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"I Can Build It!" Tom Said Inventively:
The Strange History of the Six Tom Swifts

It started with a motorcycle.

Not a flying motorcycle. Not one with jump rockets, magnetic impeller wheels, or wall climbing spikes. Just an ordinary broken-down motorcycle Tom Swift fixed back in 1910.

Then it was a motorboat bought at auction.

It hardly seems much of a beginning for forty novels—one of the most successful young adult series of its day—not even if his next book featured a combination airplane and dirigible. But Tom’s exploits sold fourteen million books. His son, Tom Swift, Jr. sold another six million. Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, real life scientists; inventors Ray Kurzweil, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson; kids’ show host Bill Nye; and even the author of Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, read Tom Swift.

Which doesn’t change the fact that most of his exploits seem rather tame today.


While credited to “Victor Appleton,” his true creator was a remarkable writer and businessman, Edward Stratemeyer. He started out in the dime novels of the late nineteenth century and, after Horatio Alger died, was chosen to take his place. He ghosted the last eleven Horatio Algers before going into business on his own, packaging and selling children’s books series. He invented the characters and situations, drafted outlines, then hired writers to finish the books. While others had packaged books before, he was the first to specialize in children’s books.

His first big success was The Rover Boys, but he would continue launching new series throughout his career, often shamelessly ripping off others’ ideas, like Bomba the Jungle Boy.

Tom Swift wasn’t his first science fiction series: that was the short-lived Great Marvel series, a far more extravagant effort that might have come straight out of Jules Verne. One has virtually the same plot as Hector Servadac, and its final volume featured a trip to Saturn.

Most of Tom Swift was actually written by his top writer, Howard Garis, a reporter who wrote books on the side and created Uncle Wiggily.

One might describe Tom as “Thomas Edison, boy inventor,” but Edison was an old man in 1910. Stratemeyer’s model was probably Henry Ford, whom he admired.

Ford built his first cars in his garage before turning them into a vast industry: Tom Swift did the same, using his old inventions to fund new efforts. His father, Barton, was also an inventor, and he helped Tom in the first books. However, Barton soon became an invalid and in most books he is the voice of doom, warning Tom that his latest invention wouldn’t work. You’d think after the first thirty times he’d realize that Tom could make the impossible possible.

They lived in Shopton, a small Upstate New York town. It bore a strong resemblance to aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss’ hometown, Hammondsport. Tom’s spacious backyard (with access to the nearby lake) would prove big enough to house factories and dirigible hangers.

Stratemeyer deliberately made the inventions only a little ahead of reality: Tom dabbled in such mundane projects as an electric runabout, a house on wheels, a silent airplane, and one that could fly one hundred and thirty miles an hour when the record was still fifty-two.

But others were more outlandish, like a color big-screen television when TV was still strictly experimental, or videophones, or a giant telescope. A few were more fantasy than anything else, like the strange material that could grant endless life he hoped to find in a big meteorite, or his claim to have seen life on Mars.

The books started with Tom working on something new. Someone, whether rivals, criminals, or foreign spies, tried to steal it, sending Tom and his “chum” Ned Newton off on a new adventure where Tom’s latest invention is just what they needed to stop the bad guys.

Ned’s sister Mary was Tom’s love interest. She married him eventually and then virtually vanishes. Then there’s Tom’s eccentric neighbor, Wakefield Damon, who loved machines, but tended to crash them into the nearest tree. He gave Tom the wreckage of that motorcycle and became more or less part of the family. Other regulars included the housekeeper, Mrs. Baggert, Tom’s assistant, Garret Jackson, and two comedy relief characters, an old black janitor and a giant jungle wild man named Koku, whose antics have been embarrassing more sensitive modern audiences for years.

Tom was sixteen when the series started and twenty-one when it ended thirty-one years later. However, the world had changed: the daring exploits of pilots and race car drivers were no longer big news. Stratemeyer tried moving from inventions to more adventurous stories, but even before his death, Tom’s sales were in decline. He left the Stratemeyer Syndicate to his two daughters: Harriet Adams bought out her sister and took over. She would continue the books for another six volumes, although the series really ended in 1935 with the final book from Grosset and Dunlap: Whitman then reprinted many of the books and published two Better Little Books with a big illustration on every other page.


The late forties brought major changes to the Syndicate: they moved heavily into detective stories, thanks to the success of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. But so much had changed since the twenties and thirties that the early books had to be revised and rewritten.

Unfortunately, Tom Swift was too antiquated and they abandoned him.

Until Rick Brant appeared on the scene in 1947.

Rick was the star of another Grosset and Dunlap series that outsold many of the Syndicate’s titles. He lived on Spindrift Island, the home of the scientific research facilities of the Spindrift Foundation. His father, Hartson Brant, ran the foundation, and Rick and his pals—teenaged former marine Scotty (who lied about his age to enlist: this may sound absurd, but made more sense just after World War II) and Chahda, an Indian boy who learned everything he knew from an old copy of the World Almanac—roamed the world fighting spies and carrying out various bits of scientific research with the help of Steve Ames, a secret agent assigned to protect them.

