HOW THE ZAP GUN GOT ITS NAME

Buck Rogers Atomic Pistol box cover

People in the 21st Century - The FUTURE! - can't begin to imagine how science fiction fans were treated in what is now considered part of the Golden Age of the field. They were outsiders. More than that, outcasts. If the general public ever thought about them at all - and usually they didn't unless a mocking newspaper story revealed their idiosyncrasies - the general impression was of weirdos who put on silly costumes, used silly made-up words, strutted around wearing silly propeller beanies, and read silly stories about bug-eyed monsters and space aliens. People who took seriously, perhaps even literally, that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.

I present into evidence a story from Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper by George Bain.

 

Put down that ray-gun, Buck Rogers, I’ve got you cold. So I let him have it with my 25th century rocket-pistol (zap, zap), hopped into my space-ship (zoom, swish), and made off to the planet of the three-headed people. Minerva was waiting for me, a light sparkling in every one of her six television eyes.

Seen any machine-men of Zor lately? They have organic brains in metal cube-shaped bodies, you know. What’s the word from Helen, the lovelorn robot, or the snail-lizard of Venus? How’s interplanetary communications with you, kid?

Nothing wrong with me that a long rest – and protection from another science fiction convention – won’t cure. The 6th world convention of these publishers, writers and readers of fantastic tales is being held at 44 Queen St. E. Just take a firm grip on yourself, plunge right in, and it shouldn’t be more than a couple of weeks before you can sleep again without nightmares. …

Those of tender nerves should make a point of avoiding the drawings at the convention. … There’s one cosy little number, for instance, that shows a poor bloke being clutched to the breast of a beast that has the body of an octopus and arms which are individual snakes. Any number of these pictures show people being done in by ray-guns (zap, zap . . . ugh, you got me), space-ships flying through the mushrooming smoke of atom-bomb explosions and lightly clad maidens being menaced by fiends of one sort or another.

Except for the war years, an annual World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) has been held since 1939. (This year's was scheduled for New Zealand but was converted into a virtual gathering because of the coronovirus.) The Sixth Worldcon, held over the July 4th weekend in 1948 for the convenience of Americans,  was the first outside the borders of the United States, up in Toronto, thereby inevitably nicknamed Torcon. About 200 people attended, a significant fraction of the core fans and professionals in the genre. A meteor strike might have finished off the field.

Torcon 1 photo

Top row, l to r: L. Ron Hubbard, John W. Campbell, Sam Moskowitz, Murray Leinster

Bottom row, (l to r): Willy Ley, Richard Wilson, Frank Belknap Long

from ERBZine

Bain's story got an eye-grabbing headline:

ZAP! ZAP!

ATOMIC RAY

IS PASSE

WITH FIENDS!

Even those reading the article might have wondered what that headline meant. My guess is that the editor took it from this comment buried deep into the story.

Science Fiction is years ahead of actual science, according to David A. Kyle, a fan, literary agent, writer and publisher of Monticello, New York. “We had the atom bomb 15 years ago,” he says, indicating that the atom is pretty much passe now. “We’re on to new things.”

Kyle was stretching the truth a tad. Pretty much all of sf in 1948 was saturated with atomic fever, either horrifying readers with tales of post-apocalyptic hells or enthralling them with the wonders that atomic energy would produce. No self-respecting spaceship could be powered by anything else.

Nevertheless, Kyle's flip remark offered some deep insight into the genre. Before the government started censoring all references to atomic power during the war, both stories and articles in the f&sf magazines regularly extrapolated off current knowledge about the atom. The mainstream press treated "atomic" as a compelling buzzword much as they did with the rise of the Internet a half century later. So many mentions of the coming Atomic Age were made that the sudden absence of them left a conspicuous hole for the knowledgeable. Fans felt vindicated by the screaming headlines about rocket bombs and atomic blasts at the end of the war. Finally, they thought, the world was catching up to us and maybe show us some respect.

Fat chance of that, obviously. Being right too early is an unforgivable sin. (Look at poor Cassandra.) The fans, in their bubble, stayed loyal to science fact almost as much as science fiction. One of the highlights of Torcon was the first showing in Canada of the British film Atomic Physics. The U.S. Department of Energy has the documentary in their archives with this description:

Produced by United World Films for the J. Arthur Rank Organization, Ltd., this film discusses the history and development of atomic energy, stressing nuclear physics. Michael Faraday's early experiments in electrolysis, Dmitri Mendeleev's periodic table, and early concepts regarding atoms and molecules are also discussed. The film presents research tools of nuclear physics, explains the work of Frédéric Joliot-Curie and James Chadwick in the discovery of the neutron and the splitting of the lithium atom by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton. Albert Einstein is shown as he told how their work illustrated his theory of equivalence of mass and energy. Featured scientists include J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, J. D. Cockcroft, and O. R. Frisch.

