We didn’t make up the Frank Reade dime novels. They truly exist, and they helped lay the groundwork for modern science fiction.
They began with the story “Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, or, The Terror of the West.” Written by Harold Cohen under the pen name Harry Enton, as a knockoff of an earlier steam man story, it was serialized in Boys of New York magazine in 1876. That version of Frank Reade, who invented robots powered by steam, appeared in four serial stories. He then became Frank Reade Sr. (“suddenly middle-aged,” as Jess Nevins put it) and was supplanted by his brash young son, Frank Jr.
The teenaged inventor-hero Frank Reade Jr. was wildly popular, starring in at least 179 violent “blood and thunder” adventures aimed at boys. After improving on his dad’s steam-driven inventions, Frank Jr. turned to electricity—the motive power of the future! He built electric-powered robots, submarines, ATVs, and helicopter airships, all heavily armed and armored. He had adventures around the world, even accidentally venturing into outer space.
There’s little consistent continuity between stories: Sometimes Frank Jr. has a wife, more often he doesn’t; the location of Readestown varies; and he rarely deploys the same vehicle more than once. In only one story does Frank Jr. have a son, Frank Reade III, and a daughter, Kate, whose names we used in our own book.
More consistent in the dime novels are Frank Jr.’s assistants, Pomp and Barney, who are played for laughs as broad ethnic stereotypes. In the text excerpts reprinted in our book, we toned down the spelling of Pomp’s and Barney’s dialects to make them more readable for today’s audience.
The dime novel stories, published under the pseudonym Noname (but mostly written by Luis Senarens), were reprinted for decades in Frank Reade Library, Frank Reade Weekly, and other periodicals. They were read by millions of people and made an indelible impact on the earliest generations of science fiction readers, writers, and editors.
- 1876-1894: Frank Reade stories ran in Boys of New York. They were also reprinted in The Five Cent Wide Awake Library starting in 1883.
- 1892-1898: Frank Reade Jr. got his own series, Frank Reade Library, a combination of reprints and new stories that ran for 192 issues.
- 1894-1906: Stories were reprinted yet again in Frank Reade Weekly Magazine (1902-1904) and the British series Aldine’s Romance of Travel, Invention and Adventure Library (1894-1906), both with snazzy new color covers. (Paul scanned dozens of these covers from a private collection of dime novels, then digitally restored them for use in our book.)
- 1928: At the dawn of science fiction's Golden Age, a group of fans published their own version of Frank Reade, with new stories, that ran 86 issues. Early fanfic!
- 1979-86: A 10-volume set reprinting Frank Reade Library was released by Garland Publishing. As of this writing, it’s long out of print.
- Early 21st century: After languishing in obscurity for decades, Frank Reade enjoys a resurgence, appearing as the subject of our book, an incidental character in Alan Moore’s comic book Nemo: Heart of Ice, a story in the Iris Wildthyme series, and doubtless other places. Joseph Rainone, whose amazing collection provided many images for our book, reissues his self-published American Popular Fiction, reprinting images of early dime novels, nickel weeklies, story papers, humor periodicals, and more.
The University of South Florida Libraries has an excellent online collection of dime novels, including Frank Reade Library and Frank Reade Weekly. (Be forewarned: many of the stories contain 19th-century racial stereotypes and other elements that may be considered offensive today.)
The American Women’s Dime Novel Project posts essays about and examples of dime novels aimed at women.
Other academic sources of dime novels and pulp fiction online include the University of Minnesota Libraries, Northern Illinois University Libraries, Stanford University (currently under reconstruction), and Villanova University Library.
Like many stories before and after them, blood-and-thunder dime novels were decried as corrupting young readers. But by 1922, when the New York Public Library staged an exhibit of dime novel covers, they were already considered quaint relics of a bygone era.
Frank Reade Jr., as presented in the dime novels, is an unabashed imperialist with a 19th-century sense of American manifest destiny. Our book Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention is, in part, a 21st-century look back at him from a different perspective. For a totally nerdy, in-depth analysis of the original dime novel stories and how they relate to American history, see “Frank Reade, Jr., in Cuba: Dime-Novel Technology, U.S. Imperialism, and the ‘American Jules Verne,’” by Nathaniel Williams, in American Literature Vol. 83, No. 2 (Duke University Press 2011).