A Brief History of Worldcons From NYCon to Discon, 1939-1962

By Steven H Silver

The first science fiction clubs grew out of the letter columns Hugo Gernsback published in Amazing Stories. Gernsback included his correspondents’ addresses so they could find each other; this resulted in not only the exchanging of private letters, but the rise of fanzines, the creation of actual clubs when people in cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles realized there were others who shared their interests locally, and, eventually, conventions, as fans decided that they wanted to get together with other fans from around the country.

In 1939, New York fans decided that they wanted to hold a convention to coincide with the 1939 World’s Fair. In fact, the convention took its name, the World Con, from the proximity of that event, not any visions of grandeur that it would draw fans from around the world or move from country to country. In fact, the original Worldcon was meant to be a one-time only event.

Planning for what became the first Worldcon began in 1937; by 1938 there were two competing coordinating committees, one headed up by Donald Wollheim, the other by Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz’s vision gained the most support from fandom through fanzines and letter columns, so it was the one that came to fruition.

If organizers had accepted an early offer, Moskowitz’s Worldcon may very well may have been a minor footnote in science fiction history and fandom and conventions may have turned out very differently.

During the planning stages for the Worldcon, the World’s Fair officials offered to let Moskowitz use a hall for free and also offered a discount on tickets if Moskowitz’s group purchased tickets in blocks of 500 or more. Furthermore, one of the days would be called the Science Fiction and Boy Scouts of America Day. Worried that holding the convention at the site of the World’s Fair would distract the attendees from the science fiction convention, Moskowitz turned down the offer. He was probably correct about the distraction since even not being at the site of the World’s Fair, Julius Schwartz, Mort Weisinger, and Otto Binder ducked out of the Worldcon to see Lou Gehrig announce his retirement at Yankee Stadium. For those fans who stayed at the convention, there was a softball game between fans and professionals on the final day, an event which is not a general occurrence but still takes place at some Worldcons.

Schwartz, Weisinger, and Binder weren’t the only fans to miss part of the Worldcon. Fearing that Wollheim and the Futurians would cause conflicts and introduce politics into the proceedings, Moskowitz elected to bar most of the Futurians from admittance to the convention, denying entry to Wollheim, C.M. Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, and others.

Fans who were allowed to attend the first Worldcon, which included Isaac Asimov, whose first short story was published four months earlier, Jack Williamson, Ray Bradbury, two years away from his first professional sale, and Forry Ackerman, enjoyed the convention so much that a few months later, at Philcon 1939, a group of fans from Chicago pitched the idea of holding a similar event the following year and were given approval, resulting in the second Worldcon, known as Chicon. Because the fans involved with Chicon were all underage, they reached out to an older fan, Wilson “Bob” Tucker, who was old enough to sign legal documents. They actually had to win the right over another group which also wanted to host the Worldcon in Chicago, led by editor William Hamling, Jr.

Prior to the first Worldcon, Forry Ackerman met Myrtle Douglas at a meeting of Esperanto speakers. Douglas, who went by the Esperanto name Morojo, designed futuristic costumes for herself and Ackerman to wear to the convention, where she also released an issue of her fanzine Stephen the STfan. At Chicon, the coordinators ran with the costuming idea and introduced the first Masquerade party.

Sam Moskowitz

A group of Denver fans chose to continue the tradition in 1941 and hosted the Denvention, although they had to deal with the potential for a rival East Coast convention headed by first Worldcon chair Sam Moskowitz, who was concerned that East Coast fans wouldn’t be able to travel to Denver. There was enough of an uproar about the competing convention, including by professional magazine editors, that Moskowitz dropped the idea. In some ways, Moskowitz was right about the difficulty of getting to Denver and Denvention holds the record as the smallest Worldcon, with an attendance of just under 100 members. Denvention was the first convention for Rusty Hevelin, who would go on to make a name for himself as a huckster and collector. At the convention, Los Angeles was awarded the right to run the next Worldcon, but five months after Denvention, the United States became involved in World War II and Worldcons went on a four year hiatus, resuming in 1946 when Los Angeles finally got to host the Worldcon they won in 1941. Pacificon invited A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull to be the Guests of Honor, the first time multiple guests were invited to a Worldcon. Ackerman, Hevelin, and Will Sikora tried to raise money, the Big Pond Fund, to bring British fan and editor Ted Carnell to the convention, but they fell short. Nevertheless, they laid the groundwork for future Fan Funds.