Rick’s books were described as “Electronic Adventures” and “Science-Adventure Stories.” Hal Goodwin, a popular science writer with a strong sense of style rare in juvenile books, wrote them: they were far better than his competitors’, with interesting plots and lots of suspense. But it’s hard to miss the influence of Tom Swift, particularly when you notice just how close “Hartson” is to Tom’s father, “Barton.” While they included a lot of interesting science (e.g. a reference to Lake Baikal, which is so deep and undisturbed that heavy water naturally settles out), they were set in the real world and the inventions were real.

So, in 1948, Harriet, following the family tradition of cashing in on whatever was popular, started work on a new Tom Swift, the son of the original: Tom Swift, Jr.

This Tom was eighteen: younger than the Tom of the later books, but older than the early one. Like his father, he had no formal education—although he already had his license for flying jet aircraft and government approval for handling radioactive materials. His father still ran Swift Enterprises out of Shopton, New York. While Tom created many inventions of his own, his dad still has all the best ones, like Thomasite, a light, superstrong building material that also shields you from radioactivity (and anything else the plot requires) or the Repellatron ray, which could selectively repel any specified form of matter with pinpoint accuracy. However, Tom makes good use of his father’s inventions and incredible facilities, which make building a vertical takeoff plane the size of a 747, a submersible jet plane, or a spaceship easy.

There is a suspicious resemblance between Tom Jr. and Rick Brant, down to the fact that both have a kid sister who appears in many of the stories. However, while both fight spies and have corporate intrigue, Tom’s adventures involved science fiction gadgets. These had to appear on the cover, along with the main characters (which led to some very crowded covers!).

Harriet recruited several experts—including a high school science teacher and a college professor—to vet her stories. She wasn’t too worried about getting the details exactly right, just whether it was plausible and nothing was obviously wrong. After the first four books finally came out in 1954 (the Syndicate launched new series by releasing four at once to gauge public interest), Harriet made an even more important addition to her team: James Duncan Lawrence.

Lawrence had a mechanical engineering degree and a background in radio drama. He wrote twenty-three Tom Swifts before his departure in 1971, often creating his own plots and characters. He later worked for Marvel, and wrote the James Bond and Buck Rogers comic strips.

Officially, though, the books were the work of “Victor Appleton II.” The ads claimed he “inherited his wonderful storytelling ability from the original Victor Appleton.”

Tom’s adventures carried him around the world, deep beneath the sea, and even into space. Early in the series, the Swifts received a signal from space and spent years trying to communicate with the people of Planet X—who would even give them instructions for a robot-like “container” for the incorporeal alien intelligence they sent to Earth.


Tom Swift also attracted his share of imitators.

In 1930, when the Ledger Syndicate wanted a comic strip like Buck Rogers, they created Jack Swift, a boy adventurer and inventor with a definite resemblance to Tom (even if Tom never ran afoul of alien penguins). It ran until 1934, but small-town papers reprinted it for years afterward. A Better Little Book came out a year before Whitman’s first Tom Swift reprints, but Jack is long forgotten.

Or consider Danny Dunn, who first appeared in 1956. The hero of a far more respectable series, he lived in a small town much like Shopton. While the books are more humorous and small-town, Danny dabbled in inventions with the help of his mother’s employer, Professor Bullfinch, and would go into space, through time, and to the bottom of the sea.

Then there is the curious story of Jonny Quest; Hanna-Barbera wanted a TV version of the Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy radio show (who bears more than a little resemblance to Tom Swift as he goes on adventures around the world with his wealthy industrialist uncle), but couldn’t get the rights.

So they created an original show remarkably like both Rick Brant and Tom Swift, Jr.: Jonny’s father is Dr. Benton Quest (not Barton. Or Hartson), a brilliant scientist working with the government. Like Rick, the Quests lived on an island, had a pet dog, and a secret agent assigned to protect them. There’s even an Indian boy.

But the Brants never had to deal with walking spider robots or sea monsters. Jonny’s adventures were loaded with scientific gadgets and weapons, and the Quests even flew around in the Supersonic Quest Jet (one of Dr. Quest’s inventions), much as Tom’s flying lab, the Sky Queen, was the Swift family’s main transport.

Jonny was far younger than any version of Tom Swift: while clever and resourceful, he left the science and invention stuff to his dad.

Then there is the strange case of The Towering Inferno, whose plot is almost identical to parts of Tom Swift Among the Fire Fighters (1921). But that might just be a coincidence.

The Syndicate spent years promoting Tom Swift movies and radio shows. Several projects nearly got made, although the failure of Dr. Dolittle sank a musical directed by Gene Kelly. They finally got a TV special, The Tom Swift And Linda Craig Mystery Hour, but it never turned into a series, even if The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series created with it became a hit.

