He Was the Father of Science Fiction, But You Don’t Know His Name
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we give credit where credit is due.
MY DEAR SIR: I have no doubt we shall be able to give you as much work as you want, and of whatever kind. Yours sincerely, C.A. DANA
With those words, a young writer began carving a legacy, shrouded in anonymity and built upon a “hoax,” at a tier-one newspaper. He would become a well-respected editor and a father of American science fiction. Before H.G. Wells won acclaim for turning back time and making men invisible, there was Edward Page Mitchell — the man who pioneered modern sci-fi tropes but “was hardly known, even as a name, to the general public,” according to The Literary Digest.
Mitchell wrote a memoir; his retirement was attended by 650 guests, drawing media and dignitaries from around the country; and his death merited a two-page obituary in the Digest. So, asked his sole biographer, the late sci-fi historian and teacher Sam Moskowitz, “[how] could so important a figure in the history of science fiction remain so little known?”
His quest for anonymity pushed his legacy into irrecoverable obscurity.
To understand that, one needs to know more about the biographer — the man The Times once dubbed “the world’s foremost authority on science fiction” — and a literary trend that would likely get a practitioner of it sued today. Sam Moskowitz committed his knowledge to near-eidetic memorization; through scholarship, he became sci-fi’s first professor, and taught a class that drew heavy-hitter guest speakers like Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey. Moskowitz was, as YouTuber and sci-fi enthusiast Kevin Lieber puts it, “the ultimate fanboy.”
So when Moskowitz learned about Mitchell’s work, he had to know more. His investigation led him to “The Great Moon Hoax,” the name given to a series of articles about lunar life published in The Sun in August 1835. Masquerading as rehashed news from Edinburgh, Scotland, the articles described creatures and the alien moon environment, details supposedly gathered from “an immense telescope of entirely new principle.” The series multiplied the New York newspaper’s circulation, allowing it to claim itself the largest U.S. newspaper. It also popularized hoaxes, inspiring many sci-fi pioneers — including Edgar Allan Poe, who would later publish his own “Balloon Hoax” in The Sun. Poe’s story prompted Jules Verne to write “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” his first work to make a splash in the U.S. Ultimately, these hoaxes and the “advocacies of or attacks on political and economic solutions to the turmoil of the 19th century” that were framed as fantastic sci-fi, paved the way for fiction to appear in newspapers and magazines, says John Clute, co-author of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
Such was Mitchell’s petri dish in 1874. Recovering from an accident that cost him an eye, he drafted “The Tachypomp.” The story told of a bachelor seeking a woman’s hand who must find a way to travel faster than light in order to impress her father. With the help of a mathematician, the suitor designs a plausible device of stacked, increasingly smaller trains that would all race forward atop each other at theoretically infinite speed. Published in Scribner’s Monthly, Mitchell’s first major piece was an unprecedented use of science as a mechanism in fiction.
By the time “The Tachypomp” ran, Mitchell was already making a name for himself as a reporter and investigative paranormal debunker for The Lewiston Journal, and would soon begin pitching freelance stories to The Sun that would earn him the open invitation of work from editor C.A. Dana. There, in his first years, he continued with news reports, debunking, and flexing his cynical humor in short fantasies and fantastic satire until he wrote, in 1877, “The Man Without a Body,” which featured the first reference to a scientific teleportation device.
With that story, fantasy gave way to sci-fi. Mitchell would go on to write what are almost certainly the first accounts of a computerized brain and cryogenic freezing (in 1879), personality change via surgery a year later, a time machine and an invisible man (in 1881 — seven and 16 years, respectively, before H.G. Wells did so), a friendly alien (1883) and a mutant child with mental powers (1885). By the time Mitchell retired, he had become lead editor of The Sun, all while breaking new ground.
But, to Moskowitz’s chagrin, Mitchell published anonymously. With no international copyright laws in place, his stories were republished under fake titles and bylines. Mitchell’s memoir, burdened with the task of cataloging a life that penned thousands of articles, captures little of his influence on the sci-fi genre. Moskowitz’s biography of the man is out of print, and the only work to recently highlight Mitchell’s legacy is a YouTube segment done by Lieber, on the network VSauce. Lieber says he came across the pioneering writer while researching time machines.
After retirement, Mitchell became a recluse, hiding away — with his wife and their 6,000 books — from modern conveniences like electricity and gas on a Rhode Island homestead he called “an enclosure of trees unbroken by human habitation.” He created worlds with technology, only to spurn it himself, and his quest for anonymity pushed his legacy into irrecoverable obscurity — even though he helped create entire universes.
He was, in short, a man out of time.