What do space opera, doughnuts, and Hillsdale have in common? E. E. Smith.
Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith is often considered the founder of space opera, a subgenre of science fiction much like a soap opera set in space. Smith wrote the first space opera novel, “The Skylark of Space,” in 1920 while working as the chief chemist for the F.W. Stock & Sons Mill in Hillsdale, Michigan.
Smith was born May 2, 1890, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In 1914, he graduated from the University of Idaho, where he studied chemical engineering. The following year, he began writing “The Skylark of Space” with his neighbor, Lee Hawkins Garby. Garby had suggested that Smith write a story that takes place in outer space, but when he worried about his ability to write characters, and especially romance, Garby offered her help.
“The Skylark of Space” stars the daring Dick Seaton. The story begins when Seaton accidentally creates a workable space drive from a recently-discovered chemical “X”, and begins building a spaceship called Skylark. The villainous Marc “Blackie” DuQuesne kidnaps Seaton’s fiancée, holding her ransom for the “X.” When DuQuesne mistakenly blasts far away from the solar system in his own ship, Seaton chases after in the Skylark to rescues his love. The story continues in describing their strange extra-terrestrial encounters as they make their way back to Earth.
Smith went on to earn both his masters degree and Ph.D. in chemistry from George Washington University. In 1919, Smith, his wife Jeanne, and their son Roderick moved to Hillsdale. Smith worked at the Stock Mill as chief chemist, specializing in doughnut mixes.
The monthly journal “The American Mill” described Smith as the manager of the mill’s complete laboratory on Dec. 1, 1921, calling him “a skilled chemist who not only tests the wheat and flour in the ordinary ways to maintain quality, but has also done much experimental work with the various mill streams.”
Smith returned to writing “The Skylark of Space” during this time, and finished it in early 1920. Over the next seven years, he sent his novel to publishers without success. In 1927, Smith discovered the science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and sent his work to the editor, T. O’Conor Sloane. Sloane accepted the novel immediately.
Amazing Stories began printing “The Skylark of Space” in August 1928 as a three-part series. Smith split his profit with Garby and the series was published as a collaboration between the two. Within a month, Sloane commissioned a sequel, which Smith began writing alone.
The first installment printed with an enthusiastic editor’s blurb which read, “Perhaps it is a bit unethical and unusual for editors to voice their opinions of their own wares, but when such a story as ‘The Skylark of Space’ comes along, we just feel as if we must shout from the housetops that this is the greatest interplanetarian and space-flying story that has appeared this year. Indeed, it probably will rank as one of the great space-flying stories for years to come.”
Science-fiction author Frederik Pohl praised “The Skylark of Space” in his introduction to the 1991 edition of the book.
“With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne — and almost no other writer — it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work,” he wrote.
Throughout the 1930s, Amazing Stories published three more works by Smith, including “Spacehounds of IPC” and “Triplanetary,” the first book of his popular “Lensman” series.
Despite his success, Smith could not afford to be a full-time writer. In 1936, he left Hillsdale and moved to Jackson, Michigan, where he became the production manager at Dawn Donuts. Seven years later, he was promoted to the head of the inspection division at Kingsbury Ordinance Plant in LaPorte, Indiana, but was fired the following year. He soon returned to his doughnut-mix roots at J.W. Allen in Chicago, Illinois, where he remained until his retirement in in 1957.
Throughout this time, Smith continued writing, and published more science-fiction stories before his death in 1965. His popularity in both the United States and the United Kingdom continued into the ’80s.
“E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s are among the most widely and persistently popular works of science fiction ever written,” Smith’s biographer Joe Sanders wrote. “Their appearances as magazine serials caused waves of approval; their publication in hardcover by a specialty publisher won a new generation of fans.”