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Book cover showing title, and author "Victor Appleton". The title is surmounted by a drawing of a boy in a curly brimmed hat. Around the title are pictures of a plane, a car, a boat and a motor cycle.
Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle (1910), the first Tom Swift book

Tom Swift (in some versions Tom Swift, Jr.) is the name of the central character in five series, totaling over 100 volumes, of juvenile science fiction and adventure novels that emphasize science, invention, and technology. The character was created by Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging firm,. His adventures have been written by a number of different ghostwriters over the years. Most of the books are published under the collective pseudonym Victor Appleton. The 33 volumes of the second series use the pseudonym Victor Appleton II.

The character first appeared in 1910. New titles have been published as recently as 2007. Most of the various series focus on Tom’s inventions, a number of which have anticipated actual inventions. The character has been presented in different ways over the years. In general, the books portray science and technology as wholly beneficial in their effects, and the role of the inventor in society has been treated as admirable and heroic.

Translated into a number of languages, the books have sold over 20 million copies worldwide. Tom Swift has also been the subject of a board game and a television show. Development of a feature film based on the series was announced in 2008.

A number of prominent figures, including Steve Wozniak and Isaac Asimov, have cited "Tom Swift" as an inspiration. Several inventions, including the taser, have been directly inspired by the fictional inventions.



Book cover showing title with TOM SWIFT in huge letters. In the illustration, a group of people look at a large tubular telescope angled upwards to the right.
Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope (1939), from the original Tom Swift series

In his various incarnations, Tom Swift, usually in his teens, is inventive and science-minded. "Swift by name and swift by nature",[1] Tom is portrayed as a natural genius. In the earlier series, he is said to have had little formal education. The character was originally modeled after such figures as Henry Ford,[2] Thomas Edison,[3] and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss.[3] In most of the five series, each book focuses on Tom's latest invention, and its role either in solving a problem or mystery, or in assisting Tom in feats of exploration or rescue. Often Tom must protect his new invention from villains "intent on stealing Tom’s thunder or preventing his success";[1] Tom is always successful in the end.

Many of Tom Swift's fictional inventions either mirrored or presaged actual technological developments. Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers (1911) was based on Charles Parsons's attempts to synthesize diamonds using electric current.[4] Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone was published in 1912; however, the process for sending photographs by telephone was not developed until 1925.[5] Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera (1912) features a portable movie camera, not invented until 1923,[5] and Tom Swift and His Electric Locomotive (1922) was published two years before the Central Railroad of New Jersey placed the first diesel electric locomotive into service.[6] The house on wheels that Tom invents in 1929's Tom Swift and His House on Wheels pre-dated the first house trailer by a year,[5] and Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter (1952) features a flying submarine similar to one planned by the United States Department of Defense four years later in 1956.[6] Other inventions of Tom's have not come to pass, such as the device for silencing airplane engines that he invents in Tom Swift and His Magnetic Silencer (1941).[5]


The character of Tom Swift was conceived in 1910 by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book-packaging company. Stratemeyer invented the series to capitalize on the market for children's science adventure.[7] The Syndicate's authors created the Tom Swift books by first preparing an outline with all the plot elements, followed by drafting and editing the detailed manuscript.[8] The books were published under the house name of Victor Appleton. Edward Stratemeyer and Howard Garis wrote most of the volumes in the original series; Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, wrote the last three volumes.[9] The first Tom Swift series ended in 1941.

In 1954, Harriet Adams created the Tom Swift, Jr., series, which was published under the name "Victor Appleton II". Most titles were outlined and plotted by Adams. The texts were written by various writers, among them William Dougherty, John Almquist, Richard Sklar, James Duncan Lawrence, Tom Mulvey, and Richard McKenna.[10] The Tom Swift, Jr., series ended in 1971.

A third series was begun in 1981 and lasted until 1984. The rights to the Tom Swift character, along with the Stratemeyer Syndicate, were sold in 1984 to publishers Simon and Schuster. They hired New York City book packager Mega-Books to produce further series.[11] Simon and Schuster produced two other Tom Swift series: one, published from 1991 to 1993, and the Tom Swift, Young Inventor series, begun in 2006.


