THE FIRST EVER CONVENTION
Scanned from THE STORY SO FAR, a 1987 Worldcon publication, to which this was an appendix.
During their respective campaigns, the Philadelphia in '86 and
Britain in '87 Worldcon bids made rival claims that each would be
commemorating the golden anniversary of the first science fiction
convention. Would this fanhistorically important 50th anniversary occur in
1986 or 1987? Celebrating an anniversary of its own, FILE 770 number 50
compared notes from Britain's Dave Langford, Philadelphia's Lew Wolkoff,
and Worldcon historian Fred Patten, and asked: Who staged the first SF
Dave Langford, quoted in THYME, said, "Since Mike Glyer has raised the question of how it comes about that both the 1986 and 1987 conventions are campaigning with reference to the '50th anniversary of the first ever convention', I shall now clarify the point. It was all Sam Moskowitz's fault. Unable, for apparently chauvinistic reasons, to accept that the first ever con was held in Britain in January 1937, he insists on the honours going to a 1936 event. This consisted of a social. outing of New York fans who visited Philadelphia, gathered in the home of a local fan, and as an afterthought declared the gathering to be a convention. 'A bit of officiality that gave them the uncontested title of first convention in fan history,' babbles Moskowitz. Nonsense, say I. A convention implies pre-organisation and, I rather think, the use of public facilities. Out upon this heresy!"
Lew Wolkoff, of the Late Philadelphia in '86 bid suggests: "Perhaps the quote below will settle the debate on the site of the first SF con. The material was provided by Sam Moskowitz and appears in PHOXPHYRE: THE FIRST SF CON which I'm selling for $1.50 plus postage. (3300 Union Deposit Rd. Apt.G-304, Harrisburg PA 17109).
"Trouble in Paradise and Other Short Stories' by Edward J.Carnell on page 9 of NOVAE TERRAE, December 1936-January 1937 (British Fanzine): "America (New York) beats Leeds in holding the first science fiction convention, when members from the ISA in New York visited fans in Philadelphia on October 18th. Don Wollheim, William Sykora, Herbert Goudket, and John Michel were entertained by Milton Rothman, John Baltadonis, David Kyle, Robert Madle, and others although the main business... (the story concludes on page 19)...was the arrangement of a fully planned Second Convention to be held in New York on February 21st 1937.'
"At the time it would seem that British Fandom accepted that the Philly convention was the first. Why dispute them fifty years later? Incidentally, the main topic on the agenda of that February meeting was what became the 1939 Worldcon.
"As a final point, at L.A.Con II, I reached a tentative treaty on the business of the first convention with the two reps from Britain in '87 whose names I forget at present). They conceeded the first con to Philly, and I conceded the first modern con (fan advertising, preset agenda etc.) to Leeds. A fair concession, I'd say."
Wolkoff's negotiations don't shed nearly as much light on the subject as it needed, judging by the definitive observations made by Fred Patten.
Patten explains, "I wasn't even born until. after the second Worldcon was held. But I've been doing a Lot of reading in Forry Ackerman's fanzines of the 1930s for an article on the history of the LASFS (Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, started 1934), so I think I can offer some pretty knowledgeable comments on how SF conventions got started. The British fans should definitely get all the credit. We all know that fandom was very tiny during the 1930s, but fans today may not realise how much contact there was between British and American fen. There was a lot, especialty among the fanzine publishers and letterhacks. Most of the most-active American fans of the mid-1930s seem to have regularly traded with British fanzine publishers. Ted Carnell, one of the leading British fans, wrote columns of British pro and fan news for more than one American fanzine. Well, all during 1936 the British fanzines and Carnell's columns in the American fanzines were full of news about the SF convention that they were planning for January 1937. A lot of it was wishful dreaming - how they hoped that H.G. Wells might attend, and so forth - but they talked about it constantly.
"By contrast, the October 1936 convention in Philadelphia was apparently a spur-of-the-moment idea of Donald Wollheim's. The gathering itself had been set up in advance, but it was simply a get-together between New York and Philadelphia fans - more of a day's outing than anything else. The New York fans checked with the PhiladeLphia fans to make sure that October 22nd would be a convenient date to visit, and five of them made the trip. It's true that Moskowitz in THE IMMORTAL STORM says that this meeting came about because Wollheim got the idea of holding a fan convention. But, from reading the fanzine accounts written by the attendees themselves, I got the impression that it wasn't until they were a already gathered in Milton Rothman's home in Philadelphia that Wollheim got the idea of calling their gathering a convention, and appointing Fred Pohl to be the Secretary and send out press releases to all the fanzines about what a great convention they'd just had. The others went along with the idea because it seemed like a fun thing to do. More importantly, Wollheim proposed that they follow this up with a real convention as soon as possible. The New York fans took charge of this and it was the ISA-organised 'Second Eastern Convention' in New York City in February 1937. It was at this second convention that Wollheim proposed that fans begin planning for a really big convention to be held simultaneously with the 1939 World's Fair. So you can draw a direct line from the October 1936 gathering at Rothman's home to the creation of the Worldcon. Yet that October 1936 gathering didn't take piece until American fans had been smothered far months in news about the big SF convention that was going to take place in England in January 1937. So I certainly think that British fans deserve credit for establishing the atmosphere in which Wollheim's impromptu declaration of a small fannish outing as a convention was treated seriously.
"On the other hand, Wollheim certainly deserves the credit for following through with a second and other conventions, including the Worldcon (even if, due to the fan politics of the day, he didn't end up in charge of it). If he hadn't, it would be a joke to call that October 1936 gathering a convention. But because of Wollheim's follow-up work, it's impossible to just dismiss the claim - although, by rights, the October 1936 gathering should be considered as just the initial planning session for the real first American SF convention. (Yes, attendance at the October 1936 Philadelphia gathering was limited to those listed in THE IMMORTAL STORM, plus John Baltadonis. Fred Pohl has/had a group photograph that was taken of the whole 'convention'.)" So having considered the evidence, FILE 770 throws its widow's mite of support behind Britain in '87s claim to be the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first science fiction convention.
What About the Event in 1891?
The Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fete was held in London's Royal Albert Hall in March 1891 and bore superficial similarites to an SF convention, but no more than that. After all, SF conventions arose out of SF fandom so how could something that pre-dated both SF fandom and science fiction as a concept be a science fiction convention? Answer: it couldn't. It's an interesting curiosity, certainly, but it was a dead-end that led nowhere. To consider it a true SF convention is akin to considering Francis Godwin's 1638 tale in which his protagonist is transported to the moon in a chariout pulled by swans to be true science fiction.