The only other major spin-off was a Tom Swift Jr. board game, briefly available in limited numbers in the northeast.

In the real world, people love to claim that Tom Swift—particularly Sr. (whose inventions were more speculative—if that’s even the right word for something we’d like if it were invented, rather than predicted by science—and usually accompanied by hand-waving explanations)—predicted a lot of future developments, like Skype or cell phones, or point to such oddities as a Soviet-era flying sub (a project desperately in need of Thomasite) as predictions that came true, or compare his color TV that sees through stone walls to modern imaging devices.

When NASA researcher Jack Cover marketed his new invention in 1974, he named it the Taser, or “Thomas A. Swift Electronic Rifle” after the 1911 novel Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. Mind you, Tom’s rifle was far more advanced and could shoot actual balls of electricity (like Captain Nemo’s underwater guns).

The strangest spin-off from the series is what is known as a “Tom Swifty“: the books were written quickly, lacked stylistic elegance, and tended toward the sensational. Characters rarely said anything if they could growl, grunt, or snarl it. In the early books, every conversation was littered with adverbs. This led to a type of joke with a quote paired to a punning adverb:

“I have a thousand dollars,” Tom said grandly;

“Let’s analyze this,” Tom said scientifically;

“The boat is sinking!” Tom gushed.

It’s a strange legacy.


Tom Swift was not marketed the way most books were. Grosset and Dunlap sold juvenile novels through five and dime stores, displaying rows of low-priced hardback books with matching covers. Professional librarians looked down on them and refused to shelve them, no matter how much kids begged for them (one remote library in our region had whole runs of The Hardy Boys and Rick Brant. It was enough to make any eleven year old cry), but they were relatively inexpensive and lots of people bought them for their children.

From the dime novels, Edward Stratemeyer learned to end every chapter on a little cliff-hanger, to drag the reader into the next section and keep them reading. It is very hard to put down a Tom Swift—Jr. or Sr.—once you start it.

But the rise of the paperback changed everything—and finally revealed the existence of the secretive Syndicate to the general public:

Harriet wanted to add cheap softcover reprints to their arsenal, so she moved the Syndicate’s books to Simon and Schuster in 1975.

Grosset and Dunlap sued her, claiming that they owned the books. In the end, they kept the right to sell the published books while Simon and Schuster got the new books and could reprint the old ones as well.

Ten of the Tom Jr. books came out in paperback (from Grosset and Dunlap!), but the series had already reached its end: sales waned as we reached the moon, the space race ground to a halt, and the baby boomers grew up. After thirty-three novels, the last came out in 1971.

Ten years later, Harriet revived Tom, this time as a young space pilot in an unspecified future. His adventures took place in outer space and didn’t involve inventions except for Aristotle, the robot friend he built. His father was also Tom Swift, although it’s not clear which Tom, and he might be the grandson, or even great-grandson of the original. Swift Enterprises still exists, only now it is based in Shopton, New Mexico.

These books were written by science fiction writers, including one who’d been a pornographer, and Mike McQuay, best known for his hard-boiled future PI, Mathew Swain. But the new series didn’t sell well, ending eleven novels later in 1984.


Harriet Adams died in 1982. Her heirs sold the Syndicate to Simon and Schuster in 1984.

Other new Tom Swifts followed, although they went back to small-town Earth in the next series, with a Tom Jr. who actually makes mistakes and crosses over with the Hardy Boys in two books.

The fifth series was told in first person by Tom Jr., and the most recent series, Tom Swift Inventors’ Academy, took place in a school for genius inventors run by Tom Sr., where Jr. is a new student. Harry Putterer, you might say.

But none of these were ever as popular as the original.

The series had gone from cultural phenomenon to yet another children’s entertainment product in an overcrowded market.

The truth is that Tom Swift belongs in his own era, a time when we were ready to build better and brighter worlds, and hadn’t yet cluttered our lives with so many modern marvels (that really aren’t all that helpful) that giant telescopes or overgrown magnets no longer excite us.

Somehow Tom’s inventive imagination and sense of adventure seems out of place in a world that has long since lost its own. Which is a shame. But at least we can still hand on the old Tom Swift Jr.s to the next generation in the hope that they might feel some of that same excitement.

Even if they seem a little quaint because we’ve done so many of the things Tom did.

 . . . After all, DARPA is still working on its own flying sub.

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ISSUE 169, October 2020

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Cole

Mark Cole hates writing bios. Despite many efforts he has never written one he likes, perhaps because there are many other things he'd rather be writing. He writes from Warren, Pennsylvania, where he has managed to avoid writing about himself for both newspaper and magazine articles. His musings on Science Fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld and at IROSF.com, while his most recent story, "Let's Start from the Top..." appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

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