The longest-running series of books to feature Tom Swift is the first Tom Swift series, which ran for 40 volumes.[12] Tom Swift (technically Tom Swift, Jr.) was also the name of the protagonist of the 33 volumes in the Tom Swift, Jr. Adventures, 11 volumes in the third Tom Swift series, 13 volumes in the fourth, and a half-dozen more in the most recent series, Tom Swift, Young Inventor, for a total of 103 volumes over all series. In addition to publication in the United States, Tom Swift books have been published extensively in England, and translated into Norwegian, French, Icelandic, and Finnish.[13]

Original series (1910–1941)

In the original series, Tom Swift lives in Shopton, New York. He is the son of Barton Swift, the founder of the Swift Construction Company. Tom's mother is deceased, but the housekeeper, Mrs. Baggart, functions as a surrogate mother.[7] Tom usually shares his adventures with close friend Ned Newton, who eventually becomes the Swift Construction Company's financial manager. For most of the series, Tom dates Mary Nestor. It has been suggested that his eventual marriage to Mary led to the series' demise, as young boys found a married man harder to identify with than a young, single one;[14] however, after the 1929 marriage the series continued for 12 more years and eight further volumes. Regularly appearing characters include neighbor Wakefield Damon, whose dialogue consists largely of such phrases as "Bless my brakeshoes!" and "Bless my vest buttons!";

The original Tom Swift has been claimed to represent the early 20th-century conception of inventors.[15] Tom has no formal education past the high school level;[16] according to critic Robert Von der Osten, Tom's ability to invent is presented as "somehow innate".[17] Tom is not a theorist but a tinkerer and, later, an experimenter who, with his research team, finds practical applications for others' research;[18] Tom does not so much methodically develop and perfect inventions as find them by blind experimentation.[19]

"'All right, Dad. Go ahead, laugh.'"

"'Well, Tom, I’m not exactly laughing at you ... it's more at the idea than anything else. The idea of talking over a wire and, at the same time, having light waves, as well as electrical waves passing over the same conductors!'"

"'All right, Dad. Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind,' said Tom, good-naturedly. "'Folks laughed at Bell, when he said he could send a human voice over a copper string....'"

From Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1912)[20]

Tom's inventions are not at first innovative. In the first two books of the series, he fixes a motorcycle and a boat, and in the third book he develops an airship, but only with the help of a balloonist.[17] Tom is also at times unsure of himself, looking to his elders for help; as Von der Osten puts it, "the early Tom Swift is more dependent on his father and other adults at first and is much more hesitant in his actions. When his airship bangs into a tower, Tom is uncharacteristically nonplussed and needs support."[21] However, as the series progresses, Tom's inventions "show an increasingly independent genius as he develops devices, such as an electric rifle and a photo telephone, further removed from the scientific norm".[22] Some of Tom's inventions are improvements of then-current technologies,[23] while other inventions were not in development at the time the books were published, but have since been developed.

Second series (1954–1971)

"'Did you have time to learn anything?' Bud asked the young inventor.

Tom shrugged. 'A little. I was using my new gadget as a wave trap or antenna to capture light of a single wave length from certain stars so I could study their red shift.'"

From Tom Swift and His Polar-Ray Dynasphere (1965).[24]

In this series, the Tom Swift of the original series is now the CEO of Swift Enterprises, a four-square-mile facility where inventions are conceived and manufactured. Tom's son, Tom Swift, Jr., is the primary genius of the family. Stratemeyer Syndicate employee Andrew Svenson described the new series as based "on scientific fact and probability, whereas the old Toms were in the main adventure stories mixed with pseudo-science".[25] Three Ph.D.s in science were hired as consultants to the series to ensure scientific accuracy.[14] The younger Tom does not tinker with motorcycles; his inventions and adventures extend from the center of the Earth (in Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster [1954]) to the bottom of the ocean (in Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter [1956]) to the moon (in Tom Swift and the Race to Moon [1958]) and, eventually, the outer solar system (in Tom Swift and His Cosmotron Express [1970]). Later volumes in the series focused increasingly on the extraterrestrial "space friends", as they are called throughout the series.[26] The beings appear as early as the first volume in the series, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab (1954). The Tom Swift, Jr., Adventures were less commercially successful than the first series, selling 6 million copies in total, compared with sales of 14 million copies during the first series.[27]

In contrast to the earlier series, many of Tom, Jr.'s inventions are designed to operate in space,[7] and his "genius is unequivocally original as he constructs nuclear-powered flying labs, establishes outposts in space, or designs ways to sail in space on cosmic rays".[28] Unlike his father, Tom Jr. is not just a tinkerer; he relies on scientific and mathematical theories, and, according to critic Robert Von der Osten, "science [in the books] is, in fact, understood to be a set of theories that are developed based on experimentation and scientific discussion. Rather than being opposed to technological advances, such a theoretical understanding becomes essential to invention."[29]

Tom Swift, Jr.'s Cold War-era adventures and inventions are often motivated by patriotism, as Tom repeatedly defeats the evil agents of the fictional "Kranjovia" and "Brungaria", a place that critic Francis Molson describes as "a vaguely Eastern European country, which is strongly opposed to the Swifts and the U. S. Hence, the Swifts' opposition to and competition with the Brungarians is both personal and patriotic."[7]

Third series (1981–1984)

