Fact or Fiction? #16: A World with No Geeks

We are so familiar with geeks these days; we almost take them for granted. One wonders what it was like before there were geeks….

Before geeks? Yes, there simply had to be a time when there were none simply because everything that defines them today did not exist prior to the 1970s. Think about it: What did geeks do before Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, and computers? Don’t say “comic books” because comics were not the domain of geeks back then – there were no comic book stores operated by pompous uber geeks back in the day.

Geeks also did not have “Star Trek”. Sure it was on TV in the 1960’s; but it didn’t become an object of geek obsession until much later.

You might argue that they’ve always had some technology to tinker with (i.e. Popular Mechanics and big-ass computers), but this is where the difference between a nerd and a geek comes in, and things get tricky...

Can you spot the nerd in this picture?

Nerds are simply intelligent, industrious individuals who lack some social skills. Geeks, according to the modern definition, are those with a high level of interest and enthusiasm for a certain subject, whether it be baseball or horror movies. “Nerd” has become much more pejorative than “geek” because it carries a negative connotation on your place in society; whereas, there is now “geek chic”.

Voted Most Studious...why am I not surprised?

Thus, since “geek” has become such an acceptable term, it naturally has been claimed by any all varieties of subjects: there’s fantasy football geeks, band geeks, warhammer geeks, retro geeks (hello!), anime geeks, TV geeks, etc, etc., and thus, rendering the term meaningless – just another way to say “enthusiast”.

So, when I say “geek”, I am referring to the conventional geek that existed prior to the current watered down term. And so I repeat my initial contention that geeks did not exist prior to the 1970’s, except in very rare occurrences, much like sasquatch sightings.

Here’s an incomplete list of things that have long defined geekdom. Let’s see which, if any, could have been the abode of early geeks…

Lord of the Rings
Believe it or not, LOTR was initially embraced by the hippie culture way before geeks got their sweaty little hands on it. Indeed, the most “ungeeky” individuals to have ever lived, The Hammer of the Gods – the mighty Led Zeppelin frequently invoked Tolkein into their music.

Video Games and Star Wars did not exist. Star Trek was not geekified until much later.

Comic Books
Every kid back in the day read comic books – at least every boy. Comics were as mainstream as The Lone Ranger. And for older readers (or young’uns on the sly) there were the EC comics and later the underground hippie comics (i.e. Roger Crumb). One could say the ultimate personification of the term “geek” is the comic book store owners and workers. Even these paragons of geekdom did not exist back then.

During the 1970s there was a short love affair with the 1950s and early 60s (a la Grease, American Graffiti, Happy Days, etc.). And there was an infatuation among some with the pioneer days and the early part of the 20th century via Liberty magazine and things like Little House on the Prairie; however, these came nowhere near approaching “geekishness”. No, it would be years later before blogs like this one put stuff like Charlie’s Angels and Tony Orlando up on a pedestal. Today’s world is swarming with retro geeks like myself – look no further than ebay as proof. You’d have to take out a second mortgage to afford a Magilla Gorilla lunchbox these days!

Horror genre
The blogosphere is literally glutted with horror geek blogs; but, prior to the late 1980s or early 90s, the genre was not the geeky niche it is today. Grindhouse horror was for the pot smoking or trench coat wearing crowd, and horror was fairly mainstream in its acceptance during the 1970s – not something to incite cult enthusiasts. However, Famous Monsters of Filmland definitely attracted its share of horror obsessed fans. The Ackerman rags may have given birth to a sort of proto-horror geek.

Science Fiction Novels
Aha! Herein may have lurked prehistoric geeks – the earliest ancestors of the modern day geek.

Have anything to add to this query? Raise your hand and wait till I call on you.
Is this nerd being laughed at by the guy behind him? We can only speculate.

Just kidding.  Leave your thoughts on the topic in a comment - I'd love to hear it.


  1. I dunno, but her legs (last pict) are distracting me from the subject.

    Well, George McFly was certainly a geek and he liked to read science fiction comics. That was 1955.

    That's all I got.

  2. Tolkein -> Tolkien
    Roger Crumb -> Robert Crumb

  3. I like where you're going with this. Definitely SF books -- e.g. George McFly from BtotF.

    The chick with the legs in the plaid skirt (last pic) is very hot and may be my aunt which makes it hot and kind of kinky.

