History Column

Engineering & Pop Culture: L. Sprague de Camp

By Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., IEEE History Center

Fans of science fiction and fantasy, especially those who came of age in the 1970s or earlier, will know the name L. Sprague de Camp. Beginning in 1937, in a career that spanned over 50 years, de Camp published dozens of books in both science fiction and fantasy. In addition to that distinction (few authors publish successfully in both of these genres, despite their close connection), de Camp published historical fiction and nonfiction as well. In the nonfiction category, he wrote popular books on science and invention and also biographies of pioneering fantasy writers. He was, in fact, instrumental in making the study of fantasy accepted as a serious pursuit. Also on the fantasy side, he is perhaps best known for rescuing from obscurity the Conan novels of Robert Howard and then writing authorized sequels.

In 1996, he managed to document his full life (he died in 2000, three weeks shy of his 93rd birthday) in his autobiography, Time and Chance: An Autobiography (Donald M. Grant Publishers, Hampton Falls, NH), which won a Nebula Award (just one of his many prizes in science fiction and fantasy arenas). Fans who have not read this book, however, may not realize that, like his more famous colleague, Isaac Asimov, a biochemist also known for writing both science fiction and science nonfiction, de Camp had a technical background. He started out, in fact, as an engineer! And he and Asimov, it turns out, were to participate together in an interesting if little known chapter in engineering history … one that truly demonstrates the interplay between engineering and popular culture.

Heinlein, de Camp and Asimov at the Philadelphia Naval Base, 1943; courtesy Wikipedia

First, more on de Camp’s background: Born into an affluent New York family, he attended first Trinity School then a rustic boarding school. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to southern California, where he attended Hollywood High School. There, he was (in another IEEE-related coincidence!) one of the 1,500 high-scoring high-school students studied by Lewis M. Terman of Stanford University. A strong student in math and science, de Camp hoped to attend UCLA to study paleontology, but his family convinced him that engineering was a better career — so he enrolled at Cal Tech! After graduating Tech in 1930 with a Bachelors Degree in mechanical engineering, de Camp attended summer school at MIT and then attended Stevens Institute of Technology from which he received a Masters Degree in 1933. With the Depression at its greatest depth, de Camp got a series of jobs doing technical writing and teaching, and it was then that the writing bug bit him and that he thought he might be able to make it as a full-time writer of science fiction. Back in New York, he began to write and publish stories, and to move in science fiction circles. However, he still required a day-time job and so, in 1938, he took a temporary position with IEEE’s sister society, the ASME (!), editing the new edition of their Catalogue of Mechanical Equipment. Then World War II intervened.

When the war broke out, the United States put a lot of emphasis on scientific and technological research and development as a way to win the conflict. The Manhattan Project, the Rad Lab at MIT, and the Jet Propulsion Lab, among others, are all well known. Less famous is a small Navy lab in Philadelphia, but its connection to popular culture may be unique among these efforts.

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein, as it happens, was also trained as an engineer — at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis — and had served as an officer in the U.S. Navy doing radio work from 1929 until 1934, when he was discharged for medical reasons. As the war broke out, an old classmate of his from Annapolis, A. B. Scoles, was put in charge of what became the Naval Air Material Center of the Naval Aircraft Experimental Station at the Philadelphia Naval Base. Scoles knew that his old friend Heinlein was both an engineer and a creative science-fiction writer. What, he thought, if Heinlein could recruit other science fiction writers who had technical backgrounds, and let them combine their creativity and far-sightedness in weapons research? So, he contacted Heinlein. Heinlein contacted de Camp, who was almost a full-time writer, and Asimov, who was a graduate student in biochemistry writing part-time — they all already knew each other through science fiction circles — and the three went down to Philadelphia to begin work. Asimov and Heinlein remained civilian engineers for medical reasons, but de Camp was commissioned in the Navy. Scoles established a new subdivision for them, the Materials Laboratory. De Camp’s work primarily concerned experimentation in the Cold and Altitude rooms. He was so successful that towards the end of the war he was pulled off the bench and made secretary of the War Production Committee and an assistant to the Patent Committee for the whole Center.

After the war, he was determined to return to writing full time, and his engineering background continued to influence his science fiction — Rogue Queen (1957) for example, includes a subplot of intergalactic technology transfer being used for military purposes. It also continued to follow him in other areas. Until the early 1960s, he found it necessary to support his growing family (he had married in 1940 and ultimately had two sons) by sometimes writing on commission or taking salaried writing positions in addition to his freelance writing. He wrote at various times for The Telephone News, the Bell Company house organ (!), for Voice of America doing stories on the prowess of American science, for an advertising firm, and even for some local newspapers. One of his commissioned books was actually a history of technology — a textbook on the history of naval weapons for the U.S. Naval Reserve (1948). This experience contributed to his eventual writing of a popular nonfiction book, The Ancient Engineers (1963), and enhancing technological literacy through promoting the history of science and technology became one of his hallmarks besides fantasy. In fact, this is when his career took off, and he was able to write full-time and become the figure we remember today … engineering and popular culture combined in one icon.


Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page at: www.ieee.org/organizations/history_center.

Michael Geselowitz, Ph.D.

Michael N. Geselowitz, Ph.D., is staff director at the IEEE History Center. Visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. For more articles by History Center staff, visit their publications page or visit the IEEE History Center’s Web page. The IEEE History Center is partially funded by donations to the History Fund of the IEEE Foundation.

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