The third Tom Swift series differs from the first two in that the setting is primarily outer space, although Swift Enterprises (now located in New Mexico) is occasionally mentioned. Tom Swift explores the universe in the starship Excedra, using a faster-than-light drive which he has reverse-engineered from an alien space probe. He is aided by Benjamin Franklin Walking Eagle, a Native American who is Tom's co-pilot, best friend, and an expert computer technician, and Anita, a former rival of Tom's who now works with him as a technician and whose right leg has been rebuilt to contain a miniature computer.[7]

This series maintains only an occasional and loose connection to the continuity of the two previous series. Tom is called the son of "the great Tom Swift"[30] and said to be "already an important and active contributor to the family business, the giant multimillion-dollar scientific-industrial complex known as Swift Enterprises".[31] However, as critic Francis Molson points out, it is not explained whether this Tom Swift is the grandson of the famous Tom Swift of the first series or still the Tom Swift, Jr., of the second.[7]

The Tom Swift of this third series is less of an inventor than his predecessors, and his inventions are rarely at the center of the plot. Still, according to Molson, "Tom the inventor is not ignored. Perhaps the most impressive of his inventions and the one essential to the series as a whole is the robot he designs and builds, Aristotle, which becomes a winning and likeable character in its own right."[7] The books are slower-paced than the Tom Swift, Jr. adventures of the second series, and include realistic, colloquial dialogue.[7] Each volume begins where the last volume ended, and the technology is plausible and accurate.[7]

Fourth series (1991–1993)

The fourth series starring Tom Swift (again a "Jr.") is set entirely on Earth (with occasional space trips to the Moon); Swift Enterprises is now located in California.[32] It is not stated, however, whether this Tom Swift is related to the "Tom Swift"s of the preceding series. The books deal with what Richard Pyle describes as "modern and futuristic concepts" and, as in the third series, feature an ethnically diverse cast of characters.[5]

Like the Tom Swift, Jr. series, the series portrays Tom as a scientist as well as an inventor whose inventions depend on a knowledge of theory.[29] The series differs from previous versions of the character, however, in that Tom’s inventive genius is portrayed as problematic and sometimes dangerous. As Robert Von der Osten argues, Tom's inventions in this series often have unexpected and negative repercussions. Among other inventions, Tom develops

a device to create a miniature black hole which casts him into an alternative universe; a device that trains muscles but also distorts the mind of the user; and a genetic process which, combined with the effect of his black hole, results in a terrifying devolution. Genius here begins to recapitulate earlier myths of the mad scientist whose technological and scientific ambitions are so out of harmony with nature and contemporary science that the results are usually unfortunate.[28]

The series features more violence than previous series; in The Negative Zone, Tom blows up a motel room to escape the authorities.[27]

Fifth series (2006–2007)

The fifth series, "Tom Swift, Young Inventor", returns Tom Swift to Shopton, New York, and Tom is the son of Tom Swift and Mary Nestor, the names of characters in the original Tom Swift series.[33] The series features inventions that are close to current technology "rather than ultra-futuristic".[33]

Other media

In his various incarnations, Tom Swift’s adventures total over a hundred volumes that have been translated into numerous languages and published around the world. Parker Brothers produced a Tom Swift board game in 1966,[34] and the character has appeared in one television show and is to appear in a feature film. In addition, various Tom Swift radio shows, television shows, and films have been planned, but were not released or, in some cases, produced.

Film and television

As early as 1914, Edward Stratemeyer proposed making a Tom Swift film; no film, however, was made.[35] A Tom Swift radio series was proposed in 1946. Two scripts were written, but, for unknown reasons, the series was never produced.[35] A television pilot for a series to be called The Adventures of Tom Swift was produced in 1958, starring Garry Vinson. However, legal problems prevented the pilot's distribution, and it was never aired; no copies of the pilot or its script are known to have survived.[35] Twentieth Century Fox planned a Tom Swift musical in 1968, to be directed by Gene Kelly. A script was written and approved, and filming was to have begun in 1969. However, the project was canceled, due to the poor reception of Dr. Doolittle and Star,[1] and a $500,000 airship that had been built as a prop was sold to an amusement park.[35] Yet another film was planned in 1974, but, again, was cancelled.[35]

A Tom Swift media project finally came to fruition in 1983 when Willie Aames appeared as Tom Swift along with Lori Loughlin as Linda Craig in a television special, "The Tom Swift and Linda Craig Mystery Hour", which aired on July 3.[35] In 2007, digital studio Worldwide Biggies, founded by Nickelodeon and Spike TV executive Albie Hecht, acquired film rights to Tom Swift.[36] Following the model of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, the company plans to release a feature film and video game, followed by a television series. According to Hecht, the film will likely be produced in a combination of live action and CGI, or motion capture; the character will be set in the present day, with Tom Swift working for leading green company Swift Enterprises.[36]

