One of the most enthralling aspects of my position in the Western History and Genealogy department is stumbling across items with only a tangential relationship to either Western history or genealogy. Recently, while relocating the Ross-Barrett Historical Aeronautics Collection (RBA), I discovered that nestled within its selection of fiction are roughly a dozen (thirteen, to be precise) volumes from the first two series of Tom Swift adventures. It’s hardly surprising that, given the context, all the volumes have something to do with flight.
If you’re unfamiliar with Tom Swift, think an adventure series along the lines of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but with a focus on scientific invention rather than solving mysteries. As with those series, which were written by a variety of authors and published under the collective pseudonyms of Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene respectively, the Swift books were credited to fictional author Victor Appleton. This isn’t all that surprising, since all three series were the brainchild (brainchildren?) of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of a book-packaging firm (the Stratemeyer Syndicate).
The first series began in 1910 with Tom Swift and his Motor Cycle, and ended 31 years and 40 books later with Tom Swift and his Magnetic Silencer. As with many juvenile series of that era, the stories primarily focused on action, adventure, and the almost criminal overuse of the word “chum.” Though his age was never specified, the passage of time was evident, as previously described inventions often carried over into future stories. In addition, Tom aged, dated, and eventually got married. Though never mentioned, the marriage apparently resulted in at least one child… Tom Swift Jr.
In 1954, the Tom Swift Jr. Adventures were launched, this time with Harriet Adams (Stratemeyer’s daughter) at the helm, and with the author’s pen name updated to Victor Appleton II. Around this time, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books were being re-released in edited form, in large part to remove some of the more offensive and derogatory racial overtones found in the original manuscripts. This wasn’t practical with the Swift books. While things like smuggling and theft remained relatively unchanged, science had advanced significantly in the intervening years, and even by the 1950s, many of Tom’s “futuristic inventions” seemed rather comically quaint. In part as an attempt to make the reboot more enduring, Adams hired on three PhD scientists as consultants.
The second series found Tom Sr. now heading a massive research facility, with Tom Jr. playing the role of lead inventor and de facto adventurer. Unlike his father, Junior’s adventures are more far flung, taking him to the depths of the oceans, deep underground, and into space, even introducing a race of aliens only known as “space friends.” Despite this, the second series leaned more heavily on actual (or speculative) science than the original, which often slipped into pseudo-scientific territory.
Even if you’re not immediately familiar with (or nostalgic for) the Tom Swift books, their influence is undeniable. The books are touted as being the first true science fiction series, inspiring notable authors such as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, not to mention sparking countless children’s interest in the sciences. Tech guru (and developer of the very first Apple computer) Steve Wozniak has cited the Swift series as inspirational in his youth. Inventor Jack Cover has said that Taser is an acronym for Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle (the “A” was added for easier pronunciation). The series has been revived three more times over the years, with the latest entry published as recently as 2007. Few characters in juvenile fiction can lay claim to such an enduring legacy, and I find it hard to believe the world has seen the last of this young inventor.