"Buck...Rogers...in the twenty-fifth CEN-TURYYY!" This enthusiastic refrain from a deep-voiced announcer is how the popular 1930s radio show featuring space hero Buck Rogers began. It was followed by the roar of a spaceship blasting off, simulated by the sound of an air conditioning vent.
Many of you have probably never heard of Buck Rogers, but he was a household name in the 1930s and ‘40s. Rogers was the very first science fiction comic strip hero.
The character, at first named Anthony Rogers, was introduced in the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in August 1928. In a story titled, Armageddon 2419 A.D., written by Philip Nowlan, Rogers was a 29-year-old World War I veteran who took a job inspecting mines for radioactive gases. One day, the mine caved in, trapping Rogers and surrounding him with mysterious gases that caused him to pass out. When he awoke, 500 years had passed, and the first person he saw was the beautiful, spunky Wilma Deering, a lieutenant in the Space Corps, who informs him the world has been taken over by evil Mongolians. This reflected the biases at the time against Asians embodied in such Asian supervillains.
You can imagine the adventures that ensued for Rogers and Deering in this futuristic society, with a host of amazing gizmos at their disposal. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil in a fictional world of the future.
The story led to the creation of a comic strip debuting in January 1929, with Anthony renamed “Buck,” which sounded more heroic and capitalized on the popularity of Westerns at that time. This was followed by a radio show, which began in 1932. Both the comic strip and radio show were wildly popular and soon Buck Rogers merchandise was everywhere. According to Toy Collector magazine, “Over the next decade, rockets, ray guns, figures, books, cards, premiums, spacesuits, helmets, printing sets, puzzles, pencil cases, sneakers, skates, buttons, watches, rings, and other products bearing Buck’s image or name flooded the marketplace.”
Which brings us to our obscure object: a 1934 toy Buck Rogers Rocket Police Patrol spaceship.
The green and red spaceship measures 31.8 x 10.2 x 12.7 centimeters (12 1/2 x 4 x 5 inches) and is made of tin. It was manufactured by Louis Marx & Co., which advertised it as a "flashing roaring speeding sky police patrol rocket ship" that "shoots out harmless sparks as it darts across the floor." You can see it in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery in the Museum in Washington, DC.
Collector Michael O'Harro, a successful businessman and restaurateur, donated the spaceship to the Museum in 1993, along with his entire 2,200-piece science fiction collection. Frank Winter was the popular culture curator at the time of the donation.
“I was astounded,” recalled Winter in a May 2002 article in Air & Space magazine. “It was like walking into Tut’s Tomb!” The article goes on to say, “Over the years, O’Harro had collected many rare items, including original comic strips, a Buck Rogers watch, tin spaceships, lead figures, games, trading cards, and a prototype ray gun that was used to create a production toy. Although most centered on Buck Rogers, there were also items based on Flash Gordon and even Captain Video. O’Harro’s collection spanned the entire history of space toys, from Buck Rogers in the 1920s to Star Wars in the 1980s.”
Why would a museum that possesses the most iconic artifacts from aviation and space history collect such “silly” items as science fiction toys? According to the current popular culture curator, Margaret Weitekamp, “Science fiction toys show us how people have imagined spaceflight. Some of those visions inspired real discoveries—and real engineers. The Buck Rogers toys demonstrate Americans’ excitement about spaceflight even decades before the first humans launched into space.”
For more on Buck Rogers and the O’Harro collection, listen to Buck Rogers radio shows on the Old Time Radio Lover website, learn about ray gun toys in this blog post by Margaret Weitekamp, and read the above-mentioned Air & Space article. Also, you can view a large array of Buck Rogers comic strips by googling that phrase.