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Three Generations of Tom Swift
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Three Generations of Tom Swift

For almost a century, the Stratemeyer Syndicate has anticipated, satisfied, and at times molded the reading tastes of American children. Among the Syndicate's most popular offerings has been its Tom Swift series, which first appeared in 1910, then again in 1954, and yet again in 1981, and which has sought to capitalize on the interest of many American boys (and far less frequently girls,) in adventure intermingled with talk about, remarkable inventions, futuristic technology and space exploration. The first series, the most extensive, influential, and longest running—published from 1910 to 1941—introduced Tom Swift, the young inventor, from whose genius issued one remarkable invention after another. Although exact sales figures [End Page 60] are unknown, Dizer reports that the first Swift series sold in the millions (not including reprints); the second also did well, while it is too soon to tell about the newest (44). Tom Swift must certainly be one of the best known heroes in the history of popular fiction; and the similarities and differences of the three series about him reveal much about this fiction and its relationships with the times in which it was produced.

Edward Stratemeyer planned the first Tom Swift series to take advantage of the market for children's science adventure. According to Dizer, the name of the hero was probably meant to invoke the name of the great, esteemed American inventor, Thomas Edison, while Tom's initial characterization and exploits strikingly parallel Glenn Curtiss, the pioneer aviator, and his achievements (35). The advertising for the new series—"Spirited tales" conveying "in a realistic way" the "wonderful advances in land and sea locomotion"—also suggests that Stratemeyer had carefully studied the juvenile market. Instead of technology in general or Jules Verne-like adventures, the focus of the new series would be new advances in the application of electricity to future transportation: motorcycles, motor boats, airships, and underwater craft powered by an oil-burning engine and electric magnet, and battery-powered automobiles. Stratemeyer assigned the task of writing the series to Howard Garis, his most talented writer, and gave him a new house pseudonym—Victor Appleton.

The success of the first volumes, released as a group as series books generally are, dictated the content and format of the subsequent ones; the cast of characters and the kind of adventures it was embroiled in remained more or less constant. Tom is good, plucky, and invariably triumphant in both solving technical problems and outwitting his rivals. His father and founder of the Swift Construction Company, Barton Swift, is also a talented inventor, but gradually gives way, as the series continues, to his more brilliant and gifted son. Mrs. Baggart, the housekeeper, functions as a kind of substitute for the mother Tom has lost. His best friend and companion, Ned Newton, becomes financial manager of the Swifts' company. Mary Nestor, Tom's childhood sweetheart, eventually marries him; unfortunately, the marriage seems to have been detested by young readers, and it led to the series demise. There is also a Swift entourage: Wakefield Damon, a neighbor of the Swift family, whose favorite expletives involve blessing a variety of objects; Eradicate Sampson or Rad, Mr. Swift's black valet and the butt of jokes which are blatantly racist; and Koku, a gigantic South American prince rescued by Tom, his bodyguard and Rad's rival for Tom's attention and approbation. All the characters are two-dimensional, and undergo no significant change except for a gradual aging—an aging which apparently also contributed to the decline of the series and its eventual death. Important both in the cast of characters and to the plot is the "enemy," Tom's favorite way of referring to his competitor or rival, who, once the series solidified its appeal, changes from one story to another. Except for detailing new inventions and their operation, there is little description. Finally, all the narratives feature much dialogue, most of it stilted and scrupulously correct grammatically.

Throughout the series, there is a pronounced interest in machines and their operation. In Tom Swift and His Wireless Message (1911), Tom is almost always explaining the principles of the wireless to...