During the wars years, Amazing Stories, under the editorial control of Raymond Palmer, who is credited with editing the first fanzine, began publishing a series of stories by Richard Shaver known collectively as “The Shaver Mystery.” Had Shaver and Palmer merely presented these stories as fiction, they might have been ignored, but both men claimed that they were factual articles. Although Palmer and Amazing saw an increase in circulation due, in part, to Shaver’s writing, science fiction fandom rejected and ridiculed the magazine at a time when John W. Campbell, Jr. was reinventing science fiction as the editor of Astounding, although Campbell found himself in a similar situation in later years when he began espousing pseudoscience. The direction Palmer took the magazine meant that despite his 11 years as editor of the world’s first science fiction magazine, Palmer would never be honored as a Worldcon Guest of Honor. Instead, Palmer would have to settle for having the secret identity of the DC superhero “The Atom” named for him.

In 1948, the Worldcon left the United States for the first time. Toronto had expressed an interested in hosting the 1942 event, losing out to Los Angeles, but it did manage to beat out Milwaukee to host the 1948 convention. They chose Robert Bloch to be their Guest of Honor and Bloch has been a Guest of Honor at each Toronto Worldcon (the most recent one posthumously). Torcon also invited the first Guest of Honor in a non-professional capacity when they invited Bob Tucker as a fan guest.

The Cinvention, held in Cincinnati, in 1949 was one of the first times a Worldcon received major media coverage. Dave Kyle arranged an interview on a local television station with several authors and was surprised at the start of the interview to have the host turn the interviewing duties over to Kyle. Kyle also called Dick Wilson and Cyril Kornbluth each night to tell them about the convention. Wilson and Kornbluth both worked for Transradio and sent Kyle’s reports out over the teletype machines where they were picked up by radio stations around the country.

NOLACon in 1951 was most famous for an unscheduled event. Frank Dietz threw a party and was warned by a house detective that if the party continued the way it was going, he was going to have to shut it down. One of the party-goers was aware that some fans were registered in a much larger room on a different floor and already had a party going. Dietz’s party, therefore, moved up to Room 770 around 11:00. By 1:00, they had run out of essentials and Dietz left the room to get more. Roger Sims, who was checked into Room 770, and knowing there was no alcohol left, figured the party was over and disappeared around 3:30, in search of a poker game. When he returned to take a nap, he discovered that the party had managed to continue. The party, which somehow managed to avoid the knowledge of the House Detective, ran until 11:00 the next morning, and then only broke up because its attendees decided it was time to go in search of food. The party is memorialized in the title of Mike Glyer’s Hugo Award-winning fanzine, File 770.

Because of the wars years, the Tenth Annual Science Fiction Convention (known as TASFIC) did not take place until the thirteenth anniversary of the first Worldcon. Held in Chicago, the first time the Worldcon returned to a former venue, TASFIC was also the first time a woman chaired the convention, with Julian May, author of the Saga of the Pliocene Exile, taking the honors. While the Big Pond Fund had failed four years earlier to bring Ted Carnell to a Worldcon, in 1952, WAW with the Crew in ’52 successfully raised the money to bring British fan Walt A. Willis to Chicago. Begun as a one-off fund raiser, two years later, the trans-Atlantic Fan Fund (TAFF) became an annual competition to help fans travel from Europe to North America, or vice versa, a tradition which not only continues to this day, but has expanded to include fan funds between North America and Australasia, east and west Canada, Europe and Australasia, and across Australia.

Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories, who named science fiction (and also coined the earlier name scientifiction), who created the letter columns that allowed fandom to form and thrive, and helped launch the Science Fiction League, was the Guest of Honor. By 1952, Gernsback had not only created Amazing, but also Science Wonder Stories, Air Wonder Stories, and Wonder Stories. He had published the novel Ralph 124C 41+, and had just entered into his final publishing venture, Science Fiction Plus, edited by former Worldcon chair Sam Moskowitz with art direction by the first Worldcon Guest of Honor, Frank R. Paul. With close to 900 members, TASFIC would be the largest Worldcon until the event made its third New York appearance in 1967.

Gernsback’s view of science fiction was distinctly different from many of the other editors in the field. He very strongly believed in the predictive powers of science fiction, often at the expense of character, writing style, or plot, which meant that the stories he edited often seemed dated as he had been supplanted by the editorial style of John W. Campbell. In Gernsback’s guest of honor speech, he suggested that science fiction authors be allowed to apply for a provisional patent for inventions in their works. If the invention was created in the real world within 30 years, the author would receive an actual patent and royalties for the invention.

