The History of the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon)

PrintE-mail Written by Tony Jones


STARBURST’s Tony Jones takes a personal journey through the story of WORLDCON…

The idea of holding a gathering of science fiction fans has a pedigree stretching back to the 1930s, and there is some evidence that the word Con was already in use before 1942.

The writer Frederik Pohl once claimed that the first every science fiction convention was held in 1936 when he and seven other fans from the New York area travelled to Philadelphia to meet a local group of like-minded fans. It was only January 3, 1937 when a group of British fans (including Arthur C. Clarke) met in Leeds in an organised, advertised event, which was at least the first recognisable convention as opposed to a gathering of fans.

There is no dispute over the first Worldcon – this was held in 1939 over the weekend of July 4th in New York City and attracted a massive 200 attendees.

With a gap for World War II, the convention has now taken place a total of 72 times up to, and including, Loncon 3.

For a number of years, the Worldcon was dominated by North America and varied between various major cities, reaching Los Angeles in 1946, sneaking into Canada with Toronto in 1948 before finally crossing the Atlantic in 1957 with Loncon I, held in the Kings Court Hotel and attracting only 268 attendees. This was lower than any recent American effort, most of which were up at around 750 happy, fee-paying fans.

 

 

It would eight years before the Worldcon next left North America, and once again it was to come to London in 1965 (Loncon II, attendance 350). Attendances (on average) keep rising and by the time of Nycon 3 (i.e. the third New York Worldcon in 1967) the attendance is over 1,000 with a massive 1,500 fans. The convention next ventured into Europe in 1970 with the first German Worldcon in Heidelberg, sadly only hosting 620 fans as opposed to the 1,534 in St Louis the previous year.

If counting all conventions up until 2014’s Kansas MidAmericon II, there will have been 74 Worldcons, with 55 of them (a massive 74%) in North America with the UK coming next with a mere 7 conventions (9%). Canada comes next with 5 (7%) then Australia with 4 (5%). The rest is made up of one appearance each for Japan, Netherlands and the aforementioned German convention.

Let’s get parochial and focus on those seven UK conventions; they break down as follows: London got three of those (all listed above), Brighton got two (1979 and 1987) with Glasgow getting the other two (1995 and 2005). The good news (for UK fans) is the UK gets a Worldcon every nine and a bit years (so let’s start crossing fingers, tentacles or other appendages for the 2023 nominations). The longest gap has been (if we ignore the early days of Worldcon) 12 years, so 2026 is the worst case (when some of us will be drawing their pensions!).

How have the different locations worked out? Well, let’s park that for a moment and note the role that Brian W. Aldiss has played: guest of honour in both 1965 and 1979 and even toastmaster in 1987. Back to the locations: Brighton first…

Seacon ’79 was held in Brighton on the seafront in and around the Hotel Metropole. I was lucky enough to live in Brighton at that time, and this was my first every convention! I loved it and have memories of queues, talks, awards, films, buying books and making my home at three on morning on most days. The convention saw just over 3,000 attendees and the size of venue, location and variety seemed to work well. So popular was the occasion that Brighton sneaked in another convention (Eastercon) in 1984, also called Seacon, and also at the Metropole. I worked in the dealer room on a friend’s table and had a rather different view of the convention than I had expected. I caught up with old friends, met some new people, drank a little, slept even less and absolutely loved it. Back to the Worldcons…

In 1987, it was the turn of Conspiracy ’87 and again the Metropole was the venue. Sadly, the hotel was less convention-friendly than it should have been and 4,000 (some say 5,000) fans had to contend with a building site and the so-called ‘Manager from Hell’. Fans comparing it to 1979 noted that the rooms had been cut in size and much of the program was held at the Brighton Centre down the road. Fans felt the convention was unfocussed and Ian Banks had an encounter with the police as a result of trying to climb the outside of the hotel after a room party. WorldCon had outgrown Brighton, it seems; more’s the pity. My own memories are mixed – a friend of mine gave up on the Saturday and went to London for the Notting Hill Carnival, and I didn’t go to another large convention for 25 years!

 

Glasgow meanwhile held two Worldcons – Intersection ’95 and Interaction ’05. An inside analysis after Intersection felt it was a success with fans, took a lot of organisation and the programme was over-ambitious (my summary). The programme seems to have had poor attendance, bad acoustics in sub-divided halls and general lack of tech resource. This didn’t stop Interaction happening ten years later and lessons were clearly learned. According to fan reports from the time, the programme was singled out as being head and shoulders above the 1995 efforts. The attendance was similar to the previous and a success according to the records. The case for a serious, modern convention centre was made.

This all brings us to Loncon3, held in a very new convention centre in the city that had given the world a massive Olympics only two years earlier. It may be too soon to call it, but in the view of everyone I talked to it was a success.

Where does this take us? Well, I will be on the tube in 2023 in London (I can’t see a northern English city taking the opportunity though keep an eye on Glasgow) and Brain W. Aldiss will still be going strong at 98 – what will you be doing?!

 


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Comments  

 
+2 #3 David Pitt 2015-03-18 09:38
Worldcon is named worldcon because it was sponsored by World magazine. Oh no wait, that's baseball.

Really, there's no reason why Worldcon isn't more international, except that the bulk of attendees are ageing US citizens in mostly live in and around Washington.

It's not truly international, and it's unlikely to be so while the Boomers are in charge.
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+2 #2 Tony Jones 2015-03-17 21:59
Quoting Jeff Orth:
MidAmeriCon II, the 74th Worldcon will be held in Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas in 2016.


Jeff - good call and my mistake in transcribing without using the Missouri state identifier
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-2 #1 Jeff Orth 2015-03-17 21:07
MidAmeriCon II, the 74th Worldcon will be held in Kansas City, Missouri, not Kansas in 2016.
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