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Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift
the world’s greatest inventor
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
By 1929 the series had begun to lose popularity. The thrill of airplanes, automobiles, and telephones was waning. They had become commonplace items. In the later books of the series, Stratemeyer switched from vehicles to industrial breakthroughs: oil-well drilling equipment, movies, fire fighting devices (the plot of the motion picture Towering Inferno was almost an exact duplicate of that of Tom Swift Among the Fire Fighters , a 1921 work in which Tom saved a number of unfortunates trapped by a fire on a high floor of a skyscraper office building). But it was no use. Tom’s fans had simply outgrown him.
And Stratemeyer himself was wearing out after thirty years of superhuman effort. What remained of his genius was directed toward new series: the Baseball Joe books, the Bomba series, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys. Good old Tom, whose sales were dipping alarmingly, was relegated more and more to subordinates. In 1929, a year before his death, Stratemeyer, with characteristic sentiment, allowed the young inventor to marry his patient, long-suffering sweetheart and settle down in the House on Wheels. This was a Stratemeyer custom for the heroes of his landmark series. The Rover Boys had been allowed to marry and settle into adjoining Riverside Drive brownstones when their popularity dimmed.
After Stratemeyer’s death, six additional books were written, but the old magic was gone. It was as though Tom had died with his creator. Then the World War 11 paper shortage dealt a final deathblow to the boy inventor, and the series was discontinued, presumably forever.
In 1954 Mrs. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams inaugurated the Tom Swift, Jr., series about Tom’s only son. He dabbles in bathyspheres, electronic devices, space travel, and radioactive metals. Junior works out of a huge flying laboratory and owns a three-stage, 130-foot interplanetary rocket. He gets along well with Jews and blacks.
A copy of the 1910 edition of Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle , which sold for fifty cents when it came out, now costs $75 and is worth every penny. The books are as much fun to read as they ever were, anachronisms and prejudices notwithstanding; one can always put them in the context of their times. A few years back Twentieth Century Fox Films planned a musical about Tom’s life, to be directed by Gene Kelly, but it was shelved after the debacles of Dr. Doolittle and Star had brought the company to near bankruptcy. The project may yet be revived. In recent years there have been profitable revivals of the Tarzan and Dr. Fu Manchu stories. Who knows? Maybe Tom will be revived too. Boys are still boys and motorcycles and racingplanes are still exciting, even if they were invented so very long ago.