In 1937 the Powers-That-Be at the pulp magazine publishing firm of Street and Smith decided it was time to promote F. Orlin Tremaine, editor of their science fiction magazine Astounding Stories. The position of Editorial Director had opened up, and Tremaine was chosen to fill it. This meant that someone had to be put in charge of the day-to-day business of editing Astounding, and the choice was made to bring in John W. Campbell, Jr., one of the top writers in the field. Campbell took over his editing duties, under Tremaine, in the fall of 1937.
Campbell had been a fan of the new genre since he spotted the first issue of Amazing Stories on a newsstand in the spring of 1926, and he had earned growing fame as a writer since 1930, both under his own name and under the pen name Don A. Stuart. Campbell had big plans for Astounding Stories, intending to remake it into his notion of the perfect science fiction magazine. He introduced a new feature called the Analytical Laboratory, in which he tabulated readers' choices of the best stories in each issue. More significantly, he changed the magazine's name to Astounding Science-Fiction, taking advantage of the new genre's growing popularity.
In the spring of 1938, the Powers-That-Be decided that they didn't need an Editorial Director after all, and Tremaine was let go. After that, Campbell had a free hand at Astounding.
Tremaine had had a very workmanlike method for choosing stories. He would let the incoming manuscripts accumulate for a month, then a few days before the month's issue was due, he would start at the top of the pile, reading each story and either rejecting it or accepting it. When he had enough acceptable stories to fill the magazine, he would stop. The authors of the rejects would get their stories back with a preprinted rejection slip, the authors of the accepted stories would get a letter of acceptance and a check, and the unread stories would be flipped over, and sit on Tremaine's desk until it was time to assemble the next month's issue.
Campbell's working methods were very different. He would read each story as it came in. If he rejected it, he would immediately send it back to the author along with a letter (often a long one) explaining what was wrong with the story. If he accepted it, he would simply send the author a check, feeling this was explanation enough. It was in this way that Campbell began to create a stable of writers who knew how to write the kinds of stories he wanted. The best description of the process comes from Isaac Asimov's 1972 collection The Early Asimov. Here Asimov collects his first stories, along with a detailed account of how he came to write them, and how Campbell influenced his writing style and subject matter.
A look through the January 1940 issue of Astounding shows just how far Campbell had brought the magazine compared to the January 1937 issue. The magazine's new name appears in a new font arranged in a new style. In the 1937 issue "Astounding" appeared in a serif font in yellow with red trim, decreasing in size across the top of the cover (an echo of the original design of Amazing Stories), and "Stories" in smaller white letters below it. In the 1940 issue, "Astounding" appears in pastel pink sans serif letters of equal size across the very top of the cover, with "Science-Fiction" below and to the left in much smaller letters. The cover, illustrating Harl Vincent's novelette "Neutral Vessel", shows two men working behind a shield as twin beams of ruby light strike a red metal bar, creating a shower of sparks. Who are the men, and what are they doing? To find out, you have to pay 20 cents to the guy running the newsstand and read the magazine.
Open the front cover and you see two pages of advertising, for Listerine on the left and Coyne Electrical School, a Chicago-based correspondence course, on the right. Turn past the ads and you come to the magazine's table of contents. There are two novelettes, the cover story and Lester del Rey's "The Smallest God". Next are three short stories, "Moon of Delirium" by D.L. James, "Requiem" by Robert A. Heinlein, and "In the Day of the Cold" by Sam Weston. Next is a science article, "Transmutation: 1939" by Jack Hatcher, followed by the fourth and final installment of a serialized novel, Gray Lensman by E.E. Smith, PhD. This is followed by the Readers' Departments: an editorial by Campbell, a preview of the following month's issue called "In Times to Come", a book review, and the letters column, "Brass Tacks and Science Discussions".
Opposite the table of contents is Campbell's two-page editorial, "Inconsequential Detail", in which he points out that it can be hard to tell the difference between a revolutionary new idea and a minor improvement to an old idea, and that this is just as true for story ideas as it is for inventions. Putting the editorial right after the table of contents was another of Campbell's innovations.
After the editorial are two more pages of ads, the first for the National Radio Institute (another correspondence course, this one for prospective radio technicians) and the second for Athlete magazine, a Street and Smith pulp specializing in sports stories.
