The concept of holding a World Science Fiction Convention resulted from the fact that a
World's Fair had been announced for New York City in 1939. The International Scientific Association, headquartered in New York, a science hobbyist/science fiction group, many of whose members were fantasy fans had sponsored a one-day convention [the Second Eastern] in Astoria, New York, for Sunday afternoon, February 21, 1937. No official account of the event was ever written but roughly 40 were in attendance, including professionals, and during the day a motion was presented that The International Scientific Association sponsor a world science fiction convention to coincide with the 1939 World's Fair.
The motion was passed and a committee was chosen to plan the event, with Donald A. Wollheim as chairman, to be aided by Willis Conover, Jr., an editor of The Science-Fantasy Correspondent, at that moment in time the leading fan magazine; John J. Weir, publisher of a fantasy-oriented fan magazine, Fantasmagoria; and Robert A. Madle, a leading Philadelphia fan involved in the publication of Fantasy Fiction Telegram.
There was an internal schism within the ISA and its president, William S. Sykora, resigned. Donald Wollheim then arranged to disband the organization and with it the plans for a world convention, since the event no longer had a sponsor; no correspondence, meeting, or report was ever conducted or issued by the committee. Within a year, both Willis Conover and John J. Weir, two of the original committee members, had dropped from activity in science fiction.
Stepping into the vacuum, Sam Moskowitz and Will Sykora arranged The First National Science Fiction Convention in Newark, N.J., on May 29, 1938, to test the feasibility of a world science fiction convention. With an attendance of 125, including numerous professional editors, authors, and artists, the affair was so successful that a motion was made that its sponsors present a world convention in 1939. This was passed by an overwhelming majority of the attendees and a committee appointed.
Donald A. Wollheim, head of the old committee, had in the previous year formed The Committee for the Political Advancement of Science Fiction (CPASF), whose purpose, he announced in the British fan magazine Novae Terrae (January, 1938), was the advancement of international communism; he felt that the science fiction fan movement would be a useful means to help accomplish this. Outraged that he was not appointed to the new convention committee, he declared that the appointments were undemocratic.
In April, 1939, Fred Pohl, a member of the CPASF, organized The Futurian League, to splinter New Fandom supporters and weaken the convention organization. This was the official organization of The Futurians, a new name for the CPASF. Two weeklies of the group, The Science Fiction Newsletter published by Richard Wilson and Le Vombiteur published by Robert Lowndes, published continuous attacks on New Fandom, and Wollheim launched a powerful attack against any support of the convention in the May, 1939 issue of The Science Fiction Fan.
On the opening day of the convention The Futurians were passing a booklet titled A Warning to everyone who entered the hall, stating that it was being run by "ruthless scoundrels" in league with the professional magazines (substitute "capitalists"). The Futurians then made several attempts to physically crash through the guards and into the convention and these were foiled. Police were called as a result. Moskowitz then found six sets of Marxist literature — hundreds of copies — ready for distribution under a radiator.
He offered to let any Futurian in who would promise not to cause problems for the convention. Richard Wilson, David A. Kyle, Leslie Perri, Isaac Asimov, and Jack Robinson were among those admitted under this promise (admission was free). Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, Robert W. Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth, and Jack Gillespie would not give any such promise and were not permitted in. A counter convention by The Futurians was organized and circulars distributed to attendees of the convention on July 3, 1939, and held on July 4, 1939, the last day of the convention, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Many of the ideas employed at the New York Convention became permanent additions to later ones. The idea of more than one day of programming originated here. So did the banquet (now being eliminated because no hotel can handle one that big). The auction had started before (at The First National Science Fiction Convention), but it extended over two days at the World Convention and never has been absent from one since. For decades it was the primary source of income for the convention. No official hotel was declared for that first convention. Out-of-town attendees were guests at the homes of local fans. Few could afford a hotel room. Since 90% of the fan attendees were male, there was no masquerade ball. Instead there was a softball game, since most of the attendees were in their late teens. There was no art show, but there was plenty of cheap art at the auction, no black-and-whites selling for over $2.00 and those that high were Virgil Finlays. There was no admission charge, since the idea was to popularize science fiction. Sandwiches were free and later so were pies. Soda was five cents a bottle. The banquet was $1.00 per person and out of roughly 200 attendees only 32 (including the Guest of Honor, Frank R. Paul) felt they could afford it.
The total cost of the three-day convention — everything, including cost of printing the program, circularization, hall rental, banquet, speakers fee, and movie rentals — was $269.94. Though no admission was charged, the convention made a profit of $36.06. The convention was accused of questionable finances because Mario Racic, Jr., a committee member, spent $10.00 on transportation over a period of one year! The greatest expense was the program booklet, which cost $70.56, including two-color printing and gold leaf covers, but it brought in $163.00 in advertisements. The reason it did was because Julius Schwartz was a friend of Conrad H. Ruppert who printed the book. Moskowitz had balked at the price and Schwartz said he would guarantee to personally sell enough ads to cover the complete cost of the program if the job were given to Ruppert.
Of the 30 women in attendance only about 7 were interested in science fiction, the others were wives, sisters, and friends.