pulps were published, is evidenced in part by Gernsback’s choice for the first story by H.G. Wells in his magazine. Wells’s scientific romances, perhaps best exemplified by The Invisible Man cited above, were enormously popular, and Gernsback published either a short story or a piece of a novella by Wells in the first 36 issues of Amazing. Of all of Wells’s work, “The New Accelerator,” a story about invention, appeared first, perhaps signifying either Gernsback’s belief that a lesser-known story would attract less attention from Wells’s estate (Gernsback never paid Wells for the use of his stories) or his desire to link Wells’s favorite inventors to his new magazine.9 Certainly, in the later case the cult of the inventor’s prominence is clearly demonstrated.

The story, told by an unidentified narrator from Folkestone, features a chemistry professor who is trying to invent a drug that can help people get more work done in less time. Professor Gibberne, whose name invokes both gibberish and gibbons, has invented this drug in order to see how it might be “’turned to commercial account’” (930), but the actual product scares him. The narrator and the professor both try the drug, and their subsequent wanderings about Folkestone prove its efficacy, as the rest of the world moves at glacial pace in comparison. They torment the populace with minor pranks until their speed, caused by the drug, almost catches them on fire. Fortunately for the two characters, and for the city of Folkestone and the tourists on the beach, the drug wears off before any serious consequences occur. At the end of the story, we discover that the drug is available for commercial purchase, and Gibberne has developed a counter drug that will enable “a patient to maintain an apathetic inaction, a glacier-like absence of alacrity, amidst the most animated or irritating surroundings” (941). The combination of the drugs, according to the narrator, “must necessarily work an entire revolution in civilized existence. It is the beginning of our escape from that Time Garment of which Carlyle speaks” (941).While Amazing’s audience might well have no idea who Carlyle is, and Wells neatly anticipates the Dow Chemical advertising slogan of ‘better living through chemistry’ in the creation of the inventor Professor Gibberne, its insistence on the need to make these drugs available and commercially viable is apparent.

“The New Accelerator” can easily be read as a cautionary tale, as the story implies that would-be scientists/inventors do not consider the consequences of their inventions, particularly when the consequences are immersed in commercial enterprise. Although the narrator says that Gibberne only sought “an all-around stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days” (57), by the end of the story they are actively looking to market the drug. Despite the comic and somewhat frightening results of its use, the narrator and the professor determine that they must only correct the problems with the drug and then make it available for the market. The narrator even remarks that the consequences are not the concern of the inventors: “and as for the consequences—we shall see” (942). The commercial appeal of the product is obvious. As Professor Gibberne says, ordinary citizens will be able to do twice the work in half the time, and for those caught in the vagaries of the wage state that’s an ominous foreboding. The possibilities for abuse of the decelerating drug are equally frightening. In this reading, the text serves as a warning for readers about the potential for oppression inherent in this sort of invention, particularly when the motivations behind the invention aren’t socially-derived.

The editorial introduction to Wells’s story, however, gives a different reading, one that shows the tension accompanying the motivations of inventors in the service of technological progress. While Wells quite possibly intended the story as one satirizing the inventor and the technocratic emphasis on efficiency, the author of the editorial introduction to the text has a different understanding. Gibberne most probably is a crazy inventor, as his motives are suspect, but the editor calls Gibberne’s drug a “wonderful achievement” (57). Most likely, this is a piece of editorial hyperbole exacerbated by the novelty of the magazine, but the editor emphasizes the “scientific” part of the story, including the fact that the “hero… is a physiologist and chemist” (57), and this emphasis implies that these inventions are all part of the linear progress of technology. It ignores the fact that, in their test, Gibberne and the narrator are actually frightened by the consequences, as ordinary people become disgusting in the actuality of their body movements—smiles and winks now seem both horribly slow and nastily abject:

A wink, studied with such leisurely deliberation as we could afford, is an unattractive thing. It loses any quality of alert gaiety, and one remarks that the winking eye does not completely close, that under its drooping lid appears the lower edge of an eyeball and a line of white. “Heaven give me memory,” said I, “and I will never wink again.” (936)

This disgust with the body is technocratic in origin, particularly if the ultimate goal of a technocracy is to have machines replace bodies.10. Wells, who was a committed Fabian socialist, might view these inventors as problematic because of this fear of the ordinary, but the idea that this drug is a great achievement, even down to its revealing of the body as a place of disgust, is consistent with the technocratic/utopian strain of the rhetoric of technology. As is evident in Amazing's editorial interpretation of “The New Accelerator,” the inventor is a source of contradiction and anxiety.

