The Library has digitised an extensive run of The Aldine Romance of Invention, Travel and Adventure Library, a popular pulp magazine series published between 1894 and 1906, held by the Monash University Library Rare Books Collection and now available in Monash Collections OnlineAisling Smith (Learning Skills Adviser) and Zachary Kendal (Rare Books Librarian) discuss this important collection.

Most of the Aldine stories feature the adventures of Frank Reade Jr., replete with amazing inventions and scientific discoveries. Targeted to boys, the early issues boast, in a cheeky caption: “Jules Verne outdone!!!”

Indeed, Frank Reade Jr.’s adventures show many similarities to Verne’s stories in their preoccupation with technological inventions and fantastic voyages. An impressed Verne even wrote a letter to the series’ main author, Luis Senarens, to compliment the young writer on his work.

Despite writing most of the stories, Senarens was not the original creator of Frank Reade. The earliest stories were written by Harold Cohen, an established pulp writer who often used the pseudonym Harry Enton. Bristling at being forced by the publishing house to write the Frank Reade stories as “Noname” rather than his own nom de plume, Cohen quit after four issues and was replaced by Senarens. At the time, Senarens was a sixteen year old Cuban-American living in Brooklyn, but his Frank Reade Jr. stories catapulted his literary career.

The character of Frank Reade went through three incarnations. Cohen’s original Frank Reade was first introduced as a sixteen-year-old inventor in “Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, or, The Terror of the West” in New York Magazine (1876). He was always accompanied by his steam man, a robot of his own creation, and was the hero of four stories. This steam man was itself borrowed from an earlier publication featuring Johnny Brainerd, The Iron Hunter, or, The Steam Man of the Plains!, also digitised and available in Monash Collections Online.

In the fifth story, “Frank Reade Jr. and his Steam Wonder” (1879), Frank Reade has abruptly grown into a retiree and his son, Frank Reade Jr., takes over as the series’ hero, quickly outshining his father. This became the first issue of the Aldine series held by Monash, reprinted with the title “Frank Reade Jr. and His New Steam Man, or, The Young Inventor’s Trip to the Far West” (1892). Most of the stories were first published in general pulp magazines, such as The Boys of New York, and were also serialised in the The Frank Reade Library.

Frank Reade Jr.’s adventures ran for 179 issues, but there is a third and final version with his son, Frank Reade III, stepping in as the main character for a final story, “Young Frank Reade and His Electric Air Ship” (Happy Days, 1899).

The Frank Reade Jr. stories feature a huge variety of fantastic machines, from Frank’s famous steam man, to his airship Cloud Cutter, his underwater sea-ship The Neptune, his flying boat Demon of the Clouds, and a succession of weird and wonderful mechanical creatures, including the “Steam Horse” and the “Electric Dolphin.”

Over the course of the series, Frank Reade Jr. travels the world, even venturing into outer space. He also visits Australia in several issues, including in “Frank Reade’s Electric Man in Australia” and “Across Australia with Frank Reade.”

Of course, the Frank Reade stories are products of their time. Characters like Barney and Pomp, Frank Reade Jr.’s companions, can today be recognised as offensive racial stereotypes of Irish and African-American people respectively. Likewise, Frank Reade’s global adventures have colonial overtones and troubling depictions of First Nations people.

Nevertheless, the Frank Reade stories were very influential, being forerunners for other popular science fiction writing and pioneering what John Clute calls the “Edisonade” genre (after the inventor Thomas Edison).

Later issues of the Aldine series sporadically featured Jack Wright, another pulp hero created by Senarens. An example of these stories can be found in “Jack Wright’s Electric Sea Ghost, or, A Strange Underwater Journey,” also available in Monash Collections Online.