Among the readers of the original series of Tom Swift books there’s really no doubt that most of the inventions of the early part of the twentieth century were devised by the young inventor from Shopton, New York. As chronicled in a 38-volume series of books published by Grosset and Dunlap between 1910 and 1935, Tom Swift advanced or invented a series of vehicles and useful devices.
The series was produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate and all but three of these 38 volumes were ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis from fairly detailed Syndicate outlines. Five volumes were published in each year from 1910 to 1912, followed by an annual volume thereafter.
In the first group of five volumes, Tom begins the significant portion of his inventive career. The stories indicate that he has patented some minor inventions as he followed in the footsteps of his father, Barton Swift, who was also an inventor of some note.
The basic structure of a Tom Swift story has a chapter to get the story going which sets up the basic justification for the story’s invention. By the end of the chapter there is either a pause or more likely a startling event where the narrator can intercede with a summary of the previous volumes. For example:
Taking advantage of the momentary lull in the activities of the young inventor, I will tell my readers something about him, so that those who have no previous introduction to him may feel that he is a friend.
The first book in the series is Tom Swift and His Motorcycle (1910). An eccentric friend of Tom named Wakefield Damon rides a motorcycle and crashes into a tree. Disappointed with the vehicle, he sells the motorcycle to Tom for a good price and our hero makes some improvements and it is featured in the adventure for the rest of the story which involves a stolen patent model for one of his father’s inventions.
Tom Swift and His Motor Boat (1910) is similar to Motorcycle in that Tom buys a motor boat at an auction and makes some improvements and has an adventure. Towards the end of the story, Tom rescues an aeronaut, Mr. John Sharp, from a burning balloon as it is descending over Lake Carlopa. Mr. Sharp reveals at the end of the story that he has plans for an airship and he shares them with Tom and his father.
A personal favorite of mine is Tom Swift and His Airship (1910) which is the first really novel invention in the series. The picture on the dust jacket and frontispiece is a dramatic scene of a huge airship with a red gas envelope and a large pair of biplane wings. The Red Cloud, as the airship is named, has just crashed into the tower of a girls seminary school building. The story involves an accusation of bank robbery and a long-distance flight by airship down the eastern seaboard.
Although the fourth volume is called Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat (1910), it is really his father’s invention though Tom contributes significantly and their adventure takes them treasure hunting on the ocean bottom.
The final volume from this year is Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout (1910) which describes Tom’s invention of a new kind of alkaline (rather than acid) battery to power a small but fast automobile. To recharge it he has a system to connect to the trolley lines which spanned the country line a spider-web. He had a meter to track his usage so he could repay the trolley company. The car is instrumental in saving the Shopton Bank in which Tom and his friends are interested.
These five stories are tied to each other and form a cohesive plot line which introduces the reader to our hero. The summaries in the second chapter which describe the other volumes make it possible for readers to jump in at a later volume if the first one they picked up did not happen to be Motorcycle.
Tom Swift is not Literature with a capital “L” but the books are page turners and it’s easy to see why they sold more than 6 million copies. The titles help to illustrate some of the other inventions which appear in the series. Here is a sample of titles.
6. Tom Swift and His Wireless Message (1911)
7. Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers (1911)
10. Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (1911)
14. Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera (1912)
17. Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1914)
29. Tom Swift and His Airline Express (1926)
31. Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures (1928)
32. Tom Swift and His House on Wheels (1929)
35. Tom Swift and His Giant Magnet (1932)
37. Tom Swift and His Ocean Airport (1934)
For example, in Airline Express Tom devises a special kind of airplane which can travel from the east to the west coast in the span of daylight hours. In the days before Charles Lindbergh’s solo Transatlantic flight, air travel of any kind was still largely a novelty and airplane engines with endurance for long flights were not common. To get around this, Tom creates a passenger cabin, much like a railroad car, which is attached to airplane motors and wings and a tail section. The plane flies to the next airport and this passenger cabin is attached to a new airplane for the next segment. Three such segments were used to travel from New York to San Francisco. Around the time that this volume was issued, the Ford Trimotor helped to introduce some of the first commercial airlines.
With a title like Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures (1928), one might guess that it was to be a story about adding sound to movies which was new in 1928 but Tom proves that he is ahead of the rest of the world by inventing a television-like device. Tom’s Talking Pictures was an attachment to radio which allowed the listener to see the performers on a silvery screen in color.
Curiously, although Tom’s inventions are sometimes thought to anticipate the real-world vehicles and devices which perform a similar function, the stories often took a description of an invention from a newspaper or a magazine and advanced it in size or capability to create something new.
Yet, while many might think of these stories as “science fiction”, to some readers who devoured these stories as they were coming out, the books seemed more like plausible adventures which could be happening to someone who lived in a different part of the country.
Tom Swift’s House on Wheels was a land vehicle we would recognize as a motor home. At the risk of providing a spoiler to the story, in this volume, Tom marries his longtime girlfriend, Mary Nestor. The house on wheels is used for their honeymoon. Fortunately, Tom gets back to adventures and inventing in the next volume though some readers are said to have been turned off by their hero’s nuptials.
The Tom Swift series as issued by Grosset & Dunlap ended in 1935. Two additional stories were published by Whitman as “Better Little Books” in a format similar to the earlier “Big Little Books”. These stories were much shorter and had comic strip-style illustrations on half of the pages. Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope was published in 1939 and Tom Swift and His Magnetic Silencer in 1941.
Although the series had ended, no good idea goes away forever. The Stratemeyer Syndicate, since 1930 run by his daughters, Harriet and Edna together until 1942 and by Harriet until 1982, planned a new series about the son of Tom Swift, named Tom Swift, Jr., of course.