Bob Guccione, Sr., the publisher of OMNI and Penthouse magazines, died yesterday from cancer at the age of 79. Although best known for pushing the boundaries of explicit publications, Guccione was a science buff who gave technological futurists and science fiction writers a forum years before computers became common. At one point, Guccione even paid for research into a mobile nuclear reactor.
Using the fortune amassed through his more salacious publications, Guccione co-founded OMNI magazine in 1978. The first issue included an interview with physicist Freeman Dyson , and later issues would feature the first appearance of the William Gibson character Johnny Mnemonic and art by Alien design H.R. Giger. OMNI almost never made any money, but Guccione continued operating the magazine at a loss until 1996, said Mike Edison, a former Penthouse correspondent, and the author of "I Have Fun Everywhere I Go."
"Look, these guys are geeks. They’re nerds. [Hugh] Hefner was a nerd from the big band era, and Guccione is only five years younger," Edison told TechNewsDaily. "Nerds like science fiction and science. It's a boys' club, people who like technology and science fiction, and naked women, of course."
In a time before people interacted with technology on a daily basis, OMNI helped create the tech-geek culture that eventually blossomed in the 1990s. As a short hand for an early version of geek-chic, OMNI appeared in "Ghostbusters", "The Breakfast Club" and "Star Trek IV", and was mentioned in "Jurassic Park" and the remake of "The Fly."
Guccione made science part of his life as well. His wife Kathy Keeton co-founded OMNI as well as Longevity, a magazine dedicated to extending health and living. Guccione's son, Bob Guccione, Jr., eventually became the publisher of the science magazine Discover.
Undoubtedly his strangest foray into science came in 1980 when Guccione hired 80 scientists to build a small, portable nuclear fusion reactor. The endeavor cost him $17 million ($45 million in 2010 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), Edison said. Not without a sense of humor, Guccione dubbed the project Penthouse Energy and Technology Systems, or PETS, the same name he gave to the women who posed in his other magazine.
Ultimately, OMNI folded as both a magazine and a Website, but continues to influence the media by having created the niche currently occupied by publications such as Wired and Websites such as BoingBoing.
"OMNI came out in a time when we all didn't have computers in our homes. It was a pre-Internet phenomena. A lot of the technology he was writing about wasn't available to everyone," Edison said. "Obviously, anyone who wanted to build a mobile nuclear power plant is a bit ambitious."