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LoneStarCon2 · The 55th World Science Fiction Convention · Sunday, August 31, 1997

Out to Launch
The Origin Story of the Hugo Rocket

Mike Glyer

Issue Five


A few months before the 1953 WorldCon, Hal Lynch made a simple suggestion that the convention give an award to the best writer. His idea became the Hugo Awards, science fiction's most recognizable award, by now given in five different decades. Although they say "no army is so powerful as an idea whose time has come," it took a small army to bring the first Hugo rockets into existence and even then the campaign to create annual Hugo awards almost failed.

Milton Rothman chaired three WorldCons, including the one in Philadelphia which presented the first Hugos. His record is not only unequaled, it's virtually unimaginable. (He'll be the 1998 WorldCon's fan guest of honor, by the way.) Rothman's 1953 Philadelphia committee conceived of a set of annual science fiction achievement awards, and adopted Jim Williams's suggestion to nickname them "Hugos," after the man who had edited the first all-SF prozine, Hugo Gernsback.

The committee decided on rocket-shaped trophies (copied from Willy Ley), and asked a member who was a silversmith to make them. This was the first of a series of false starts. The silversmith discovered he couldn't produce what was wanted using his equipment. Trophy companies didn't make rockets. Another silversmith agreed to take brass stock, turn it on a lathe, add fins and silverplate the whole thing -- but when the committee checked in on him three days before the start of the convention, he had done nothing. As Milton Rothman remembered in his article for the Noreascon Program Book, "It was Jack McKnight who came to the rescue. An expert machinist, he turned the little rockets out of stainless steel in his own shop, learning to his dismay that soldering stainless steel fins was a new art. While doing this, poor Jack missed the whole convention, but turned up just in time for the banquet and the presentation."

Instead of disaster, there was triumph. Toastmaster Isaac Asimov handed out the awards. Teenager Robert Silverberg watched from the balcony as Forry Ackerman was given the first Hugo. (Silverberg sat in the balcony because he couldn't afford $4.00 for a ticket to the banquet, little expecting that just three years later he would be on stage receiving his own Hugo, as "Most Promising New Author.")

Disaster averted, the popular new awards seemed well and truly launched. Except that the next year's committee, hosts of the 1954 San Francisco WorldCon, did not give any Hugos. Despite the "annual" component of the award's official name, Chair Esther Cole explained at a panel many years later, "We thought it [1953] would be a one-time presentation."

The Hugos were called back from the edge of extinction by Nick and Noreen Falasca and the committee of the 1955 WorldCon in Cleveland. Ben Jason was a member of that committee, and this article follows his account of how the Hugos were created and then re-created, which was published in the Winter 1994 issue of ScientiFiction.

The Cleveland committee hoped Jack McKnight would make their Hugo rockets, too, but their letters brought no replies. Nick Falasca asked, couldn't they simply use Oldsmobile "Rocket 88" model hood ornaments? They ordered one of the ornaments from the local dealer. Unfortunately, the rocket had a hollow underside; hood ornaments did not prove to be a cheap and easy solution after all.

Ben Jason made the rounds of machine shops looking for an affordable way to manufacture the Hugos. Finally, someone advised him to take a drawing of what he wanted to a pattern-maker and have a mold made. The Hoffman Bronze Co. prepared a pattern rocket from Jason's design, and he commissioned them to make six chrome-plated replicas. The first batch was too flawed to be presented as awards, and members of the committee volunteered to buy the discards to help fund a second batch which was lathed after casting to remove surface pits and fissures. The second batch of Hugos proved satisfactory and were presented to winners at the 1955 WorldCon.

Today's Hugo rockets are based on the original design. However, for many years they have been manufactured by Peter Weston's firm in England, which also makes the body hardware for Jaguar autos.

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