Tom Swift (in the 2nd series Tom Swift, Jr.) is the central character in five series of books, first appearing in 1910, totaling more than 100 volumes, of American 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 different ghostwriters over the years. Most of the books are published under the collective pseudonym of Victor Appleton. The 33 volumes of the second series use the pseudonym Victor Appleton II.
New titles have been published as recently as 2007. Most of the various series focus on Tom's inventions, a number of which 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 is treated as admirable and heroic.
Translated into many languages, the books have sold over 30 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.
Several 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. "TASER" is an acronym for "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle."
In his various incarnations, Tom Swift, usually in his teens, is inventive and science-minded, "Swift by name and swift by nature." Tom is portrayed as a natural genius. In the earlier series, he is said to have had little formal education, the character originally modeled after such figures as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. 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," but 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. Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone was published in 1912. One source claims the process for sending photographs by telephone was not developed until 1925. However, the first commercial wired telefax service was established in 1865, more than a decade before the invention of the telephone.
Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera (1912) features a portable movie camera, not invented until 1923 according to one source. However, many early movie cameras were portable by one man, and a hand-held home movie camera for semi-professional work was designed in 1921 by Emanuel Goldberg.
One source mentions 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; this is a non sequitur, since the book refers to a purely electrical loco powered from overhead lines, of the sort which came into regular service in the late 19th century. 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, but post-dates the widespread use of Romany caravans for living by about a century. 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. But this book was published more than a decade after the Soviet flying submarine project began and nearly 50 years after Jules Verne's 1904 novel Master of the World featured a flying submarine. 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).
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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The longest-running series of books to feature Tom Swift is the first, which ran for forty volumes. 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.
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. Baggert, functions as a surrogate mother. 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; however, after the 1929 marriage the series continued for 12 more years and eight further volumes. Regularly appearing characters include Wakefield Damon, an older man, whose dialogue is characterized by frequent use of such expressions 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. Tom has no formal education past the high school level; according to critic Robert Von der Osten, Tom's ability to invent is presented as "somehow innate". Tom is not a theorist but a tinkerer and, later, an experimenter who, with his research team, finds practical applications for others' research; Tom does not so much methodically develop and perfect inventions as find them by blind experimentation.
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. 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." 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". Some of Tom's inventions are improvements of then-current technologies, while other inventions were not in development at the time the books were published, but have since been developed.
Second series (1954–1971)
In this series, presented as an extension and continuation of the first, the Tom Swift of the original series is now the CEO of Swift Enterprises, a four-mile-square enclosed facility where inventions are conceived and manufactured. Tom's son, Tom Swift, Jr., is now 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". Three Ph.D.s in science were hired as consultants to the series to ensure scientific accuracy. 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 ) to the bottom of the ocean (in Tom Swift and His Diving Seacopter ) to the moon (in Tom Swift and the Race to Moon ) and, eventually, the outer solar system (in Tom Swift and His Cosmotron Express ). Later volumes in the series focused increasingly on the extraterrestrial "space friends", as they are called throughout the series. 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.
In contrast to the earlier series, many of Tom Jr.'s inventions are designed to operate in space, 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". 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."
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", the latter 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."
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 Exedra, using a faster-than-light drive 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 Thorwald, 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.
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" 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". 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.
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." The books are slower-paced than the Tom Swift, Jr. adventures of the second series, and include realistic, colloquial dialogue. Each volume begins where the last one ended, and the technology is plausible and accurate.
Fourth series (1991–1993)
The fourth series starring Tom Swift (again a "Jr.") is set mostly on Earth (with occasional space trips to the Moon); Swift Enterprises is now located in California. In the first book, The Black Dragon, it's mentioned that Tom is the son of Tom Swift Sr. and Mary Nestor. 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.
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. 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.
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.
The series features more violence than previous series; in The Negative Zone, Tom blows up a motel room to escape the authorities.
There was a spin-off of this series with Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys called A Hardy Boys & Tom Swift Ultra Thriller that ran from 1992 to 1993, and only had 2 volumes released. Both books dealt with Science Fiction topics (time travel and aliens landing on earth).
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. The series features inventions that are close to current technology "rather than ultra-futuristic".
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, 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 were planned and even written, but were either never produced or not released.
Film and television
As early as 1914, Edward Stratemeyer proposed making a Tom Swift film, but no film was made. A Tom Swift radio series was proposed in 1946. Two scripts were written, but, for unknown reasons, the series was never produced. A television pilot for a series to be called The Adventures of Tom Swift was filmed in 1958, starring Gary Vinson. However, legal problems prevented the pilot's distribution, and it was never aired; no copies of the pilot are known to exist, though the pilot script is available. Twentieth Century Fox planned a Tom Swift feature film 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 owing to the poor reception of Doctor Dolittle and Star!; a $500,000 airship that had been built as a prop was sold to an amusement park. Yet another film was planned in 1974, but, again, was cancelled. Scripts were also written for a proposed television series involving both Tom Swift Jr. and his father, the hero of the original book series. Glen A. Larson wrote an unproduced television pilot entitled "TS, I Love You: The Further Adventures of Tom Swift" in 1977, as well. This series was to be with a Nancy Drew series, a Hardy Boys series, and a Dana Girls series. Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys were eventually combined into a one hour show alternating episodes.
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. It failed to capture the spirit of Tom Swift and was a ratings failure. In 2007, digital studio Worldwide Biggies, founded by Nickelodeon and Spike TV executive Albie Hecht, acquired film rights to Tom Swift. Following the model of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, the company has announced 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.
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. Tom Swift's adventures have been popular since the character's inception in 1910: by 1914, 150,000 copies a year were being sold and in a 1929 study found the series to be second in popularity only to the Bible for boys in their early teens. Up to 2009, Tom Swift books have sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
The series' writing style, which was sometimes adverb-heavy, suggested a name for a type of adverbial pun promulgated in the 1950s and 1960s, a type of wellerism called "Tom Swifties". Originally this kind of pun was called a "Tom Swiftly" in reference to the adverbial usage, but over time has come to be called a "Tom Swifty."  Some examples are: "'I lost my crutches,' said Tom lamely"; and "'I'll take the prisoner downstairs', said Tom condescendingly."
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", 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.'"
A number of scientists, inventors, and science fiction writers have also credited Tom Swift with inspiring them, including Ray Kurzweil, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. The Tom Swift, Jr. adventures were Steve Wozniak's favorite reading as a boy and inspired him to become a scientist. According to Wozniak, reading the Tom Swift books made him feel "that engineers can save the world from all sorts of conflict and evil".
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- The Original Tom Swift Series Public Domain Texts
- Tom Swift on Project Gutenberg
- The Tom Swift Unofficial Home Page