The Demise of the Cult of the Inventor

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, what Landes called the “the exhaustion of the technological possibilities of the Industrial Revolution” had set in. The new scientific-technical revolution…had a conscious and purposive character largely absent from the old. In place of spontaneous innovation indirectly evoked by the social processes of production came the planned progress of technology and product design. (Braverman 166)

The icon of the inventor will always have a certain resonance within American technological identity. For instance, we can consider the character of Doc (played by Christopher Lloyd) in the Back to the Future series of films is the stereotypical crazy inventor popularized in the American cultural imagination by Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor. His physical mannerisms are standard for the genre: wild hair, huge, bulging eyes, and completely mismatched clothes. He is the product of a wealthy family that has in the film’s eyes grown indulgent and decadent, and now has produced this gentle man who makes crazy inventions that will never add to the family’s wealth, the only occupation truly worth pursuing.  But despite all Doc’s failings, within the logic of the film he is a sympathetic character, one whose murder in the first film elicits a sympathetic response, and he is the one person who Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) intuitively knows might believe his story when McFly returns to the past. And, within both the logic of the film and the cult of the inventor, Doc is the one character who will help Marty because he alone of the citizens of the 1950s has the imagination to see the possibility that someone will invent a time traveling machine of the sort that carried Marty back to his parents’ youth. Despite all the flaws of the inventor, Doc’s one great virtue is his imagination, a staple of the raison d’etre for science fiction aficionados everywhere. He is rewarded for this virtue within the film by helping Marty improve his present by changing his ancestral past. The crazy inventors and mad scientists of the past, with their culturally-charged representations of industrial society’s fears of inventors and their ability to manipulate technology, have been homogenized into a character who is safely out of any system that matters, wanting nothing to do with any humans except when they understand his work, and thus offering no threat to the security and safety of the U.S.

Despite the cultural need within the U.S. for the sort of freedom that the character of the inventor invokes, by the middle of the nineteenth century the problems with the process of invention had become apparent: the inventor was simply too much of a wild card to be a trustworthy source of new products for manufacturers. The stories in the science fiction pulps had from their beginning mirrored this fear of the inventor in the form of the mad scientist, but as the pulps matured the cautionary tales evidenced a different kind of concern, one in which the viability of the capitalist form of production became a source of anxiety. Don A. Stuart’s “Elimination,” published in 1938 in Amazing, we get such a direct tale of the problem with inventions and their imaginative powers. Stuart is actually John W. Campbell, the founding editor of Astounding Stories of Super-Science and an essential figure in any study of science fiction. Writing under a pseudonym, Campbell uses a first-person account of a patent lawyer destroying an invention to caution us against trusting inventors over the system of production that produces our material abundance. The lawyer, named John Grantland, reads the will of a famous inventor to the inventor’s son, Dwight Edwards, and in this reading tells the son the story of a machine called a Probability Time Wave that allowed individuals to plot alternative paths for their future and then choose the path they most desired. The machine destroys the two men who invented it, as they die in their desire to find the best possible futures for themselves, ironically cutting off so many possibilities that the future holds only one course.

However, Edwards and Grantland do not destroy the machine in order to protect other individual members of industrial society, or even some abstract idea like the American way of life. Instead, Grantland tells Edwards Jr. that the problem with the invention was that its use threatened a larger sort of destruction, as what is at stake is not an abstract entity but rather ‘our greatest resource, the financial structure of the nation. A resource is not a resource unless it is available, and only the system makes it available. The system is more valuable, more important to human happiness than any other resource, because it makes all others available.’ (158)

Inventors and their inventive capabilities are still important resources within the American rhetoric of technology, but Grantland argues that the power of the corporate structure is what makes the use of these resources possible. Without the ‘financial structure,’ the ‘system’ that makes all resources ‘available,’ technological development will quickly go astray, and industrial society will not maintain our progress. Stuart both reduces the inventor to yet another resource on call for the company and underscores fears of their inventive powers, one of which is that inventors will disrupt the real power behind technological innovation, financial capital. “Elimination” sums up many of the threads about inventors and invention within the cultural conversation about technology. The ritualistic reading of the will, the defense of the capitalist system of finance, the technocratic and aristocratic passing of knowledge from father to son, and the chaotic nature of the invention itself all point to the actual and potential problems for industrial society with the process of invention. Human control of technology is possible, but ordinary citizens are not to be trusted with the full capacity of the system. Increasingly within the science fiction pulps, the desire to rationalize genius means that engineering becomes the best way of controlling the messy process of invention, standardizing not only production processes but the work of the mind in creating new devices and making new discoveries. The cult of the inventor never completely disappears,11 but as the creativity required in the process is controlled by the industrial systems of engineers like Frederick Taylor, inventors lose their cultural cache, and, as they do, the importance of the inventor as a location for the idealized self-image of science fiction readers fades.