Next comes the cover story, Harl Vincent's "Neutral Vessel". Harl Vincent was the pen name of Harold Vincent Schoepflin, a mechanical engineer who wrote science fiction as a hobby. His first story appeared in the June 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, and he appeared regularly in the SF pulps throughout the 1930s. His last appearance in Astounding would be in the June 1940 issue. He ceased writing science fiction shortly thereafter, and would not resume it until the mid-1960s, shortly before his death. "Neutral Vessel" tells of a future interplanetary war between Mars and Venus. Although Earth is neutral, Martian agents sabotage an interplanetary cruise liner from Earth so that it will crash at top speed into Venus, devastating the planet. The cover of Astounding shows two of the liner's officers trying to cut through a power line to one of the engines.
"Neutral Vessel" is followed by "In Times to Come", in which Campbell talks about two upcoming serials, " 'If This Goes On--' " by Robert A. Heinlein, and "Blackout" by L. Ron Hubbard (yes, that L. Ron Hubbard). This is followed by "Moon of Delirium" by D.L. James. James had been publishing occasional stories since 1936. "Moon of Delirium" would be one of his last. The story concerns a ship from Earth that lands on the Saturnian moon Dione in search of small telepathic amplifiers called thought-nuggets.
Next is "The Smallest God" by Lester del Rey. Del Rey had first appeared in the April 1938 Astounding with the first story he ever wrote, "The Faithful". "The Smallest God" was his sixth appearance in Astounding. Del Rey would go on to have a long, distinguished career as a writer and editor, founding the Del Rey Books imprint along with his fourth wife, Judy-Lynn del Rey. In "The Smallest God", a chemist uses the goo resulting from an unsuccessful experiment to weigh down a hollow rubber doll of the Greek god Hermes. The goo becomes self-aware, and uses the rubber doll as a body.
"The Smallest God" is followed by "Transmutation: 1939", a science article by Jack Hatcher describing the latest developments in the burgeoning field of nuclear physics. The article ends by noting the recently-discovered fact that uranium atoms can be split. Next comes the book review, in which L. Sprague de Camp reviews Ralph Buchsbaum's Animals Without Backbones (1938), a survey of invertebrates. De Camp was a patent attorney who began publishing science fiction stories in 1937, starting with "The Isolinguals" in the September 1937 issue of Astounding. De Camp also wrote the occasional nonfiction piece, such as his famous "Language for time Travelers", as well as book reviews. Like del Rey, de Camp rose to prominence in Campbell's Astounding, and is best known for a series of rationally-thought-out planetary romances set on the fictional planet Krishna.
De Camp's book review is followed by "Requiem" by Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein made his first appearance in the August 1939 Astounding with his story "Life-Line", which was his first published story and the first component of his famous Future History series. Heinlein quickly became Campbell's most popular writer, and during his lifetime he was considered the most important writer in science fiction. "Requiem" was Heinlein's third published story. Like the previous two, "Life-Line" and "Misfit", it was part of the Future History series. "Requiem" tells of the wealthy industrialist D.D. Harriman, who has dreamed his whole life of going to the Moon, and who made space flight a commercial reality so that he could do so. However, his business responsibilites have prevented him from ever making the trip. Heinlein would eventually write a prequel to "Requiem" called "The Man Who Sold the Moon" describing Harriman's machinations in launching the first flight to the Moon.
"Requiem" is followed by Sam Weston's "In the Day of the Cold", a brutal story set in a future ice age. Then comes the conclusion of E.E. Smith's four-part serial Gray Lensman. Smith was the Grand Old Man of science fiction, having published his novel The Skylark of Space in Amazing Stories in 1928, thereby introducing the super-science epic to the field. Gray Lensman is a sequel to two previously unrelated Smith novels, 1934's Triplanetary and 1937's Galactic Patrol. The hero of Gray Lensman is Kimball Kinneson of Galactic Patrol, but the villains turn out to be the Boskonians of Triplanetary.
The January 1940 issue concludes with eight letters from the Brass Tacks letter column, three from the Science Discussion letter column, a full page ad for a traveling salesman kit, and an ad on the back cover for Chesterfield cigarettes. (In the March 1940 issue's Analytical Laboratory, Gray Lensman was by far the most popular story. The next most popular stories were "The Smallest God", "Neutral Vessel", "Requiem", and "Moon of Delirium", which were all about equally popular.)
After only two years under Campbell's direction, Astounding was a markedly better magazine. The stories were better written and more realistic, and the science was more accurate. (Ironically, Lester del Rey's "The Smallest God" was the most old-fashioned story, with its wildly implausible science and its classic opening where two scientists provide expository dialogue.) Tremaine had already made Astounding the field's leading magazine, but under Campbell it continued to improve until, as Asimov put it, "to read Astounding was to know the field entire". Campbell continued to mold important new writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Fritz Leiber, and Poul Anderson. When Astounding finally found itself facing serious competition again in the 1950s, it was because the rest of the science fiction field had finally caught up with Campbell.