Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm
barondave

Tom Swift: 100 Years Of The Future

An article for climateprogress.org which isn't posted yet ETA Now up as part of Tom Swift and the birth of American techno-optimism.

The end of the 19th Century was a period of intense technological advance. As usual, it took about a half-generation, roughly 15 years, before the kids who grew up with these advances would use them to change the world forever.

Fifteen years after H.G. Wells published “The Time Machine” and fifteen years (or so) before Hugo Gernsback coined the marketing category “science fiction”, the adventures of a teenaged inventor captured the imagination. "Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, or Fun and Adventure on the Road" was the first of four pulp novels published in 1910. Motorcycles may not seem like the "goshwowboyoboy" invention today, but they were on the cutting edge of technology of the time: In 1905, there were 78,000 motor vehicles in the US; by 1915 the number had risen to 2.33 million.

"Tom Swift and His Motorcycle" was followed by "Tom Swift and His Motor Boat", "Tom Swift and His Airship", "Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat" and "Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout". These were all written by Howard Garis under the house pseudonym Victor Appleton. I confess I haven't read more than a few of the older, Tom Swift Sr., books. Unlike the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew series, the original Tom Swift books were never "updated" from their Edwardian-Era settings. The first series ran for 31 years, spanning current technology (like the motor boat) through the City of Adventure, Talking Pictures (pretty good for 1928), Sky Train and Magnetic Silencer. Along the way, Tom got married, so he wasn't quite the "young" inventor anymore. Tom got a life where Superman didn't. Tom Swift was more than adventure: He grew up, and we grew with him.

The impact of Tom Swift is hard to quantify. The original series sold in the millions, not including reprints, and the second series did well. At least one invention was named after the fictional character: Taser stands for "Thomas A Swift's Electric Rifle". An entire class of jokes, the Tom Swifty, pays homage to the author's stylistic attempt to avoid the standard "he said" when writing dialog.

Before I could read, my mother used to read Tom Swift Jr. books to her kids. They were Hi! Sci! Fi! Adventure! which used just-over-cutting edge technology… and beyond. Tom was not slow to invent a bunch of neat-o gadgets and explore the possible just-over-the-rainbow future. Jonny Quest, another son of a scientist who went on exciting adventures in exotic locales, was more about the action; Tom Swift was about the interplay of ideas.

Tom Swift Jr. was written by by several people under the house pseudonym Victor Appleton II. (Hey, I thought it was clever.) The series was dumbed down enough for kids, with repeating characters and catchphrases, and smart enough to fire up the imagination even decades later. Perhaps the better titles stick in my mind, or perhaps I should have been picking favorite writers (assuming that info was easy enough for a ten-year-old to find). But I remember "Tom Swift Jr. and His Deep-Sea Hydrodome", with repelatron tech that reminded me of the electro-gravitic spectra in Heinlein's "Sixth Column". I remember "Tom Swift Jr. and His Triphibian Atomicar" which came out about the same time as the British tv show "Supercar".

The series got dumber and dumber by the late 60s and early 70s. Or maybe I grew out of them. . I haven't gone back to reread them since I went off to college and bequeathed my collection to brother Joe. I'm almost afraid to.

And having moved on, I never dipped my literary toes into Tom Swift III, IV or V. They are not for me anymore. Several new generations of young boys (and the occasional girl) have their imagination fired up by the incarnations of Tom Swift. After 100 years as a pulp character written by many authors, Tom's stories continue to be created where other characters live in the published works of long ago.
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