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The 1960 World Science Fiction Convention

on Mon, 11/10/2014 - 00:00

In 1926, Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine dedicated to science fiction. Although the genre had already existed for decades, Amazing Stories and numerous other publications that premiered shortly thereafter gave writers of science fiction a regular creative outlet, as well as offering sci-fi fans the opportunity to interact. Arguably more important than the stories themselves was the letter column contained within these pulps, which not only featured the opinions of fans from across the country but their physical addresses as well. Before long, science fiction fans were contacting each other via the US Postal Service, directly leading to formalized fanclubs along with conventions that allowed members to socialize and interact with each other in person.

It was during these early years of sci-fi fandom that the World Science Fiction Convention first convened in 1939, and with the exception of World War II, has been held every year since. Many components of modern day conventions—whether they are championing science fiction, comic books or some other fandom—can trace their roots to Worldcon, including such features as art shows, panel discussions, award ceremonies and cosplay. This granddaddy of conventions has been held in cities across the globe, with Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco hosting the largest number of individual Worldcons. The locations are selected in advance by members of the World Science Fiction Society, and in 1959 the honor of organizing the 1960 Worldcon was bestowed upon Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the lone year that the gathering has taken place in the Steel City.

Each Worldcon is given a localized name, and the 1960 version is referred to as Pittcon. In addition to 586 science fiction fans, some of the greatest writers in the history of the sci-fi genre likewise descended upon the Penn-Sheraton Hotel (better known as the William Penn) over the extended Labor Day weekend of September 3rd. Author James Blish—whose Cities in Flight quartet of novels makes a reference to a future Pittsburgh relocating to Mars and continuing its steel industry dominance—was Guest of Honor, while Isaac Asimov served as Toastmaster. A major component of any Worldcon is the Hugo Award presentation ceremony, which celebrates the best achievements in science fiction. The list of 1960 recipients included Robert A. Heinlein for Best Novel, Daniel Keyes for Best Short Fiction and The Twilight Zone for Best Dramatic Presentation, as well as a special Hugo Award for Hugo Gernsback as the “Father of Magazine Science Fiction.”

Although Gernsback—after whom the Hugo Award is named—was not in attendance, both Robert Heinlein and Daniel Keyes did make appearances at the 1960 Worldcon. “I had been lured there by being told, just before the convention, and under seal of confidence, that I was due to receive a Hugo and wouldn’t I please show up,” Heinlein is quoted as saying within William H. Patterson’s biography Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century (Tor Books, 2014). Heinlein arrived at the convention just as Starship Troopers was announced as Best Novel, making his timing impeccable. “I’m not sorry I made the effort,” he added. “It’s fun to get a Hugo and the Pittcon itself was fun.”

Robert Heinlein was not the only infrequent convention attendee on hand in the Steel City. “When I was handing out Hugos in Pittsburgh in 1960, one of the winners was Flowers of Algernon by Daniel Keyes, which I loved,” Isaac Asimov remembers in his autobiography I.Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday, 1994). “It was surely one of the best science fiction stories ever written, and as I announced the winner, I grew very eloquent over its excellence. ‘How did Dan do it?’ I demanded of the world. ‘How did Dan do it?’ At which point I felt a tug on my jacket and there was Daniel Keyes waiting for his Hugo. ‘Listen, Isaac,’ he said, ‘if you find out how I did it, let me know. I want to do it again.’”

The person both in charge and most responsible for the 1960 Worldcon being held in Pittsburgh was Steel City resident Dirce Archer. “What was unusual about Pittcon wasn’t that a woman was chairing a Worldcon,” Eric Leif Davin writes in Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction (Lexington Books, 2005). “What was unusual was that Archer had used her power in fandom to bring the Worldcon to the unlikely and smoky steel town of Pittsburgh at all. Indeed, the locating of the 1960 Worldcon in Pittsburgh was an illustration of the extraordinary power which some female fans, such as Archer, had achieved in the science fiction world by the end of the 1950s.”

“A number of prominent people in the field, like P. Schulyer Miller (book reviewer for Astounding, who also lived in Pittsburgh) strove in her behalf,” 1960 Worldcon attendee Ted White further explains in Partners in Wonder. “The bid mounted for Pittsburgh in 1959 was a steamroller of BNFs (Big Name Fans), which included fake bids by fans in other cities placed so that they could strategically withdraw ‘in favor of Pittsburgh,’ as well as bid parties fueled by the Pittsburgh hotel where the convention would be held.”

Dirce Archer was not the only woman to play a major part in the execution of Pittcon. California native Bjo Trimble—who entered the world of science fiction in 1952 and would later play a significant role within Star Trek fandom—launched the first Worldcon Art Show in 1960, a now regular feature that Trimble continued to organize for the next seventeen years. Trimble’s unicorn costume was also a hit at the traditional Masquerade Ball, although she was arguably upstaged by Dick and Pat Lupoff, who dressed as Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel. The Lupoff’s also distributed ninety copies of their new fanzine Xero, which included an article about Captain Marvel. Although comic books had been around since the late 1930s, a fandom had yet to grow around the medium in the same way that it did with science fiction. Many later influential comic book fans, including future Comics Buyer’s Guide editor Maggie Thompson, consider those two twin occurrences at Pittcon (the Lupoff’s costumes and their fanzine) as the catalyst that launched comic book fandom in the 1960s.

“Whichever the instigating factor happened to be, as we sat at the banquet table at Pittcon, a bunch of us talked about how much fun it was to attend an annual science fiction convention, where we could meet the people who wrote and drew and edited the entertainment we enjoyed so much,” Thompson remembered in November 2010. “And—pause for effect here—we talked about how much fun it might be to have an event like this about comics.” A mere four years later, the first comic book convention convened in New York City.

In addition to the “unofficial” launch of comic book fandom, the 1960 Worldcon also saw the official establishment of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, a fanclub formed around author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Travelling circus performer Vern Coriell launched a mimeographed fanzine with Burroughs’ blessing in 1947 called The Burroughs Bulletin. “By 1960 the readership had grown to such an extent that Vern and other fans, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Pittsburgh that year, decided to create an organized literary society, the Burroughs Bibliophiles,” the organization’s website explains. “The mission of the Bibliophiles, then as now, is to promote an understanding and appreciation of the great American author Edgar Rice Burroughs.” Then there was “The Fellowship of the Ring,” considered the first organized fan group dedicated to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that likewise held their initial meeting at the 1960 Worldcon in Pittsburgh.

Live performances of folk music at science fiction conventions have been a tradition since the dawn of sci-fi fandom itself, and Pittcon was no exception. Journalist Lee Jacobs wrote an essay in the early 1950s about the rise of the genre entitled “The Influence of Science Fiction on Modern American Filk Music” in which he misspelled “folk.” Although the essay was never published, “filk” became the official moniker nonetheless. The first fanzine dedicated to filk music, meanwhile, was published by Hal Shapiro in conjunction with the 1960 Worldcon. Bjo Trimble contributed illustrations for The STF & FSY Songbook, which likewise contained lyrics written by Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague De Camp and Robert Heinlein.

Pittsburgh was hardly a tourist mecca in the late 1950s, but that did not prevent Dirce Archer from using her influence within the science fiction community to bring the World Science Fiction Convention to the Steel City in 1960. Pittcon is the lone Worldcon ever be to held in Pittsburgh, but it was attended by some of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, and has influenced future Worldcons—as well as multiple fandoms—in the years since, making it a truly memorable occasion and historical moment as well.

Anthony Letizia

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