Lesson 3: The Birth of the Mass Magazines: 1885-1911

Lesson 3: The Birth of the Mass Magazines: 1885-1911

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:


"The Damned Thing," by Ambrose Bierce

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 304-14

"With the Night Mail," by Rudyard Kipling

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 315-35

"The Star," by H.G. Wells

The Road to Science Fiction #1, pp. 336-48


The major influence on the evolution of science fiction at the end of nineteenth century was the mass magazine. Until the nineteenth century, and particularly its last decade and a half, periodicals were either nonexistence or scarce and relatively expensive. What was printed in journals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was intended for a small, literate, educated upper class.

The long chain of discoveries and events that led to the development of the mass magazine began in eleventh-century China with the invention of movable type. It continued through Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1450 and culminated in a series of nineteenth-century inventions such as the rotary printing press in 1846, the linotype and wood-pulp paper in 1884, and the halftone engraving in 1886. These coincided with one other critical development: universal primary education, which resulted in general literacy.

The ways in which technology and commerce are interrelated, with each other and with tradition and social change, is a subject whose complexities would require another course; however, the swift appearance of the mass magazine after the inventions of the 1880s was no coincidence. Again, it was steam-engine time.

Magazines had been plentiful in America and England before the 1880s, but their prices were relatively high and their circulations were relatively low. Most magazines sold for twenty-five or thirty-five cents. Although the price may not seem excessive, the average working man earned little more than one dollar a day. His alternative was the nickel weekly (in England priced sometimes at one pence, about two cents US): nickel weeklies were devoted to entertainment and self-improvement and ran an endless cycle of serials, sometimes three or four an issue.

The dime novel was another option. It was called a dime novel even though it often sold for five cents, and even though it was not a novel at all but a novelette, usually thirty-two pages. But it had a good action picture on the cover or title page and, inside, adventure, excitement, and a few original ideas, all described in pedestrian, often awkward prose.

One subject for dime novels was science fiction, a kind of rudimentary, marvelous-invention sort of science fiction, but a science fiction that appealed to the people's perennial instincts and desires for entertainment, illumination, instruction, and explanation. The man who wrote most of them was Luis Phillip Senarens (1863-1939). Amazing Stories called him (in 1928) the American Jules Verne, but his readers knew him only under a series of pseudonyms, the most common being "Noname." A Brooklyn boy, Senarens began writing novels for Frank Tousey's Boys of New York when he was only fourteen, and he had begun selling stories to children's publications two years before. Sam Moskowitz estimates that "in a bit more than thirty years, [Senarens] wrote some forty million words and fifteen hundred individual stories under twenty-seven pseudonyms." He wrote, Moskowitz notes, about five kinds of inventions: aircraft, robots, submersibles, armored vehicles, and powered land and sea vessels; in the process he created "the single greatest mass of robot literature ever written by one man." (Moskowitz, Sam. "Ghosts of Prophecies Past, Or, Frank Reade, Jr., and 'Forgotten Chapters in American History,'" Explorers of the Infinite. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, 1960.)

In anonymity and pseudonymity Senarens helped found a branch of boys' literature that illuminates the social climate of the times and the aspirations of its youth, and that may have contributed to the technological trends of succeeding periods as it responded to those of its own era. In the process, along with Jules Verne and others, he helped create an environment in which science fiction could grow into popular literature.

Most publications die for economic reasons—they lose their audience, or their costs climb faster than the price they can charge. The dime novels were killed by censorship. Incited by sermons, attacks by church groups led to dealer boycotts. Moskowitz noted, "Western, detective, and sea stories with their necessary violence, criminality, and piracy were bad enough, but stories of aircraft, submarines, robots, and tanks seemed to some segments of the population to be drawn from the dark pits of madness." The minds of the younger generation were threatened. The Tousey dime novels were discontinued in 1897. The era of the dime novel was ending as the age of the pulp magazine began.

The technological developments in printing that made the mass magazines possible were aided by the railroad, the automobile, and the truck, which could transport magazines, a nationwide distribution system (American News) to get them out where people could buy them, general advertising to help pay the bills, and universal primary education to provide a reading public.

