by René Rondeau
(I wrote this article for the May, 1999 issue of 'IN THE GROOVE,' the magazine of the Michigan Antique Phonograph Society.)
We all know about Edison's almost mythical status as an inventor. We know about the phonograph (of course), the light bulb, stock ticker, movie camera and his many other pioneering creations. But few people know about Thomas A. Edison, the science-fiction hero, the man who conquered Mars and saved the earth (nearly a century before "Star Trek!"). It shouldn't be surprising, however, that Edison, a man who was already a living legend by age 30, would be considered the ideal hero for an epic story with science at its core.
First, however, before Edison became the conqueror of Mars, there was "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells. This classic story is perhaps best known today because of the October 30, 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles, in which the fantastic plotline of the original story was ingeniously woven into what was meant to sound like an actual radio news broadcast. (It was actually too ingenious -- thousands of listeners believed the broadcast was real, and panicked at the news that Martians had landed in New Jersey and were converging on New York, destroying everything in their path. This public reaction revealed for the first time in history the awesome potential power of broadcasting.)
Edison's Martian exploits are directly related to H.G. Wells' war. The original Wells story was published in 1897 as a serial in Cosmopolitan magazine (no relation to today's magazine of the same name!). This was an early form of a soap opera, with cliffhanger endings that motivated people to keeping buying magazines just to see what happened next -- and in the process padding the pockets of the publisher.
Arthur Brisbane, publisher of the New York Evening Journal newspaper, knew a good thing when he saw it. He decided to create his own circulation booster by following up on Wells' story with a sequel. Brisbane turned to writer Garrett P. Serviss to write "Edison's Conquest of Mars."
Serviss was a 47 year-old journalist and lecturer in astronomy, who was to become one of the earliest authors of science-fiction. When solicited by Brisbane, Serviss had immediately turned to Edison for help. Of course Edison was too busy to participate, however he did agree to be featured as the hero of the story and Serviss proceeded to write his story around Edison.
Later, after the paper published an announcement and picture of Edison with Serviss, Edison objected on the grounds that it made him sound like a "collaborator." However his objection was muted and was accompanied by an offer of a phonograph to the publisher. At the same time Edison explained to "Friend Serviss" that "I am not literary with a 200 horsepower imagination like yourself, so I don't want a reputation for things I can't do." Despite his weak protests, one has to suspect that Edison, an expert in self-promotion, was actually delighted by the series.
"Edison's Conquest of Mars" first appeared in the Evening Journal on January 12, 1898 and ran for one month, ending on February 10. Although it was a rollicking good story, well-written for the style of the times, it was not successful like Wells' original story and quickly faded into oblivion.
Fast forward to 1947 (coincidentally the centennial of Edison's birth). Dr. Fred Shroyer, a California sci-fi collector, learned of the story and obtained copies of each installment from the Library of Congress. Eager to have this lost classic in book form for his own collection, Shroyer decided to publish it himself. In partnership with three friends he formed Carcosa House Publishers in Los Angeles and proceeded to compile a book version of this long-lost story. The roommate of one of the partners redrew the original newspaper illustrations, copying the original style as closely as possible. The results were very crude. The dust cover also followed the original drawing style, but it had such an amateurish, hand-made look to it that it was abandoned. Only 1,500 individually-numbered copies of the book were printed, most of which were sold with a simple glassine wrapper. A very few books did get into the market with the original color dust jacket intact. These are extremely rare and are avidly sought after by sci-fi collectors, who consider the jacket even more valuable than the book itself. (I actually once found a dust jacket that had been framed for display!) "Edison's Conquest of Mars" was a flop, and was ultimately remaindered. It was the only book ever published by Carcosa house.
The story was revived one more time, however, in 1969. Sci-fi author Forrest
J. Ackerman decided to breathe new life into the book by editing and republishing
it as "Invasion of Mars," which was released in paperback by Powell Publications.
He changed much more than the title, but he described his butchery as "pruning."
As he put it, "I removed some thousands of words of excess herbiage which had
overgrown and obscured the action [and] tried to straighten out some of the tortuously
tangled syntax." (It sounds like his own writing could use some pruning!) The
result was no more successful than the two preceding published incarnations, and
once again Edison the Spaceman faded into fictional oblivion.
It is, however, a shame that the story has not had more recognition. Aside from its historic interest as an homage to the great Edison, as well as a reflection of its times (hot on the heels of the patriotic fervor of the Spanish-American war), it is important in science fiction as the first story to describe space suits (to allow the travellers to space-walk and repair their ship), the first instance of a "ray-gun" and the first description of a battle in outer space.
If Serviss had been as successful as Wells, perhaps we might today refer to Edison as the "Conqueror of Mars" instead of the "Wizard of Menlo Park"!
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