In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
In the 19th century, the pace of technological innovation increased significantly; in the 20th century, it exploded. Every decade brought new innovations. For example, my grandfather began his career as a lineman for American Telegraph in the 1890s (it was just “AT” then—the extra “&T” came later). In the early 20th century he went from city to city installing their first telephone switchboards. He ended his career at Bell Labs on Long Island, helping to build the first television sets, along with other electronic marvels. It seemed like wherever you turned , in those days, there was another inventor creating some new device that would transform your life. With the Tom Swift series, starting in 1910, Edward Stratemeyer created a fictional character that represented the spirit of this age of invention. That first series found Tom building or refining all manner of new devices, including vehicles that would take him to explore far-off lands.
Tom Swift has appeared in six separate book series’ that span over a century, and in this week’s column, I’m going to look at three of them. Two I encountered in my youth: Tom Swift and His Motor Boat, which I inherited from my father, and Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, which was given to my older brother as a birthday gift. As an example of Tom’s later adventures, I’m also looking at Into the Abyss, the first book in the fifth series.
For many years the church I grew up in ran a charity auction, and every year, without fail, a number of Tom Swift books from the original series would be donated. They seemed to be tucked away somewhere in nearly every house in the neighborhood. That series had wide popularity (by some accounts, rivaling sales of the Bible for young boys), and opened many young minds to the worlds of science, creativity, and engineering. Many science fiction authors and scientists would later credit the series as inspiring them in their career choices. The science in the books was based on that known at the time, and many of the devices and inventions that Tom “created” in the books were eventually perfected by scientists and engineers in the real world. Jack Cover, inventor of the taser, has reportedly said that the device was inspired by Thomas Swift’s Electric Rifle, with an “A” added into the acronym to make it easier to pronounce.
The Tom Swift books appeared in several series’ over the years. The first series, published from 1910 to 1941, included 40 volumes. The second series, Tom Swift, Jr. (and attributed to Victor Appleton II), published from to 1954-1971, included 33 volumes. The third series, published from 1981 to 1984, numbered 11 volumes. The fourth series, published from 1991 to 1993, included 13 volumes. The fifth series, Tom Swift: Young Inventor, published from 2006 to 2007, spanned six volumes. The sixth and latest series, Tom Swift Inventors Academy, published starting in 2019, includes three volumes to date.
While there have been a few attempts to adapt the Tom Swift stories to other media, none have been successful, and only a short-lived TV show ever appeared. Interestingly, and possibly in tribute to the impression the books had made on a youthful George Lucas, an actor portraying Edward Stratemeyer made a guest appearance in an episode of the Young Indiana Jones television series, the plot of which involved Indy dating his daughter.
About the Author(s)
While all the Tom Swift adventures are attributed to “Victor Appleton,” (and the second series to “Victor Appleton II”) this is a house name used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the publisher of the books. Most of the first series was reportedly written by Howard Roger Garis (1873-1962), an author of many “work for hire” books that appeared under pseudonyms. Garis was known by the public primarily as the creator of the rabbit known as Uncle Wiggily.
I have previously reviewed other books issued by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, including two of the Don Sturdy adventures and one of the Great Marvel books, On a Torn-Away World. The Syndicate, in its heyday, was a major publisher of children’s books aimed at boys and girls of all ages. In addition to Tom Swift, Don Sturdy, and the Great Marvel Series, they included the eternally popular Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, the adventures of the Bobbsey Twins, and a whole host of others.
As with many works that appeared in the early 20th century, a number of the earlier Tom Swift books can be found on Project Gutenberg.
Tom Swift and His Motor Boat
This is the second book in the original series, and while I could have read the first book, Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, on Project Gutenberg, I like the feel of a real book in my hands. And the book had the lovely musty scent of a book stored away for decades, a smell that brought me right back to my youth. The book, as all the books in the series do, provides a recap of the previous volume. And each book, in case it is the first Tom Swift story the young reader has encountered, reintroduces the characters and setting. I reacquainted myself with young Tom Swift, son of inventor Barton Swift, who lives in the town of Shopton, New York, on the shores of Lake Carlopa with his father, their housekeeper Mrs. Baggert, and the assistant engineer Garret Jackson (to the best of my knowledge, the absence of Tom’s mother is never explained). Tom’s particular chum is Ned Newton, who works at the local bank. He also frequently encounters the eccentric Wakefield Damon, who never opens his mouth without blessing something, for example, “Bless my overcoat.” Tom also must contend with local bully Andy Foger and his cowardly crony, Sam.