Chicon also procured a gavel which was meant to be passed along from Worldcon to Worldcon. (A later gavel disappeared after Chicon 7 handed the gavel over to LoneStarCon II.) The next Worldcon would be Philadelphia, which was selected following a multiple city bid process that left bad feelings and resulted in the introduction of the first rotating zone plan for Worldcon selection.

One of the highest profile innovations of the early Worldcons took place at the 11th Worldcon in Philadelphia in 1953. In their third progress report, the committee announced that they would present the First Annual Science Fiction Achievement Awards for writers, editors, artists, and fans. The PR included a ballot with nine categories with the award going to whichever works or individuals received the most votes. Two categories, “Best Novelette or Short Story” and “Best Fan Magazine” were not awarded, while the awards for Cover Painting and Interior Illustration were changed to honor the artist rather than the work. The very first Science Fiction Achievement Award to be presented was given to Forrest J. Ackerman as the #1 Fan Personality.

The original awards were designed by Manny Staub and created by Jack McKnight, who missed most of the convention because he was manufacturing the awards. McKnight’s daughter, Peggy Rae, would go on to chair the 1998 Worldcon in Baltimore and be guest of honor at the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago. The Awards were conceived and brought to fruition by Bob Madle and Hal Lynch. From a very early date, Madle was referring to the Awards as the “Hugo,” although the name didn’t become fully ingrained in tradition until the second presentation of the awards in 1955 at the Clevention.

In 1948, Walter Dougherty created a convention for West Coast fans who couldn’t afford to travel to the Midwest and East Coast, where most Worldcons took place. Originally held in Los Angeles, in 1951, the convention took place in San Francisco, beginning its tradition of moving around. With the Worldcon returning to the West Coast in 1954, a decision was made to hold the two conventions mostly concurrently, although officially the Westercon took place on September 3 with the Worldcon taking place from September 4-6. The two conventions actually had separate chairmen and guests of honor. The convention did not continue the presentation of the Hugo Awards, which had been established the year before.

Early Worldcons worked on a different financial model than modern ones do, with memberships barely being seen as a source of income. Money was raised by charging for the banquet and holding an auction. At SFCon in 1954, the auction was not going well and Sam Moskowitz served as the auctioneer, continuing until he was informed that the auction had raised enough money that the convention would not end up in the red. Once informed, he stepped down from the auction podium, his voice shot.

Clevention presented the second Hugo Awards, with the Novel Award going to a novel which is widely considered to be the worst Hugo winning novel, Mark Clifton & Frank Riley’s They’d Rather Be Right. In addition to the six categories of Hugo presented in Cleveland, the ballots also contained a spot for members to vote on a “Mystery Guest of Honor” to join announced guest of Honor Isaac Asimov. Sam Moskowitz won the balloting. His victory, announced during the Hugo Award Ceremony, was the first Moskowitz won.

In addition to setting the Hugos on the path of a Worldcon tradition, Cleveland also issued the first custom-made souvenirs for a Worldcon, commissioning Virgil Finlay, who won the 1953 Hugo for Best Interior Illustration, to create an exclusive drawing for fans to purchase.

As you walk through the convention in Kansas City, you’ll see a large banner declaring “World Science Fiction Society.” This banner was introduced at NYCon II, the 1956 Worldcon in New York and has been displayed at most Worldcons since, although it vanished for several years before it was discovered in storage at Howard de Vore’s home. In the late 80s or early 90s, de Vore turned it over to the Worldcon History Exhibit and it has been displayed at every Worldcon since, with Mary Morman and Kent Bloom overseeing a conservation effort in 2012 to allow its continued exhibition.

Arthur C. Clarke was the Guest of Honor at NYCon II, the first time the Worldcon honored a Guest who was not from North America. At the same time, the next Worldcon site was selected to be in London, the first time the Worldcon moved out of North America.

While the first New York Worldcon was known for its Exclusion Act, NYCon II became known for the mini-Exclusion Act. The banquet wound up in the red, and the convention chairman, Dave Kyle, made the decision that the speech given by cartoonist Al Capp would only be open to people who had bought banquet tickets. Many fans sat on stairs leading to a balcony to be able to hear the talk. Kyle was informed by the Fire Marshall that the fans couldn’t sit on the stairs since it caused a fire hazard. The fan sent to spread the news simply stated “Dave Kyle says you can’t sit here,” which further infuriated the fans and is still a catch phrase in fandom.

