From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

The “maybe” is because some doubt has been expressed. Having heard of what we New York fans did by taking the train to Philadelphia, some British fans promptly organized a gathering in Leeds a few months later. This causes some confusion as to which con deserves to be termed “the first.” Some blog readers have asked me, as one of the few survivors of the Philadelphia event, to describe how it came about.

I believe the idea of the two areas getting together was originally Don Wollheim’s, and I believe that after talking about it by phone with at least one Philly fan (I think it was Bob Madle) they set a date. Anyway, it was an adventure. Going there on the train was a considerable part of it, because I had seldom before taken a train away from the city without a grownup in charge.

To be sure Donald turned 21 right about then, but he wasn’t a “grownup.” He was just one of us. And, come to think of it, Will Sykora might well have been a trifle older than Donald. I never had asked his age. It wouldn’t have seemed polite, would have seemed, I don’t know, like inquiring into things we weren’t meant to know, like the reproductive processes of some creatures that had chosen a different pathway when the main line of human evolution was turning into marsupials or mammals.

Anyway, it is true that I was the secretary. I did take minutes and then, true to form, lost them. I have to say, though, that that was really a pretty trivial loss. No recordable business was brought up by anyone since all we had ever planned to do was get together. What we did do was what fans everywhere have done whenever they were in the company of other fans. We talked about what we had recently read, and which authors we liked and what we wished favorite authors would write next … and then about everything. That is what fans have always loved to do. Talk.

6 Comments

  1. Steve Davidson says:

    Fred,

    you have at least confirmed one thing – the “taking of notes”.

    The fact that “minutes were taken” has now gone down in fannish history as one of the main facts supporting this trip as having been the “first convention”.

    However, your statement that “no recordable business was brought up” sort of throws things back into ambiguity.

    Do you remember if “no business” took place or if “nothing worth recording” took place? (I tend to think the latter since, at least according to the history books, you and your fellow fans were ALWAYS working on/planning something.)

    The whole thing may be moot: both events can be honored, even if some think that “first US con”, “first UK con” or “first thing that could be called a convention was held in Philadelphia in 1936, while the first thing that must be called a convention was held in Leeds in 1937.” are wishy-washy, feelgood ways of approaching the dilemma. (http://fancyclopedia.wikidot.com/which-was-the-first-sf-convention)

  2. David B. Williams says:

    I think we should adopt a loftier definition of “convention” than to tiny, admittedly social gathering described above.

    A “real” convention should be announced in advance with an open invitation for everyone to come. It should have a planned program of some sort.

    The first two meetings in Philadelphia and NYC could be described as exchange visits between the two main ISA branches. The first “real” convention may have been the Newark “national” con in 1938, which actually had a diverse attendance drawn from half a dozen states.

  3. Rob Hansen says:

    I’ve always been firmly of the opinion that the title of ‘first convention’ belongs to the Leeds convention of January 1937. The souvenir booklet (containing a report on the business conducted, and transcripts of the speeches by Professor A.M. Low and John Russell Fearn), Ted Carnell’s con report, Harold Gottliffe’s photos, and an article on the arguments for and against Leeds and Philly as first con, can be found here:

    http://www.fiawol.org.uk/fanstuff/THEN%20Archive/1937con.htm

  4. Mark Olson says:

    Unless we someday discover a hitherto unknown book of the Bible giving us God’s own definition of “convention”, I don’t think we’ll be able to decide this definitively. Until then, I’ll stand by what I wrote for the Fancyclopedia 3 article “Which Was the First SF Convention?” (http://fancyclopedia.wikidot.com/which-was-the-first-sf-convention):

    “Two meetings vie for the title: The Oct 22, 1936 meeting in Philadelphia and the Jan 3, 1937 meeting in Leeds. Some feel that the Philadelphia meeting was a mere visit of NY fans to Philadelphia and that the true first convention was the Leeds meeting in the UK.

    “This seems like hairsplitting, because small affairs like the Philadelphia meeting have subsequently been called “conventions” without objection. But it is certainly true that the first convention in the UK was both larger and more organized than the earlier Philadelphia gathering.

    “Perhaps it would be fairest to say that the first thing that could be called a convention was held in Philadelphia in 1936, while the first thing that must be called a convention was held in Leeds in 1937.”

  5. Rob Hansen says:

    That has an almost Solomonic elegance, Mark. It hasn’t changed my views, but it is almost Solomonic. A couple of further observations:

    1. Fred is misremembering when he writes: “Having heard of what we New York fans did by taking the train to Philadelphia, some British fans promptly organized a gathering in Leeds a few months later”. As Fred Patten points out:

    “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.”

    So it’s more likely that, knowing of British fans’ plans, Wollheim declared the Philadelphia trip a convention as a spoiler.

    http://www.fiawol.org.uk/fanstuff/THEN%20Archive/1937conFirst.htm

    2. Dave Kyle, who was at the Philadelphia gathering, wrote of it in his MIMOSA column that :

    “There is much merit to the claim that Leeds on January 3, 1937, and not Philadelphia in the autumn of 1936, was the site of the first science fiction convention, because the Philadelphia ‘convention’ started as an intercity visit by New York City fans, whereas the Leeds event had been planned and advertised for all of Britain.”

    http://jophan.org/mimosa/m14/kyle.htm

  6. Curt Phillips says:

    I think Rob Hansen has it exactly right when he suggests: “…it’s more likely that, knowing of British fans’ plans, Wollheim declared the Philadelphia trip a convention as a spoiler.” This is exactly the kind of thing that Don Wollheim might have done in those days, and for exactly that reason. Fannish history of that era is filled with similar antics by Wollheim (his political scheamings with the founding of FAPA will serve as one other example) was – at that time – still quite young and prone to such silliness. It’s fine that those New York fans went to Philly to meet with those fans there that day, but let’s be realistic. That was *not* a convention under any reasonable defination of the term. It was nothing more than a meeting, just like the meeting I’ll be attending with a group of fans in Knoxville, TN in a couple of weeks. I promise you that we who gather in Knoxville that day won’t be calling that event “a convention” and it’s time to stop playing into Don Wollheim’s little game and accept that his expedition to Philadelphia that day in 1936 wasn’t a convention either. The first SF Convention ever held was absolutely Leeds in 1937, and those long ago British fans deserve whatever acolades are due to those who began Fandom’s tradition of SF conventions.