They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything. We the machines inside the machines.
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

It’s alternative history time, kids! This is something I wrote last year as part of an alternate history writing game. Some explanation follows at the end.

Granville Woods W.C. HandyLewis Latimer
Granville Woods, W.C. Handy, Lewis Latimer


Aka: Handy, John Henry, Gernsback-B

Tesla couldn’t do it. He was never going to do it. J.P. Morgan was standing on his neck for results and it didn’t matter. Tesla couldn’t make his wireless power caster work. Not until Tesla’s assistant, W.C. Handy, figured out the problem: Tesla’s coils were too tightly wound. Isn’t that always the way?

Other breakthroughs followed. Ingenious, world-changing inventions sprung from the brains of humble, hard-working men who’d somehow heard the syncopated tempo of the coming age, heard it bearing down like an Ellington Locomotor. Granville Woods’ gleaming Jet Dirigibles. Shelby Davidson’s astounding Electric Brain. And young Frankie Manning’s epoch-making Lindy Drive.

What did these men have in common? Man, do I have to draw you a picture?

It wasn’t voodoo that taught them how to make the Electric Age electric. It wasn’t something in their blood—though the frightened forces of racism and reaction certainly tried to say that it was. Maybe it just made sense that the most downtrodden Americans, the ones who actually worked the machines, the ones who were worked like machines, would recognize it first. The machines wanted to be free too. The machines wanted to swing.

And swing they did. Televisors and autogiros, jet packs and flying flivvers, electroswing and roboshine—it was an age of wonders with a syncopated beat. A few white folks had a knack for swinging the machine, too. Immigrants, mostly. Eugene Krupa shattered the sound barrier in 1934. Leon Beiderbecke was right behind him. And visionary industrialists like Florenz Ziegfield and William Berkeley built kaleidoscopic assembly lines that pumped out the wonders of the age with the precision and grace of dancing girls.

Other things started changing. There were hoots and jeers, and worse, when W.C. Handy first squired J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne to the Savoy Ballroom. But the jeers stopped when Morgan threw his full financial clout behind the Morgan-Handy system of broadcast power. While Henry Ford swore that swingtech was “a Negro-Jewish plot” and banned it from his factories, Alfred Sloan hired Edward Ellington to syncopate the General Motors assembly line. Within a decade, Ford was finished in America, reduced to building Edsels in Dusseldorf for a backwards Reich.

Given a stark choice between the old ways on the one hand, and a jitterbugging world of tomorrow on the other, a goodly number of whites were able to give up their old hates and fears. People do make the right choices from time to time, as the Shibboleth timeline showed us. Especially when there’s a flying car in it for them.

Not that black Americans waited passively for white America to come around. On December 1, 1925, Leona McCauley and her daughter Rosa refused to give up their seats on a segregated metro-zep in Montgomery, Alabama. McCauley’s arrest led to the historic Montgomery Dirigible Boycott and launched its organizer, Martin Luther King Sr., to the forefront of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Gernsblack, like Mechani, a tech-heavy timeline to which it is sometimes compared, stokes the old debate over technological determinism. In both timelines a technological divergence—Handy’s powercaster, Da Vinci’s robots—appears to have triggered profound social changes. But perhaps there were underlying social divergences in both cases that allowed the technological breakthrough in the first place.

The swingtech era is generally felt to have ended in 1953, the year Charles Berry split the atom and Eleanor Roosevelt signed into law a sweeping civil rights omnibill bearing her late husband’s name. “Yeah,” said W.C. Handy. “We been swinging that atom since ‘ought-three.”

Crosstime Activity: In the swingtech era described here, very little. In 1972, Gernsblack scientists George Clinton and William Collins claimed to have broken the crosstime barrier, returning with wild tales of a super-advanced Afro-matriarchy making war with tame dinosaurs and psychic powers against the flying dragon saucers of a Viking terror state. Our agents have never been able to locate this “Earth-Nommo,” however, and consider Clinton and Collins’ credibility somewhat suspect.