  4. If "nerd" is socially awkward but intelligent, and "geek" means obsessive to social detriment, then during the post-war period geeks could be found pawing trough junk-yards and burning themselves with soldering irons. RADIO! The technology that would have solved everything had computers not eclipsed them. Examples of the fantastic power of radio can be found in any review of mid-century Popular tech magazines. The image of a successful radio operator is similar to that assumed by people who obsess over superheros.

  5. I agree with Carrot. There were always things for people to geek out on; it was just more underground. Pulp magazines catered to every geek obsession, whether it be SF, detective, westerns, or superheroes. I have some Popular Mechanics from the 40s and they were geek heaven for the pre-computer age. The internet has made obsessions easier and more profitable; hence, geekdom is more accepted. Once big business had to pay computer geeks big bucks to keep their businesses running, no one could afford to be derisive toward them anymore.

  6. Gilligan, you stumbled upon your answer but seemed to just miss it.

    There have always been "geeks" of one type or another, for as long as there has been "science." By that, I mean as long as you can predict some sort of change based on the science of your time. Let's say the early to mid 1800s. That is when things were changing fast enough to notice. Before that, change was just too slow.

    Geeks, as you know them, are an outcropping of the late 1800s and the industrial revolution. This is when things could be studied that could not be seen.

    As for the Geek community (here is where your shot came closest) it arose during the time of the Pulp Magazines (1930s & 40s). There really were not "science fiction" novels until the 1950s. Almost all science fiction was produced by a few pulp magazines and geeks would form local clubs to meet and discuss the latest news in science and the latest fiction in those pulps.

    That is where the "geek" that you could recognize first appeared.

  7. I agree with carrot & lacey both. My grandfather was definitely a HAM radio and model train geek. That would have been right in that 1930's-40's era.

  8. I'm still trying to wrap my little brain around your big concept: the difference between Geek and Nerd. As far back as the 1920s and 1930s there were guys who obsessed over their cars (hot rodders as they would later be called) or motorcycles, but don't call them geeks. You'll get a snoot-bonk. And most of them felt the touch of woman.

    I think of the early century guys obsessed with electricity and electro-magnetic stuff. Ham radio would fit into that group.

  9. As the purveyor of a blog called "Bourgeois Nerd," you can imagine that I've often contemplated the mysteries and semantics of "nerd" and "geek" and I have to disagree with you a little, Gilligan I think the defining feature of "geek" is not the enthusiasm, but the social cachet of the enthusiasm in question. People who obsess about roleplaying games are geeks, but those who are into sports to the same degree are not. Video games players are no longer geeks, for the most part, because everyone has an Xbox and grew up playing Mario; World of Warcraft players, on the other hand, still have a strong whiff of the geeky. People who are fans of procedurals like CSI aren't geeks, but those who watch Battlestar Galactica are. People have always had enthusiasms; what changes is the level of acceptability of those enthusiasms.

  10. My dad was a Sherlock Holmes geek back in the 50's. He was also an Esperantist.

  11. When I was in high school in the 1960s there was a group called the Audio Visual club. They were geeks and we all recognized them as such though we referred to them as dorks and dweebs because the word geek was still used to define a certain type of person who performed at carnival side shows. Basically the geek has been around for centuries in one form or another. Now as we move farther away from the original intent of the word and carnival side shows of such ilk are a thing of the past the socially inept are now lumped under the term geek. And of course, depending on ones status in the pecking order anyone lower than you may be nonchalantly referred to as a geek.

  12. I echo Carrot, et. al.: Ham radio was to 1950's as computer geekery is to today. Many older computer geeks, the ones that work at it for a living, are ham radio operators, yours truly amongst them. It's a very strong parallel.

  13. Such a place, it sounds like a sad & depressing place indeed.

  14. Interesting Cultural Inquiry. I recall Poindexter-type stereotypes of intelligent but un-athletic types that pre-date the 1970's. Remember the cartoon with Foghorn Leghorn and the bookish little guy that outdid him at everything? The high-end of this intellectual spectrum were called "long-hair". As Foghorn says at the end of that particular cartoon, "hey boy, got anymore of those longhair books?"

    Nerds overlaped but but were not identical to geeks. A nerd could be socially awkward with no real cultural attainments to elevate him to geekdom. A hallmark of both geeks and nerds was inability at sports and unathleticism.

    When I was in High-School, boys (girls were never geeks until recently) who wore pocket protectors and kept multiple pens in their pocket were nerds (or dorks). The slide-rule was the scepter of these folks.