Why the Pulps?

The straightforward science-fiction story of the time “proved” the wonderfulness of super-science, the super-machine, the straight-ahead progress of Man, and it assumed, as a matter of course, that thus, and only thus, would man progress. (John W. Campbell, writing as Don A. Stuart, 9)

As this brief examination hopefully makes clear, the science fiction pulps provide those interested in the culture of science and technology a marvelous locus for tracing that culture’s imprint on American technological identity. The pulps were far from cheerleaders for everything scientific and technological—despite some of the desires for such grandstanding from some of the genre’s founders—but the needs and desires expressed in their texts mapped and codified the hopes, fears, and anxieties of a society supposedly convinced of its own technologically determined path. Even writers and editors like Campbell (in the text cited in the epigraph) questioned the inevitability of technological progress, whether in the texts he chose for his magazines or in his stories, including classic science fiction pieces like “Who Goes There?”12 Even if the genre seems to naturalize the development of the type of industrial, rationally-constructed consciousness, the need to identify individuals—even if mere fictional characters—capable of mastering technology marks the pulps as a powerful location for an archaeological examination of our cultural beliefs about science and technology. The science fiction pulps provide evidence of how science and technology have become as much trope as material practice in the American technological consciousness.


  • 1. The following information on science fiction pulps comes from William Blackbeard’s chapter in the Handbook of Popular American Culture, edited by M. Thomas Inge.
  • 2. I merge the entities of science and technology fully aware of the differences between the two. Nonetheless, I merge them intentionally, as I agree with David Noble when he states in both America by Design and Forces of Production that the two are so “intermingled as to be inseparable” (Forces of Production 9).
  • 3. William Gibson, a science fiction writer of the 1980s, writes a short story satirizing early science fiction visions, even naming the story after Hugo Gernsback. In “The Gernsback Continuum,” his narrator says that those sorts of early SF stories were the product of a “dream logic that knew nothing of pollution, the finite bounds of fossil fuels, of foreign wars it was possible to lose…it had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda” (Mirrorshades 9). Gibson’s narrator notes both the impossibility and the fascist underpinnings of this sort of early SF dream.
  • 4. Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. They also mark a desire among the subculture that will grow up around science fiction to find a sense of community in the increasingly post-modern world of which they are a part. I find it easy to objectify this discussion—attaining proper academic distance&mdashonly when I give up the sense of wonder with which I read these stories as an adolescent. And the ironic, mocking quality of the cyberpunks appealed to me in my early adulthood, as both making fun of those early stories and again proving that I belonged to a community that somehow ‘got it,’ whatever ‘it’ was.
  • 5. Issues of race, class, and gender in the pulps are an unexplored topic, and despite the predominance of white middle and upper class males, these protagonists are far from monolithic.
  • 6. For the most compelling discussion of how technology incorporates the values of the culture that produces it that I have read, see Andrew Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  • 7. I am indebted to Cecilia Ticchi for thinking of these fictional heroes in this fashion. Her book—Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, and Culture in Modernist America, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, c1987—describes the cult of the engineer in American technological history.
  • 8. The term “scientifiction” is Gernsback’s original attempt to name his genre. That name did not stick.
  • 9. As was typical of Gernsback’s relationship with many of the writers whose work he used, Gernsback never responded to Wells’s repeated requests for payment. Wells notes this with an amused and exasperated tone in his autobiography, Experiment in Autobiography (New York: MacMillan, 1934). Everett Bleiler argues that Gernsback perhaps assumed that his writers weren’t really interested in payment, since they were writing for their own amusement (Science Fiction: The Early Years, Kent, Ohio Kent State University Press, 1990).
  • 10. The technocratic fear of the body is one that is echoed in male-dominated science. Evelyn Fox Keller and Genevieve Lloyd were among the first to explore these connections and their implications for industrial society.
  • 11. As I’ve already discussed, the power of inventors in the American rhetoric of technology is pervasive despite the fears they invoke. But in the drive for technocratic utopia that characterizes much of the SF pulp conversation about science, the problems inherent in the process of invention elicit many possible solutions as well as fears. A.E. Van Vogt sees no way to account for all possible options in creating technological utopia; his story “The Monster,” which appears in Astounding in 1948, shows the end of human civilization brought about by a cosmic storm that was unavoidable because humans weren’t lucky enough to invent a device that located possible inhabitable planets from a distance. An extra-terrestrial race was, and thus survived. While humans created a paradise, the process of invention, no matter how rational, was unable to save them.