Produced in the droning lecturer mode common to the time, the showing failed to captivate some of the audience. Leslie A. Crouch, who would churn out his fanzine named Light for more than twenty years, captured the etymological moment in his Convention Issue for August 1948.

I have just re-read what I have stencilled, end I see I have totally neglected the film shown— a new British 16mm sound film entitled "Atomic Physics". It was fresh from the censorship board in Ottawa and hadn’t been shown anywhere else yet, according to what I was told. It was very deep, but very educational, showing the search for atomic energy from the days of Hertz right down through the Curies and Einstein to the present. It divided the audience into two classes— the older and more serious ones who stayed to see it, and the younger crowd who wandered in and out and milled about, apparently disappointed there were no ray guns or pyrotechnics. As Mart Alger said, "It showed who were the science fans and [who were] the Buck Rogers fans who expected ray guns to go zap! zap!" I wonder if it was his remark that might have been overheard and used by the reporter of the GLOBE AND MAIL when he made up the title for the article.

The association between Ruck Rogers and sound-making ray guns undoubtedly came from the ubiquitous comic strip and its spin-off movie serials. The OED's first citation for zap as the sound of a ray gun is from the Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D. comic strip on May 7, 1929.

Buck Rogers disintegrator ray going zap

More importantly, ads for the Buck Rogers Rocket Pistol (atomic was a later buzzword) made the connection firm, with the ad copy giving the sound as "zap-zap-zap." The  earliest I've found was from July 20, 1934. The one below is more explicit: "Goes 'zap-zap-zap' just like the real ones" and "Every boy and girl will be 'way ahead of the times with one of these."

Buck Rogers rocket pistol Washington Herald, Oct. 5, 1934

Philip Nowlan introduced Anthony Rogers in "Armageddon 2419 A.D." in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. He knew only slightly more about science than the average Chihuahua but he did understand that a disintegrator ray would be both instant and silent. Comics have their own imperatives, like renaming the plebian "Anthony" as the dashing "Buck." They were also the one form of popular culture that science fiction fans could rightly feel superior to. By 1948, magazine science fiction had reached a level of sophistication that removed them from comic strips and books and true fans were expected to have a grasp of science that made them more knowledgeable about atomic energy than virtually any other non-professional group in the world.

Alger, therefore, made an astute remark separating the two sets of influences.  And The Canadian Fancyclopedia credits his quip as the origin of the zap gun.

A term originating in American fan Martin Alger's famous remark at Torcon (in Jul 1948) about what ray guns were supposed to sound like (Zap! Zap!). The same convention marked the first fannish outburst of the brief-lived fad of fans hunting each other down with water pistols in the form of toy ray guns. As a consequence of publicity given to Alger's remark, fans took to calling said water-pistol ray guns 'ZAP GUNS'.

The term spread to a mainstream world utterly unaware of its fannish origins.

Alger was a camera bug so there are many more pictures by him than of him but I found these two that are approximately contemporary with Torcon.

Martin Alger in collared shirt middle of back row.

Martin Alger in collared shirt left end of back row.

Martin Alger was a noted Detroit fan who, it must be said, is forgotten today except in the most comprehensive of fannish memories. He shouldn't be. His historic importance to field is immense. I already used another of his coinages, even more famous than zap gun. WSFAnzine #11, July 2008, "The Fannish E-zine of the West Coast Science Fiction Association," remembered him in a Torcon 60th anniversary memorial issue.

Martin Alger: American fan, one of the ‘Michifen’ living in Michigan. Creator in 1939 of the term ‘Bugeyed Monster’ with his proposed ‘Society for the Prevention of Bug-Eyed Monsters on the Covers of Science Fiction Publications’. In 1948 was a member of The Michigan Science-Fantasy Society also known as The Misfits, newly formed that year out of the debris of previous groups such as The Galactic Roamers and The Detroit Hyperborian Society. Alger’s gigantic Packard was a legend in its own right as a fan transport. And Alger himself was renowned for building his own mimeo machine out of $3.75 worth of assorted parts, on which he published a zine telling others how to make their own. As a consequence fannish legend soon credited him with making all manner of things cheaply, such as homemade atomic bombs and whatnot. At Torcon inadvertently invented the term ‘Zap-gun’. Very well known fan of the day. From 1950 to 1952 published at least 10 issues of REVOLTIN’ DEVELOPMENT.

"Zap Gun" and "Bug-Eyed Monster." What a legacy. Thank you, Martin Alger. Elon Musk should have sent your Packard out into space to remember the Earth by.

August 3, 2020

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EK

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