Kyle was excited about the Worldcon taking place in London in 1957 and chartered a plane to ferry 55 fans across the Atlantic. The trip also served as Kyle’s honeymoon to Ruth Landis, who had served as the secretary at NYCon II.

The following year’s Worldcon had been bid as being in South Gate a suburb of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the committee discovered that there were not appropriate facilities available in South Gate, so the committee arranged to get a proclamation from Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson declaring that the Alexandria Hotel was located in South Gate for the duration of the convention, which was, once again, held in conjunction with Westercon.

In 1959, Detroit hosted the Worldcon as Detention. For the first time, there was a separate nominating ballot for the Hugos. Anyone was allowed to nominate for the award, which resulted in ballot stuffing. The obviously stuffed ballots, which came from a small town in England, were for Lionel Fanthorpe. British fans who looked at the voters’ names did not recognize any of the nominators and the ballots were ignored. The next year, the rules stipulated that only members of the Worldcon were allowed to nominate works for the Hugo Award.

The 1960 Worldcon, Pittcon not only presented the Hugo Award, but also presented an award to Hugo, recognizing Hugo Gernsback at the Father of the Science Fiction Magazine during the Hugo Award banquet. Gernsback was not present at the convention, but Pittcon arranged to send a Hugo to Gernsback who had not, up to that time, seen one of the awards nicknamed in his honor. The awards banquet was also televised over KDKA television in Pittsburgh, the first time people who were not at the Hugo Awards could watch the presentations.

Following the 1962 Convention in Chicago, Chicon III compiled the proceedings of the convention, which were published by fan publisher Advent:Publishing and available to any convention member who wanted to pay the half dollar postage. The experiment of publishing the proceedings of the convention would continue in 1963 when Discon published their proceedings.

George Scithers

The 1963 Worldcon was held in Washington and called Discon, chaired by George Scithers, who went on to edit Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Scithers provided historians a valuable service by writing a detailed report beginning with the process of finding a venue for the convention , continuing through the planning phases, the convention itself, and the aftermath. Scithers’s thoughts reflect how much Worldcons have changed. He notes “we know we overprogrammed. Chicon III scheduled about 17+ hours of program and auction (exclusive of banquet, and ball). We originally aimed at 10 hours, but Fascinating Things kept turning up, and we wound up with a trifle over 13 hours.” For reference, Chicon 2000 had more than 13 hours of programming during the first hour of the convention. The convention began with a planned altercation between L. Sprague de Camp and Fritz Leiber, who began yelling at each other in Persian and Old English before grabbing swords and fencing.

The guest of honor at Discon was local author Murray Leinster, dubbed by Time magazine “The Dean of Science Fiction.” Leinster’s career began in 1917 with the publication of “The Syncopated Marriage,” although he didn’t publish his first science fiction story, or acquire his famous penname until 1919 with the publication of “The Runaway Skyscraper.” The convention didn’t necessarily go smoothly for Leinster, whose real name was William F. Jenkins. Leinster’s hotel room was nearly given to a Philadelphia fan named William J. Jenkins. It was only the chance arrival of a concom member who knew the fannish Jenkins that the situation was corrected, but Leinster claimed that he was able to easily walk around the convention without being recognized, despite being the guest of honor.

Although Theodore Sturgeon was supposed to have been the Toastmaster at Discon, he was unable to attend and Isaac Asimov was pressed into service. At the time, the Toastmaster’s duties included the presentation of the Hugo Awards. As Asimov presented and accepted the first Hugo Award for Best Professional Magazine to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, he lamented the fact that he had never won a Hugo. He continued to note his lack of Hugos as he presented in the various categories. The final Hugo of the evening was a Special Hugo and it wasn’t until Asimov opened the announcement that he learned that it was being awarded to him for ”putting the science into science fiction.”

In 1956, an attempt had been made to incorporate the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS, Inc.) at NYCon II. After a couple of years, the effectiveness of the organization was questioned and there were some financial issues raised and WSFS, Inc. petered out, although not before causing a lot of bad feelings (and it is still brought up today when talk of incorporating WSFS is raised). At Discon, a motion was made at the Business Meeting to adopt a Constitution. Individuals from both sides of the WSFS, Inc. debacle spoke in favor of the Constitution and it passed easily, setting the stage for the modern Worldcons, which are governed by amended versions of the 1962 Constitution.

Pacificon II would become the first Worldcon governed by a Constitution, and like the first Worldcon in New York, would also be known for an Exclusion Act. As it mirrors in the first Worldcon, it seems like it will be a good starting point for a future article on the History of Worldcons.

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