Unfortunately, as with many books of this period, there is some racism and sexism on display. Tom is friendly with the local “colored man,” Eradicate Sampson, and his mule Boomerang. Eradicate’s role in the stories is comic relief; he is frequently confused and amazed by Tom’s inventions, and speaks in thick vernacular studded with apostrophes. Tom does have a girlfriend, Mary Nestor, whose role in most stories is to require his help, as when her motorboat breaks down, because (in Tom’s words), “Girls don’t know much about machinery.”
This story involves Tom buying a motorboat that had been stolen and damaged by a local gang of thieves. Tom’s efforts to repair and enhance the boat, which he names the Arrow, are described in loving detail, and when I was young, these technical digressions made for some of my favorite parts of the books. While we take small internal combustion engines for granted these days, back in 1910 they were at the cutting edge of technology, transforming the way people worked and lived. Tom’s rival Andy, whose family has a good bit of money, is jealous of Tom, and he buys his own racing boat, the Red Streak. Their rivalry drives many of the adventures in the book. Also, unknown to Tom, the gang of thieves who had stolen the boat had hidden a stolen diamond aboard, a mystery that keeps the action going right up to the end. Once the villains are foiled, Tom rescues a balloonist who has dreams of building a new type of airship, and the book ends with the obligatory teaser for the next volume in the series, Tom Swift and His Airship.
As the series continues, Tom finds himself working on submarine boats, electric runabouts, wirelesses (radios), electric rifles, gliders, cameras, searchlights, cannons, photo telephones (television), and all sorts of other marvels. And he travels to caves of ice, cities of gold, tunnels, oil fields, and other lands of wonder. While the sheer quantity of his inventions push the bounds of implausibility, like many other readers, I always identified with Tom, and he felt very real to me.
I also remember that these books, which I read starting in the third grade, were the first stories I encountered that weren’t tailored to a specific age group, in terms of young readers. The author frequently used a lot of two-bit words, and this was giving me trouble, so my dad sat down with me one day and taught me how to sound out words from their letters, and how to figure out the meaning of a word from its context. After that, no book in our home intimidated me, and I entered into a whole new world as a reader.
Tom Swift and His Flying Lab
The premise of the second series is that it is written by the son of the original author, and features the adventures of the original Tom’s son, Tom Swift, Jr. By the end of the original series, Tom Senior had married his girlfriend, Mary, so it is entirely reasonable that, by the 1950s, they would have had a son. They still live in Shopton, but the Swifts now own Swift Enterprises, a large and vibrant company, presumably funded by patent income from all of Tom Senior’s inventions. They have a private airfield, and have enough money to fund construction of their own flying laboratory, so large that it can even carry smaller aircraft aboard. On the covers, Tom is portrayed as typical teenager of the era, with a blonde crewcut, striped shirt and blue jeans. Tom’s best friend is Bud Barclay, a test pilot. Eradicate Sampson’s role as comic relief has mercifully been replaced by a Texan cook nicknamed Chow, who also speaks in a thick vernacular that can be difficult for the reader to decipher. Chow also takes on some of the characteristics of old Wakefield Damon, peppering his speech with colorful phrases like “Brand my skillet.” Women still play a supporting role—Tom’s mother doesn’t get to do much beyond being concerned, while his sister Sandy often serves as the damsel requiring rescuing. Similarly, some of the portrayals of indigenous peoples in the book leave a lot to be desired.
This book features the titular flying laboratory, and in particular, detection devices that can find uranium deposits. The flying lab is propelled by atomic power, shielded by an improbable substance called “Tomasite plastic,” which provides better shielding than lead and concrete at a tiny fraction of the weight (thus getting around the issue that kept atomic power from taking flight in the real world). They plan to use the uranium detection device to locate deposits in a small South American nation, but run afoul of ruthless local revolutionaries, supported by sinister “Eurasian” agents who want those deposits for themselves. These villains use kidnapping, anti-aircraft missiles, and other despicable means in their efforts to steal the Swifts’ technological marvels and foil their efforts to find the deposits.
