- Historic Sites
Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift
the world’s greatest inventor
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
That splendid back yard was able to house not only the industries, but hangars large enough for dirigibles, locomotives, and a dozen or more airplanes of different sizes. It seemed to grow with the company. The Swift employees, moreover, were quite capable of working on any sort of rolling stock, aircraft, or war materiel without additional training. They had no union, and were proud and happy to work around the clock for Tom.
Head of the Swift household was Tom’s father, widower Barton Swift, a “natural inventor” who was “quite wealthy having amassed a considerable fortune from several of his patents.” We never find out exactly what these patents are, although there are hints. In the first book of the series, Barton Swift is identified as the inventor of the “Swift safety lamp” and the “turbine motor.” In the third and fourth books it is Mr. Swift who designs the submarine Advance and whose innovations enable the airship Red Cloud to fly.
Apparently the old gentleman was too much competition, and after Tom Swift and His Airship the inventions were Tom’s alone. The elder Swift was reduced to a shadow of his former self, an invalid constantly on the brink of extinction from a massive coronary. He became progressively feebler and was given to occasional bouts of amnesia (Tom had to come to his rescue again and again), which still did not prevent him from becoming a director of the Shopton Bank after the Swift industries became the town’s major employer.
Mr. Swift’s primary role in the series was to be a kind of prophet of ill omen. In each book he warns his son away from an invention on the grounds that it just won’t work. “You can’t expect to take quick-firing guns and bombs in an airship and have them work properly. Better give it up,” he tells Tom in 1915. In 1926 he comments on his son’s attempt to establish a coast-to-coast airline charging $1,000 a ticket: “I’m afraid this is a failure. It’s too much for you.” When Tom attempts to blast a tunnel through the Andes with his new super explosive, Mr. Swift points out that … it’s compressed molten lava. You’ll never get an explosive that will successfully blast that, Tom.” He scorns the idea of a photo telephone:
In each book the old man is forced to apologize when his caveats prove to be wrong, a device which must have delighted the readers.
It was a Stratemeyer trademark to slip in a touch of lump-in-the-throat sentiment between adventures and jokes. The young readers would have given anything to hear that kind of remark from their own lathers, and seldom did.
The rest of the Swift ménage consisted of a two-dimensional self-effacing housekeeper, Mrs. Baggert, who provided meals, and Tom’s assistant, Garret Jackson, who actually helped build some of the inventions. In the later books he was demoted to a kind of shop foreman-cum-janitor.
The last member of the household was a favorite Stratemeyer joke, the low-comedy Negro, obsequious, stupid, superstitious, and a great mangier of the English language. Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, “Rad” for short, has counterparts in most of the earlier Stratemeyer series. He got his strange first name because “Well, yo’ see I eradicates de dirt. I’se a cleaner an’ a whitewasher by profession, an’ somebody gib me dat name.”
Described as “old” in the first book, Rad was practically senile by the last one. (Only Rad and Mr. Swift aged as the series progressed. Everyone else remained exactly the same age for more than thirty years, except for Tom’s one-time jump from sixteen to twenty-one.) Rad could neither read nor write and was never happier than when he was assigned a humiliating or dirty job, such as sweeping up or doing the late shift of guard duty. He referred to himself as “dis ole coon” or “dis yeah nigger” and seemed to have no friends or relatives except a cantankerous mule named Boomerang. He attended an occasional “colored people’s dance” and ate in Jim Crow cars when he accompanied Tom on his exciting trips.