Compulsory primary schooling was a product of the post-Civil War era, when enthusiasm for the power of education swept across the nation. By the mid-1890s thirty-one state legislatures had made elementary-school attendance compulsory, and between 1870 and 1900 the number of high schools increased from 500 to 6,000, and the number of annual graduates from 16,000 to 95,000.

Into this environment entered Frank A. Munsey, a Maine boy who set out to be a millionaire and succeeded through publishing. He went to New York in 1882 with plans for a boys' weekly to be called Golden Argosy. His next ten years were one financial gamble after another—a $10,000 advertising campaign and free distribution of 100,000 copies in 1886, and the next year a $95,000 campaign that raised circulation to 115,000 and debts even higher. In 1888 the title was shortened to Argosy, but six years later circulation had dropped to 8,000. Then in 1896 Argosy became the first all-fiction magazine, the first successful "pulp." The pulps would dominate the fiction scene and direct the development of science fiction for more than half a century.

Earlier, science fiction had existed in small literary magazines, like Poe's work, or in hard-cover books, like Verne's. Now it had a medium in which it could come into every home. The advantage was reciprocal: the magazines that brought it quickly found that science fiction was popular fare.

Stories by a promising new writer began to appear in 1894, mostly in the Pall Mall Budget. In "The Stolen Bacillus" an anarchist makes off with a vial of deadly cholera germs, planning to start an epidemic. When he is chased, he decides to drink the contents himself, but it turns out that the vial really contained specimens of a bacterium that turns monkeys blue. "The Diamond Maker" tells how an experimenter has worked in secret for years to make diamonds from carbon, but now cannot dispose of them. "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" describes a "brown shriveled lump of tissue" that comes into the hands of an amateur botanist to whom nothing has ever happened; it grows into a bloodsucking plant that almost does away with him. "In the Anu Observatory" relates the battle between an astronomer in Borneo and a giant batlike creature which flies into his observatory. "Aepyornis Island" is about an explorer who, while collecting specimens for a company, finds eggs a foot and a half long in a tarry saltwater swamp on an island near Madagascar. Through the treachery of his native helpers he gets set adrift in the broiling sun with the eggs of the extinct bird. Finally, when he reaches a desert island, one remaining egg hatches, grows into a flightless bird fourteen feet tall, and becomes a pet, until it turns on the man, and he must kill it.

The young writer of these stories was H.G. Wells. These early stories illustrate several characteristics that carry over into the mature author of best-selling, critically acclaimed novels: a preference for the uninvolved narrator, usually with the story told after the fact; stories based in science or natural history that reveal a scientific education and a mind alert for curiosa; and a philosophy suggesting a belief that man's dominion over the earth is an illusion, that there are perplexing mysteries today and many more to come, that there are dangers we do not suspect, and that our pursuit of knowledge and invention follows a perilous path.

If Poe pioneered the science fiction form and established the methods by which it could achieve its effects and Verne won it an audience, H.G. Wells demonstrated that it could be literature—thus might go the story of the creation of the science fiction genre. But neither life nor literature is so simple. Poe was not merely a pioneer; he was a literary artist trying to make a living. Verne was not merely a popularizer but a man of his time with an inventive mind who wrote out of his convictions of what was important and what he could do well. Wells was conscious of literary values but even more deeply concerned with his unique insights into people and society, and most of all concerned about personal success. And even these amplifications ignore the contributions of the Mary Shelleys, the Hawthornes, the O'Briens, the Hales, the Senarenses and a host of dime-novelists and writers for the early mass magazines, and even the Haggards and the Doyles, as well as the influences of history, technology, and scientific thought.