There is less interest in portraying realistic technology in this series, with Tom eventually taking off on outer space journeys, encountering aliens, and having other improbable adventures. As a teaser for these interplanetary adventures, a meteor falls on the Swifts’ property early in the book, and proves to be a manufactured object covered with hieroglyphics. As the books progress, the series begins to resemble the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s fanciful “Great Marvel Series,” rather than the more realistic original adventures of Tom Swift, Senior.
Into the Abyss
The later series’ books follow roughly the same format as the second series. In this installment from the fifth series, Tom is still the son of a famous inventor who heads a large company, Swift Enterprises, although he reads as a bit younger than the protagonists of the earlier stories. His best friend is still Bud Barclay, who is portrayed as a genius himself, although more oriented toward history and geography than science and technology. Representation of women and minorities has, as one would expect, significantly improved over time. Tom now has another friend, Yolanda Aponte, a girl from a Puerto Rican family. The female characters are more active, here—for example, when they need additional equipment during their adventures, Tom’s mother flies out to deliver it, and Tom’s little sister Sandy is presented as a mathematical prodigy in her own right.
In this adventure, Tom develops a carbon composite-reinforced diving suit that not only protects him from sharks, but allows him to dive to extreme depths (in fact, rather implausible depths, as even carbon fiber reinforcement would not permit some of his activities later in the book). And he also develops an electronic shark repellent device. His father is field testing a new deep-sea submersible, the Jules Verne-1, and plans to use it to deploy undersea seismic sensors along the East Coast to warn of tsunamis. He invites Tom, Bud, and Yolanda to come along on his research vessel. When Mr. Swift runs into trouble down below, Tom uses another of their submersible prototypes, along with his advanced diving suit, to save his father. While the tale is full of authentic details about deep sea operations and creatures, it also contains some uses of diving gas bottles, impromptu equipment repairs, and operations at extreme depths that undermined my suspension of disbelief. I found myself wishing the author had stuck a little more closely to representing real-world technologies.
The book is a quick and enjoyable read, and is specifically geared for younger readers, featuring a streamlined vocabulary and chatty, first-person narration.
The Tom Swift stories also gave birth to a type of punning joke that bear his name. In the original series, while people with questions “asked,” they almost never “said.” Instead, they “exclaimed,” “called,” “reasoned,” “muttered,” “replied,” “demanded,” “mused,” “cried,” et cetera; pretty much everything but “said.” And all sorts of adverbs were appended to that plethora of verbs. This literary tic, taken one step further with the addition of a punning adverb, became a type of joke, and here are a few examples I culled from the Internet (here, here, here, and here):
- “I can’t find the oranges,” said Tom fruitlessly.
- “I only have diamonds, clubs and spades,” said Tom heartlessly.
- “Pass me the shellfish,” said Tom crabbily.
- “I love hot dogs,” said Tom with relish.
- “I know who turned off the lights,” Tom hinted darkly.
My own introduction to Tom Swifties came from the jokes page in Boy’s Life Magazine, which often contained a few of them (and still does—I ran into a copy recently at my dentist’s office). In fact, thinking back, the whole genre of jokes now known as “dad jokes” probably came from exposing generations of young men to that magazine. They may not crack you up, but as every punster knows, evoking a groan can be just as satisfying as drawing a laugh…
He may not be as familiar to current readers as he once was, but in his day, Tom Swift was widely known, and his adventures were a huge influence on the field we now know as science fiction. Many of the writers of the Golden Age of the mid-20th century count Tom Swift as a favorite of their youth. And thousands of scientists and engineers (my father among them) had an early appetite for their professions whetted by the Tom Swift books.
And now it’s time to hear from you: What are your experiences with Tom Swift? Did you read the books yourself, or have you heard about the character secondhand? Which era/series of the books are you most familiar with? Have you shared any Tom Swift books with your children? And, if you are so moved, I would love to hear what you consider your favorite Tom Swifties!
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.