For The Perplexed

Lexicon is a game where players write interlinked entries in a fantastical encyclopedia (a fantastical wikipedia, generally, since it’s played online on a wiki). This was one of my entries in For Want Of A Nail, an alternate-history themed Lexicon that ran during the summer of 2006. The derelict wiki is now overrun with spam and Qlippothic contamination, so I wanted to archive this here.

Gernsblack takes its name from Hugo Gernsback, the pulp magazine publisher who did as much as anyone to create and promote science fiction as a genre in the 1920s and 30s. “The Gernsback Continuum” is a story by William Gibson about an alternate reality where all the predictions made in Golden Age Science Fiction came true: flying cars, zeppelins, mile-high art deco skyscrapers, you know the drill. For geeks like me, Gernsback-style stories are generally embraced as harmless pulp nostalgia fun. But as Gibson’s story makes clear, there’s something creepy about the antiseptic, technocratic, and lily-white Hugoverse.

(Gibson named the Gernsback Continuum in order to kill it, I think we can assume. He wrote the story in 1981, just before embarking on Neuromancer, sweeping all those iconic images and clichés off the table so he had room to write a new style of science fiction, destined to become just as iconic in its time.)

So Gernsblack was an attempt to desegregate the World of Yesterday’s Tomorrow, inspired by Joel Dinerstein’s wonderful Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars, which describes swing and jazz and syncopation as “survival technology for the Machine Age.” All the people named above are real historical figures, though many of them are better known by nicknames.

Funny thing: it’s a whole lot easier to concoct alternate histories where the divergences are military or diplomatic or technological (my man Ken Hite had a beautiful one last week about phlogiston–truly beautiful, but alas behind the Pyramid subscriber wall) than it is to imagine alternate social or cultural history. Shelves groan with alternates where the Confederacy wins the Civil War or the Nazis win WWII or but you’ll look in vain for one where the Civil Rights Movement comes early.

In this case, I used a technological deus ex machina to jerry-rig a social-cultural change, and that’s fair for a Gernsback riff. But there’s a thought experiment for you: come up with a plausible alternate history, one not employing crazy moon-tech, in which America’s racial problems are solved, or at least faced sooner and better than in real life. It sounds like a job for Jane McGonigal, if only she were real.


  1. This really is the most fun blog I’ve ever encountered. I don’t even share Rob’s intellectual hobbyhorses, and I still can’t get enough of it.

    That’s all.

  2. Adam #1: Can I interest you in a nice Kahlua-Nyquil cocktail?

    Adam #2: I prefer the term “groundbreaking research agenda” to “hobbyhorse,” but thanks!

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  4. What I _mean_ to say, is that you are one creative mo-fo, and for me to even humourously suggest you’ve got to be on something to blog such-like should be frowned upon. Lissen to Nancy: Just Say No!

    All this aside, I _am_ in fact interested in a K-N cocktail. Send it UPS, my sinuses shall dance with delight!

  5. This is terrific. I loved.

    Please understand that I detest science fiction and find most counterfactuals inane. To be fair, I just don’t get SF; can’t read it; become frustrated. (Yes, I understand that this is me, rather than the genre).

    So for me to love this is a revelation. If you can nurture interest in cultural-social alternative histories, I will change my mind.

    How about something going farther back: Native peoples, Jamestown, Champlain?

  6. Melissa: Thanks very much!

    You don’t have to explain about not being into SF or counterfactuals. Sci-fi can too often be as much a clubhouse as a genre, replete with code words and secret handshakes and not always inviting to the outsider. Which makes me value your nice words about Gernsblack all the more.

    I’ll keep working on the alternative social-cultural history front. There is a kind of alternative early America implied, but not made explicit, in my essay on Roanoke.

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  8. Thanks! For the link to the cool Afro-Futurism essays. Man, would I love to run an alternate Starchildren offshoot in the P-Funkverse. (See also, Walter Mosely’s weird young adult novel 47, in which High John the Conqueror is a slave-emancipatin’ space alien.)

    For indirectly leading me to read a zillion comments on whether some dude in an issue of Grant Morrison’s Batman I haven’t even read is a magical negro, no thanks…

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