A Living Time Machine: Bob Madle

Rich Lynch and Bob Madle in 2008.

By Rich Lynch: There have been many times, during my nearly 50 years in science fandom, that I have wondered what it must have been like to been a member of the very earliest fan organizations.  To have attended the very earliest science fiction conventions including the first Worldcon.  To have been friends with famous fans and pros when they were young men and women.  What would it have been like to have been a part of the forefront of fandom back then?  What would it have been like?

I was fortunate to have had a friend who had done all of those things and more.  Whenever I met or corresponded with him, whenever I sat in on a convention panel where he was a participant, whenever I read from some of his many fan publications that described previous eras of fandom, it was like I was in the presence of a living time machine.  His name was Bob Madle.

I had known of Bob even before my first days in fandom back in the mid‑1970s.  But it was my great misfortune not to have met him in person until shortly after I had moved to Maryland in 1988.  By then I had taken a strong interest in what had happened in earlier eras of fandom and this had manifested into me becoming co-editor, along with my wife Nicki, of a fanzine (Mimosa) whose very reason for existence was the need to preserve bits of fan history, especially from the First Fandom ‘dinosaur’ era, that were then only fragilely kept in the memories of some of the older fans.  After our relocation to Maryland it seemed almost too good to be true that one of the most prominent fans of all lived just a short distance away.

I don’t have strong memories of my first meeting with Bob except that he was warm and welcoming when I showed up at his front door one afternoon.  He took me down into his basement to see all the science fiction books and magazines that he had for sale in his mail order business, and I do have a strong memory of that.  It was awesome. It was like a miniature version of the Area 51 warehouse where the Lost Ark of the Covenant ended up, except that there were stacks of books instead of wooden crates. I must have looked dumbstruck because when I looked over at Bob he had a big grin on his face.

It was only a bit more than two years after arriving in Maryland that I had taken on a big fanhistory project as editor of Harry Warner’s 1950s fanhistory book A Wealth of Fable, and Bob was an invaluable resource who I called upon frequently.  He was everything from a fact checker to a provider of photographs for the book to a source of anecdotes and stories about fandom of the `50s.  I didn’t actually need the latter since it was Harry’s manuscript, but it allowed me to plant the seed that he really ought to preserve these tales, either in print or on tape.  And eventually he did.

It was at the 1998 Worldcon, held in relatively nearby Baltimore, that I finally got the opportunity to do a taped interview with Bob.  It was unfortunately not very well attended and held in a room where there were distractions going on outside, but it still resulted in a transcript which was published in two parts in Mimosa.  In the first part Bob described his personal odyssey, starting with his discovery of science fiction from futuristic pulp magazine covers in the early 1930s, to the first-ever science fiction convention in 1936, to the beginnings of the Worldcons, through the war years of the 1940s, to the first Philadelphia Worldcon in 1947.  In the second, he brought the narrative into the 1950s where the he was involved in the invention of the Hugo Awards, the origination of First Fandom, a very contentious Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund election, and even a less-than-successful attempt to bring fandom to another part of the country.  Wonderful stuff.

Come the new millennium, my contacts with Bob became fewer and fewer with the passage of time.  We still crossed paths every so often, but usually it was for only relatively brief instances.  The last time I visited him at his home was in 2008, and it turned out to be a memorable encounter because it was the only time that I ever had my picture taken with him.  I remember that we had an extended chat about fan history and, more specifically, the 1939 Worldcon.  And I also remember that I wished it could have gone on a lot longer than it did.

Bob was 102 when he died, and we’re all wishing he could have gone on a lot longer than it did.  It was a life well-lived, filled with many memorable events that he participated in.  I feel honored that I was his friend and that he shared many of those events with descriptions vivid enough that I could almost believe I was there.  So I’ll end this remembrance by paraphrasing Dr. Seuss: “Don’t be sad that it’s over, smile because it happened.”  I’m sad, but all my pleasant memories of Bob are making me smile.  I think he’d have liked that.

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3 thoughts on “A Living Time Machine: Bob Madle

  1. “Don’t be sad that it’s over, smile because it happened.”
    Smile, because he got to see rocket planes break the sound barrier, and men fly other rockets into Space. He got to see men walk on the Moon. He got to see computers go from fantasy, to the size of a room, to the size of a wallet. He got to see Star Trek Communicators become reality. He got to see Videophones zoom into reality as well. He got to see robots walk on their own two feet. He got to see rockets land on their tails “like God and Robert A. Heinlein intended.” He got to see the views of sunset on Mars, the icy rocks and dust of Titan, and close-up pictures of all the other planets he had only previously visited with words.
    Smile, because Bob Madle got to see the Future he read about.

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