The prolific American writer Murray Leinster was born William Fitzgerald Jenkins on June 16, 1896 in Norfolk, Virginia. He wrapped up his formal education at the age of 13. With the loss of his father’s job and subsequent downturn in the family’s fortunes, Leinster would not be able to pursue the career in chemistry that he had longed for. But he would go on to another significant achievement - publishing more than 1,500 short stories, novellas, and novels in his lifetime. As well as science fiction, Leinster wrote love stories, murder mysteries, adventure stories, westerns, fantasy, television and film scripts, and mainstream fiction. Leinster wrote variously over the years as Will F. Jenkins (mostly for mainstream magazines such as Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post), Murray Leinster (mostly for sci-fi), William F. Jenkins, William Fitzgerald, and even as Louisa Carter Lee for romance novels and potboilers. Leinster was definitely a renaissance man of words and ideas. But he is remembered for his remarkable prescience and vision in the sci-fi genre, especially around innovations in science and communications technologies.
Leinster spent his formative years in New York City where he wrote from the tender age of 13, selling small pieces, epigrams and interstitial material to H.L. Mencken’s prestigious literary magazine, The Smart Set. His first short story, The Foreigner, written when he was just 19, appeared in that magazine, as did 10 more fiction pieces over the next three years.
During World War I, Leinster served with the Committee of Public Information and, briefly, with the United States Army. He married Mary Mandola in 1921; they would have four children together.
Leinster’s first significant science fiction publication was the short story The Runaway Skyscraper, which appeared in the literary pulp magazine The Argosy in 1919. Leinster was in his early twenties and science fiction magazines did not yet even exist. In fact, the acknowledged founder of the term “science fiction”, Hugo Gernsback, hadn’t even come up with it yet. Nonetheless, the publication of this tale of an engineer who gets caught up in a mid-town Manhattan skyscraper’s sudden re-location to pre-Columbian times marked the beginning of a long and wide-ranging career as a pioneer of sci-fi, speculative and alternative fiction.
No other sci-fi writer came up with more soon-to-come-true innovations, describing devices and concepts that the next generation would take for granted but which didn’t actually exist yet. For example, Leinster's famous 1946 short story, A Logic Named Joe, published in the sci-fi magazine Astounding under the byline Will F. Jenkins contains one of the first descriptions of a computer (called a "logic") in fiction anywhere. Leinster was decades ahead of his time (and every other sci-fi writer) in imagining the Internet. He envisioned logics in every home, linked by a network of servers (called "tanks"). In this seminal story, the machines were civilization’s go-to means of communication, entertainment, data access and commerce. But then a rogue logic named Joe learns how to release potentially damaging information over the system.
Leinster's 1945 novella First Contact is credited as one of the first (if not the first) instances of a universal translator appearing in science fiction. Though it still does not yet exist, the universal translator has become a solid feature of science and speculative fiction and it will likely exist one day. First Contact was a hugely successful story of human/alien encounter and it won Leinster a retro-Hugo in 1996 for Best Novelette. It also became the subject of controversy in 2000 when Leinster's heirs sued Paramount Pictures over the film Star Trek: First Contact, claiming that as the owners of the rights to Leinster's 1945 short story it infringed on their trademark. The suit was dismissed when the court found that regardless of whether Leinster's story first coined the phrase, it had since become a generic, and therefore un-protectable, term that described the genre of science fiction in which humans first encounter alien species.
Leinster is also credited with the invention of parallel universe stories. Sidewise in Time – featuring a time-travelling mathematician named Minott -- appeared in the June 1934 issue of the sci-fi magazine Astounding. Leinster's vision of oscillations in time (a phenomenon referred to in the story as 'sidewise in time') had a long-term impact on other authors and their work, including Isaac Asimov and his famous story Living Space (1956), Jack Vance's Rumfuddle (1973), and Jack L. Chalker's G.O.D. Inc trilogy (1987-1989). The Sidewise Award for Alternate History was established in 1995 to honour Leinster’s predictive influence. On murrayleinster.com, a website maintained by Leinster’s family and friends, the writer is quoted as often saying, “I think of something impossible, and then write a story about it.”
Leinster continued publishing throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, appearing in Galaxy Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as in The Saturday Evening Post. He won a Hugo Award for his 1956 novelette Exploration Team.
During this, his writing heyday, Leinster wrote several popular series with interesting premises. One such was The Med Service stories. This series centers on Med Serviceman Dr. Calhoun and his companion, Murgatroyd the tormal (a small furry, long-tailed animal that resembles a lemur). Calhoun and the coffee-addicted Murgatroyd travel the cosmos doing planetary health inspections. Murgatroyd’s species is cherished because when “exposed to contagion, it was the admirable talent of his kind to react instantly and violently, producing antibodies so promptly that no conceivable disease could develop.” In other words, they’re walking immunity factories. Murgatroyd was popular in real life also, developing his own fan base. There were several short stories and novels in the series, including:
The Mutant Weapon (1959) was originally published as Med Service in 1957
This World is Taboo (1961) was originally published as Pariah Planet in 1957
Doctor to the Stars (1964) contains three stories: The Grandfather’s War, Med Ship Man, Tallien Three (aka The Hate Disease)
S.O.S. from Three Worlds (1966) contains three stories: Plague on Kryder II, Ribbon in the Sky and Quarantine World
In his later years, Leinster turned to writing television plays and novelizations. He wrote for the TV series Men Into Space (1959 - 1960). And Leinster’s 1964 novel Time Tunnel (which features a wormhole connecting the years 1904 and 1964 and depicts an alternate history in which Napoleon establishes a permanent rule in Europe) was bought by a studio and substantially altered and turned into the TV series The Time Tunnel (1966 - 1967). Leinster was then hired to write novelizations of the TV series. The novels based on The Time Tunnel may have been the first "meta" tie-ins in history, wherein an author wrote novels based on a filmed property based in turn on that author's own work. Leinster, however, would reinvent the original story and interpret the series' concept and characters in his own way, setting a precedent with which Pyramid books would continue when commissioning novelizations based on TV dramas by other writers — among them, the The Invaders novels by Keith Laumer and The Mod Squad by Richard Deming.
Leinster also wrote novelizations for the set-in-the- distant-future-of-1983 TV series Land of the Giants (1968 - 1970). The hour-long show was created by Irwin Allen, the producer responsible for The Time Tunnel who also created the popular series, Lost in Space (1965 – 1968). All of these mass market endeavors harnessed Leinster’s vision of the future of space and time travel; in a way, he did as much as anyone to shape North America’s idea of post-industrial progress and intergalactic exploration.
In addition to his considerable literary status and legacy of new era technological concepts, Leinster was also an inventor under his real name William F. Jenkins. He and his estate hold several patents for imaging technology that he designed for motion pictures. Leinster is best known for the front projection process used in special effects, which he developed in the ‘60s. It was notably put to use in films such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A remarkable mind and creative force, Leinster died in 1975 in Gloucester, Virginia at the age of 78. He is remembered in that state every 27th of June on Will F. Jenkins Day in honor of his achievements in science fiction.