Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Origins Of American Science Fiction. The Steam Man and Frank Reade.

The inspiration for this post comes from many conversations with my dear friend Joe Rainone. I met Joe at a Phillip Weiss magazine auction (where else?) on Long Island purely by chance as we were looking over pulp magazines (we both are members of the exclusive club that own the scarce and valuable ($25,000 or thereabouts) 1912 first appearance of Tarzan in the October 1912 All Story)

and soon our conversation turned to collecting. He told me, at the time, about the origins of Johnston McCulley’s Zorro in 1919 in All Story Magazine (worth well over $1000 in good condition.

and I was immediately impressed with his fund of knowledge. I later contacted him and we have been sharing our collecting interests ever since.

Joe began collecting comic books, then graduated to pulp magazines (personally I have little interest in comics since they have been well documented by Overstreet and the key issues are extremely expensive. I enjoy discovery and there really isn’t much left to discover in this area. After the pulp bibliographies of Gunnison (Adventure House) et al and Tim Cottrill (Bookery Fantasy), this genre has become better known but there are still holes to fill and I revel in finding them).

The first Dime Novel, probably less than a dozen copies exist in original wrappers.

After pulps, Joe then took another step back in time and moved on to Dime Novels and Story Papers. Our knowledge of this fascinating and important genre is still in its relative infancy, making it a collector’s paradise. Many of even the most important titles are incredibly rare and one can still find real gems on Ebay or at ephemera fairs, for a fraction of their true value. Likewise, their importance to the development of American popular culture cannot be overstated.

In the last five years, Joe has put together a truly amazing assemblage of material, much of it previously unknown, expanding upon the venerable Dime Novel Roundup and the few classic references such as the very important book by E.F Bleiler on science fiction. Joe’s collection is a testament to his dogged dedication and extreme knowledge and interest in the subject (I’ve said over and over again, knowledge is power). This is still one of the true frontiers of periodical collecting. Thanks to Joe, the Overstreet Comic Price Guide now contains reference and prices for this genre, in recognition of their seminal influence on present day comics.

A number of American universities, Northern Illinois, Minnesota, Bowling Green, Rochester, Syracuse (home of the Street and Smith Archive) Stanford and Princeton among the most notable, have extensive holdings, as does the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts and the New York Public Library.

And now: the magazines.

According to Bleiler, science fiction can be divided into three areas:

1) Quasi-scientific stories of pretend technology (as we will be discussing today)

2) Lost Race and Lost Worlds. This genre began with H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines” in 1885 which includes James Hilton’s 1933 work “Lost Horizon” that Franklin D. Roosevelt used to name his Maryland presidential retreat Shangri-la, later and called Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower after his grandson. For more on this genre see:

3) Future Stories. Star Trek, Star Wars, ad infinitum. There’s even a religion (Scientology) thrown in for good measure (the first appearance of Dianetics appeared in the May 1950 issue of the science-fiction digest Astounding, routinely available on ebay for under $100)

The origin of American periodical science fiction goes back to 1868, with the publication of “The Steam Man of the Prairies” by Edward Ellis in Beadle’s American Novels, No. 45. (not more than a handful, if that many, still in existence)

The steam man was actually taken from a true life invention that was patented, also in 1868, by New Jerseyan, Zadoc Pratt Dederick.
The Steam man then reappeared, bigger and better with a new cast of characters in Norman Munro and Frank Tousey’s classic story paper Boy’s of New York, #28 on March 16, 1876.

This key issue is valued at over $2000 in good condition. The original story was re-written by Harold Cohen, under the pseudonym, Harry Enton. After three more Reade stories, Enton and Tousey soon quarreled, leading Tousey to hire another writer, 18 year old Cuban immigrant Luis Senarens, who then continued the first recurring science-fiction character in American history, now Frank Reade Jr.. Senarens went on to write nearly all of the 147 stories, exclusively for Tousey publications in America, about Reade Jr. that appeared in Boy’s of New York, Wide Awake Library, Frank Tousey’s Boy’s Weekly, Frank Reade Library and the later colorized version, Frank Reade Weekly, that began on October 31, 1902.

By far the best reference on the Steam Man and Frank Reade was self-published by Joe, who can be contacted at

There's a lot more to be shared and we will be keeping you posted on this fascinating and underappreciated area of American publishing.

Happy New Year!

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