    You hit on some interesting stuff in your post, particularly the (recent) elevation of geek to a category people want to identify with. No one ever wanted to be a "nerd". On a personal note, the first "geek" I ever encountered, in High-School around 1974-75, was a guy who knew EVERYTHING about Tolkien and LOTR. He had a fierce pride about this knowledge, not an apologetic "I need to get a life" attitude. I see him as a prototype of the new Geek.

  15. *Great* post. I'm gonna say Lucas - ironically - helped invent decade-nostalgia culture with AMERICAN GRAFFITI.

  16. First of all, there always been obession so the potental was there. But geekness grows when the society becomes much more weatlhier and educated. So I think there probably some form of geeks since the later 19th century

  17. Cameras and darkroom equipment, hifi stereo components, ham radio, oscilloscopes and homemade electronic circuits, and even TV sets with all their tubes were geek gadgets after WWII. Some dabbled in homemade rockets and rocket fuels that'd probably get you arrested today.

    Only lab technicians in white coats messed with actual computers in the 50s and early 60s. Few people had even touched computer paper except maybe punch card bills (do not fold, spindle or mutilate) from large companies. Even in the mid 80s it was considered gauche to know anything about computers, though that was changing by then.

    Comic books got pretty weird and raunchy until some laws were passed cleaning them up in the mid 50s; the resurgence came in the mid 60s. Books were fewer and much harder to come by, and hoarding knowledge like a pack rat about any technical subject made you a geek. No internet, so it all had to be written down or memorized and this continued through the early 90s.

    I agree that this interest in gadgets and obscure miscellany has been around since the Industrial Revolution. Paul Johnson's book, "Birth of the Modern", is a treasure trove of such beginnings.

  18. I was a kid right at the dawn of the computer age, and one reason it came so naturally to get into computers is that it emerged from a broader interest in electronics. Electronics has always been that kind of thing. And although I have a Ham license, and still believe in the power of radio to solve all of mankind's problems (uh, ok, not really, but still) I saw electronics as a superset of my radio interests (I'm a math nerd, too).

    Does anybody remember chemistry sets? Not the weak tea sold now, but ones full of truly powerful oxidants and sulfur and the potential to make stinky, explosive things? Those were the days, and ultimately, that part of nerdworld won out and I became a chemist. But I still solder things. Math and chemistry still live in the nerd domain, as presented here (and I'll accept the dichotomy without quibbles, because it is useful) while electronics and computers now fall in to geekdom, because it's cool to control your homebrew with an Arduino, right?

  19. In the 50s/60s: Model rockets and model cars would definitely been geek-territory.

    Earlier: Model trains and in some cases, radio-controlled airplanes.

    I'd also note that baseball card collecting was quite easily geeked.

  20. Read Isaac Asimov's autobiography for a history of geekdom from the 30s to the 60s. We've been around forever. Isaac Newton, Leonardo & Socrates were clearly geeks, IMO

  21. To further the comments on early sci-fi fandom being geeks, you should read Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Was. Both the way in which they obsessed and their dysfunctional social dynamics were pure geek.

    Interestingly, in relation to the comments on how the Internet made it necessary to cater to computer geeks, I think the automobile had a similar dynamic. You look at the kind of people who were enthusiastic car tinkerers in the thirties through the sixties, and they were geeks. But you needed them to fix your car.

  22. The stereotype isn't always true, at least not now. A lot of people I know (and I'm 23) who are or were into comic books, Animai, nostalgia, and/or video games either are polyamorous or have had a significant other (note that I used that term because not all geeks these days are male). Many of the said individuals expressed their Geekyness under Punk, neo-hippie or boarderline-Goth styles to seem more glamorous (not to mention the ones who went in for chain mail or Matrix jackets). It generally depends on how many of them are in a town as to how cut-off they actually are, as they mostly interact with their own (I've drifted in and out of their circle). However much you might complain about "The Social Network," and its portrayal of Silicon Valley as a place for techies and their groupies to party, I think it's a far more accurate portrayal than the forgotten movie "Anti-trust" which includes the line "An actual Three-dimentional Girlfriend? Do you know how rare that is around here?" Admittedly there are still a few old-school geeks around who have never felt the touch of a woman, and it is true that Geek Parties are mostly playing Guitar Hero and eating chips.

  23. Oh, and your picture "Most Studious" hit the nail right on the head as far as the geeks I know.