Yet Wells' work caught the imagination of the world in a way that no writer before him had achieved. As Jack Williamson wrote in H.G. Wells, Critic of Progress:

He is the forgotten author who was once the prophet of the masses. He is the craftsman of the short story who wrote "The Country of the Blind," the amateur statesman welcome in the White House and the Kremlin, the international pundit whose snap judgments sold for a dollar a word. He is the atheist who hated God, the evangelist of a deified Spirit of Man, the zealot who tried to write a new Bible. He is the cockney Don Juan, and the tenderly devoted husband revealed in the Book of Catherine Wells, and the loving father who wrote "The Magic Shop" to entertain his son. He is the facile popular journalist who learned from a book by J.M. Barrie how to write glittering trivia; he is the prodigal father of modern science fiction; he is the dedicated and inspiring teacher whose classroom finally included most of the world. He is the utopian optimist who campaigned for an "open conspiracy" to set up a new world order. But he is also the critical pessimist who challenged every theory of progress. (H.G. Wells, Critic of Progress. Mirage Press, 1973.)

In his novel The Time Machine, Wells made the concept of traveling through time by machine credible by a description of the machine, a demonstration of a model, and the Time Traveller's impressions of the process. The Traveller describes time as another dimension: "There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it," and follows with several pages of examples and implications.

The Traveller spends much of his time in the future with a group of delightful childlike people called the Eloi, who turn out to be the degenerated descendants of the upper class; under the earth he finds factories tended by troglodytic Morlocks, who contribute goods to the care of the Eloi but also use them for food. At the end, the Time Traveller journeys forward to the ultimate fate of the Earth itself in the slow death of the Sun and the solar system.

Jack Williamson believes that Wells expressed in The Time Machine his belief that progress has two cosmic limits: first, by eliminating challenges, progress itself results in degeneration; and second, Earth must finally be destroyed by natural forces (and, by extension, if man should escape Earth, the universe will meet its ultimate heat death, entropy).

The War of the Worlds also included an element of evolutionary philosophy: humankind as one species evolving in competition with others now faces superior aliens. The Martians are symbols of progress that has gone far beyond humans. People are helpless before what, in another sense, looms as their scientific fate. Ironically, the defeat of the Martians is brought about by a competing species of life against which their past successes have left them defenseless: bacteria.

Between the publication of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, Williamson believes, Wells took up the question of what he considered to be the human limits to progress, in The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man. In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) Wells shows the conflict between ethical nature and the cosmic process within humans themselves, as Dr. Moreau attempts to make people out of animals through vivisection and pain. But Moreau and his benevolent, doomed assistant Montgomery are killed, in part through the chance that brought the stranger, Prendick, to the island, and the animals quickly revert to beasts. There is no hope for them—and by extension for humankind—in Moreau's pure reason, in Montgomery's benevolence, or in Prendick's enlightened humanitarianism.

In The Invisible Man (1897) Wells demonstrates how selfish individualism must yield to society in the name of progress, even though Wells sees nothing particularly praiseworthy in society. Griffin, the man who makes himself invisible through the use of chemicals, is the scientist as individual, his mastery of nature a tool of selfish personal power, Williamson thinks. But Griffin also illustrates the paradox that only the individual can initiate change; society is conservative and acts always to preserve the status quo. Wells reminds us, however, that the changes created by such antisocial instruments as Griffin are not necessarily good.

Another analysis, focused on the practical problems of the working writer, might point out that Wells is saying, as he does in almost every story of invention, "You want something wonderful (like invisibility)? Like everyone who wishes for great powers, you will be sorry." It was a principle of story construction that later writers of science fiction would find particularly useful: every new ability, every invention, carries along with it a price; you gain something and you lose something.

The stories written and published the final years of the nineteenth century, both by Wells and his contemporaries, inevitably influenced audiences and authors who would emulate them or react to them. Many of these stories still seem relatively modern in concerns and effective in technique. These mass magazines provided a market for science fiction, and they would lead in time to the pulp magazines and then to the science-fiction magazines themselves.

Writing Assignment

Jack Williamson has identified in Wells's work the philosophy that progress may overwhelm individuals and limit the potential or threaten the continued existence of humanity. How is this philosophy supported or contradicted by the readings for this lesson (including the stories written by authors other than Wells)?