Cultural impact

The Tom Swift books have been credited with laying the foundations for success of American science fiction and with establishing the edisonade (stories focusing on brilliant scientists and inventors) as a basic cultural myth.[37] Tom Swift's adventures have been popular since the character’s inception in 1910: by 1914, 150,000 copies a year were being sold[35] and in a 1929 study found the series to be second in popularity only to the Bible for boys in their early teens.[38] Up to 2009, Tom Swift books have sold over 30 million copies worldwide.[1] The series' writing style, which was sometimes adverb-heavy, suggested a name for a type of adverbial pun promulgated in the 1960s, the "Tom Swifties".[39] Some examples are: "'I lost my crutches,' said Tom lamely"; and "'I'll take the prisoner downstairs', said Tom condescendingly."[39]

Two young men struggle with a piece of futuristic machinery as a ball of light streaks from the sky toward the device. In the background a large explosion throws stones up into the air.
Cover of Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X (1961), from the Tom Swift, Jr. Adventure Series

Tom Swift's fictional inventions have directly inspired several actual inventions, among them Lee Felsenstein's "Tom Swift Terminal", which "drove the creation of an early personal computer known as the Sol",[40] and the taser. The name "taser" was originally "TSER", for "Tom Swift Electric Rifle". The invention was named after the central device in Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (1911); according to inventor Jack Cover, "an 'A' was added because we got tired of answering the phone 'TSER.'"[41]

A number of scientists, inventors, and science fiction writers have also credited Tom Swift with inspiring them, including Ray Kurzweil,[42] Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.[43] The Tom Swift, Jr. adventures were Steve Wozniak's favorite reading as a boy[44] and inspired him to become a scientist.[45] According to Wozniak, reading the Tom Swift books made him feel "that engineers can save the world from all sorts of conflict and evil".[46]

Tom Swift's Ultrasonic Cycloplane is developed to break the sound barrier and fly by a different principle from traditional aircraft; his jetmarine is developed to go deeper and faster and use an unusual type of propulsion. The novelty of the invention is the focus; while the invention may in the end accomplish some good, that social end is usually far from the inventor's mind.... [Tom's] inventions seem to be either for the military, especially during World War I (giant cannon, aerial warship, war tank, and air scout) or for the wealthy, who buy the Swift Pigeon Special as a private plane, all contributing to the bottom line for Swift Enterprises.... invention is an avocation, a diversion, made possible by wealth and the already existing advanced technology.[47]


  1. ^ Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Prager; see Help:Cite error.
  2. ^ Burt (2004), 322.
  3. ^ a b Dizer (1982), 35.
  4. ^ Hazen (1999), 30.
  5. ^ a b c d e Pyle (1991).
  6. ^ a b "Tom Swift, Master Inventor" (1956).
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Molson (1985).
  8. ^ This method was used for all Stratemeyer Syndicate series; for further discussion, see Carol Billman, The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Ungar, 1986. ISBN 0804420556.
  9. ^ Johnson (1982), 23.
  10. ^ Johnson (1982), 26–27.
  11. ^ Plunkett-Powell (1993), 29.
  12. ^ Dizer (1982), 145.
  13. ^ Fowler (1962).
  14. ^ a b "Chip off the Old Block" (1954)
  15. ^ Molson (1999), 9–10.
  16. ^ Prager (1971), 131.
  17. ^ a b Von der Osten (2004), 269.
  18. ^ Molson (1999), 10.
  19. ^ Von der Osten (2004), 278–279.
  20. ^ Quoted in Prager (1976).
  21. ^ Von der Osten (2004), 271.
  22. ^ Von der Osten (2004), 270.
  23. ^ Sullivan (1999), 23.
  24. ^ Appleton II (1965), 4.
  25. ^ Andrew Svenson, quoted in Dizer (1982), 45.
  26. ^ See Dizer (1982), 59.
  27. ^ a b Disch (2007).
  28. ^ a b Von der Osten (2004), 270.
  29. ^ a b Von der Osten (2004), 279.
  30. ^ Appleton (1981), 38.
  31. ^ Appleton (1981), 10–11.
  32. ^ Davis (1991), 73.
  33. ^ a b Carter (2006).
  34. ^ Erardi (2008).
  35. ^ a b c d e f g Keeline.
  36. ^ a b Hayes (2007).
  37. ^ Landon (2002), 48.
  38. ^ Von der Osten (2004), 268.
  39. ^ a b "Season for Swifties" (1963).
  40. ^ Turner (2006), 115.
  41. ^ Sun Wire Services (2009).
  42. ^ Pilkington (2009), 32.
  43. ^ Bleiler and Bleiler (1990), 15.
  44. ^ Kendall (2000), 4.
  45. ^ Linzmayer (2004), 1.
  46. ^ Comment published on the blurb to Nitrozac (2003).
  47. ^ Von der Osten (2004), 273–274.


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