John Campbell was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1910. His father was an electrical engineer. His mother, Dorothy (née Strahern) had an identical twin who visited them often and who disliked John. John was unable to tell them apart and says he was frequently rebuffed by the person he took to be his mother. Campbell attended the Blair Academy, a boarding school in rural Warren County, New Jersey, but did not graduate because of lack of credits for French and trigonometry.
He also attended, without graduating, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was befriended by the mathematician Norbert Wiener (who coined the term cybernetics) – but he failed German and MIT dismissed him. After one year at Duke University, he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in physics in 1932.
Campbell began writing science fiction at age 18 while attending MIT and sold his first stories quickly. From January 1930 to June 1931, Amazing Stories published six of his short stories, one novel, and six letters. Campbell was editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from late 1937 until his death. He stopped writing fiction after he became editor of Astounding. Between December 11, 1957, and June 13, 1958, he hosted a weekly science fiction radio program called Exploring Tomorrow. The scripts were written by authors such as Gordon R. Dickson and Robert Silverberg.
Campbell and Dona Stewart married in 1931. They divorced in 1949 and he married Margaret (Peg) Winter in 1950. He spent most of his life in New Jersey and died of heart failure at his home in Mountainside, New Jersey. He was an atheist.
Campbell's first published story, "When the Atoms Failed", was cover-featured in the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories
The first installment of Campbell's serial "Uncertainty" took the cover of the October 1936 issue of Amazing Stories
Editor T. O'Conor Sloane lost Campbell's first manuscript that he accepted for Amazing Stories, entitled "Invaders of the Infinite". "When the Atoms Failed" appeared in January 1930, followed by five more during 1930. Three were part of a space opera series featuring the characters Arcot, Morey, and Wade. A complete novel in the series, Islands of Space, was the cover story in the Spring 1931 Quarterly. During 1934–35 a serial novel, The Mightiest Machine, ran in Astounding Stories, edited by F. Orlin Tremaine, and several stories featuring lead characters Penton and Blake appeared from late 1936 in Thrilling Wonder Stories, edited by Mort Weisinger.
The early work for Amazing established Campbell's reputation as a writer of space adventure. When in 1934 he began to publish stories with a different tone he wrote as Don A. Stuart, a pseudonym derived from his wife's maiden name.
From 1930 until the later part of that decade, Campbell was prolific and successful under both names. Three significant stories published under the pseudonym are "Twilight" (Astounding, November 1934), "Night" (Astounding, October 1935), and "Who Goes There?" (Astounding, August 1938). "Who Goes There?", about a group of Antarctic researchers who discover a crashed alien vessel, formerly inhabited by a malevolent shape-changing occupant, was published in Astounding almost a year after Campbell became its editor and it was his last significant piece of fiction, at age 28. It was filmed as The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing (1982), and again as The Thing (2011).
Campbell held the amateur radio call sign W2ZGU, and wrote many articles on electronics and radio for a wide range of magazines.
Tremaine hired Campbell to succeed him as the editor of Astounding from its October 1937 issue. Campbell was not given full authority for Astounding until May 1938, but had been responsible for buying stories somewhat earlier.[Note 1] He began to make changes almost immediately, instigating a "mutant" label for unusual stories, and in March 1938 changing the title from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction.
Lester del Rey's first story, in March 1938, was an early find for Campbell, and in 1939, he published such an extraordinary group of new writers for the first time that the period is generally regarded as the beginning of the "Golden Age of Science Fiction", and the July 1939 issue in particular.[Note 2] The July issue contained A. E. van Vogt's first story, "Black Destroyer", and Asimov's early story "Trends"; August brought Robert A. Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line", and the next month Theodore Sturgeon's first story appeared.
Also in 1939, Campbell started the fantasy magazine Unknown (later Unknown Worlds). Although Unknown was canceled after only four years, a victim of wartime paper shortages, the magazine's editorial direction was significant in the evolution of modern fantasy.