    Another alternative that becomes a constant thread in the pulps is the possibility that machines will invent themselves. In Isaac Asimov’s “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray,” published in ,em>Amazing in 1942, robot AL-76 invents his own machine, one that enables him to do his work in half the time and using a fraction of the power that the human version of this machine requires. It’s clear in the story that only a robot could have done this, but the complications of invention are also evident, since the robot is told by a human to forget how he completed this stroke of creative genius, and thus the knowledge is lost. The moral of the story is clear: machines, the ultimate product of rationality, should probably be left alone to develop their own devices, since humans aren’t rational enough to control the complex process that invention has become.

  • 12. Using the pseudonym Don A. Stuart both enabled Campbell to make an intentional break from his other persona and made Astounding seem to feature other voices than his own.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray.” Amazing Stories. February 1942: 8-16. Print.

"Astounding Science Fiction" Pulp Cover. Pulp of the Day. September 1941. Web.

_____. Pulp Cover. Wikipedia. June 1950. Web.

Blackbeard, William. “The Science Fiction Pulps.” The Handbook of Popular American Culture. Ed. by M. Thomas Inge. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978. Print.

Bleiler, Everett. Science Fiction:The Early Years. Kent, Ohio Kent State University Press, 1990. Print.

Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print

Dold, Elliot. “Illustration for ‘Little Hercules.’” 2000 A.D.: Illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction Pulps. Ed. By Jacques Sadoul. Trans. by Henry Regnery Company. Chicago Henry Regnery Company, 1975., 168. Print

Editor. Reply to letter of Edgar Evia. Amazing Stories. January 1928: 1011. Print.

"Editorial.” Amazing Stories. February 1927: 1099-1011. Print.

Feenberg, Andrew. Critical Theory of Technology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.

Gernsback, Hugo. “The Lure of Scientifiction.” Amazing Stories. June 1926: 3. Print.

__________. “Imagination and Reality.” Amazing Stories. October 1926: 3. Print.

Gibson, William. “The Gernsback Continuum.” Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Ed. Bruce Sterling. New York: Ace, 1986. Print.

Hall, Austin. “The Man Who Saved the Earth.” Amazing Stories. April 1926: 75-81. Print.

Hammond, W.F. “Lakh-Dahl, Destroyer of Souls.” Amazing Stories. March 1928: 1184-1193. Print.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. Print.

Lloyd, Genevieve. The Man of Reason: Male and Female in Western Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.

Noble, David. America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1979. Print.

______. The Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation. New York: Knopf, Inc., 1984. Print.

Nye, David. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994. Print.

Pursell, Caroll. The Machine in America: A Social History of Technology. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Stone, Leslie. “The Invention of the Z-Ray.” Amazing Stories. May 1930: 176-179. Print.

Stuart, Don A. [aka Campbell, John W.]. “Introduction.” Cloak of Aesir. Chicago Shasta Publishing Company, 1952. 9-14. Print.

Tichi, Cecilia. Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, and Culture in Modernist America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Print.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.

Van Vogt, A.E. “The Monster.” Astounding Stories. August 1948: 56-64. Print.

Wells, H.G. Experiment in Autobiography. New York: MacMillan, 1934. Print.

"Worlds of IF." Pulp Cover. Pulp of the Day. July 1964. Web.


Ron Scott has been a geek since surviving Electronic Data System’s intensive 13-week “How to code in COBOL and Assembler or Die Trying” programming seminar. After working for ten years in the software industry he went to graduate school and became an English professor, and now teaches at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. Scott is obsessively interested in the interactions between intended design and actual use, and he has published on subjects ranging from the identity of on-line gamers who play zombie avatars to the potential pedagogical uses of the ways in which games delve into heavily emotional content.

© 2011 Ron Scott, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 1 (2011)