Bless My Collar Button, If It Isn’t Tom Swift

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The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of creative progress. Invention, especially the kind that was designed to improve the quality of life, had taken firm hold of the public imagination and would not let go for nearly a century. The average citizen, who would one dayswitch channels out of boredom during an astronaut’ moon walk, regarded such simple devices as flush-toilets and running water with openmouthed amazement. In those days laboratory breakthroughs were front page news. Inventors were heroic figures. By 1900, enthusiasts of all ages knew about Edison and his electric light, George Eastman and his wonderful camera, Marconi’s radio or Daimler’s self-propelling automobile. In 1903 men would leave the surface of the earth and fly in a heavier-than-air machine. Where, a fascinated public wanted to know, would it all end?

In a small, shabby office in downtown Manhattan, a man named Edward Stratemeyer, something of an inventor in his own right, kept a close watch on the trends of popular interest. Stratemeyer was a writer of juvenile literature, but to describe him simply as an author of children’s books would be a massive understatement. He was probably the most prolific author of successful juvenile books, or for that matter of books of any kind, in publishing history.

A kindly, serious man who wore rimless glasses and high collars that made him look like the avuncular gentlemen on the labels of patent-medicine bottles, Stratemeyer was the antithesis of the turn-of-the-century “bohemian” stereotype of the artistic or literary man. To him writing was business—big business. He worked hard at it, and in time it made him a millionaire.

During his lifetime Stratemeyer wrote, planned, and produced more than eight hundred books under his own name and sixty-two pseudonyms. Born in 1862, he began writing stories for boys and girls in his twenties and served a brief stint as a Street & Smith editor. In his spare time he wrote dime novels and serials. When Street & Smith’s star author, Horatio Alger, Jr., died, it was Stratemeyer who was chosen to assume his identity; he subsequently composed eleven posthumous books for the Rise in Life series under Alger’s name.

Stratemeyer arrived in the hard-cover world with the Old Glory series, in which he and his publishers, I.othrop, Lee & Shepard of Boston, produced simplified versions of real-life battlefield exploits, attaching two fictional teen-age heroes to the military or naval idols concerned. His imaginary boys sailed into Manila Bay with Admiral Dewey only a lew months after the admiral’s victory. They charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, marched into Santa Cruz with I^ivvton, and served in Luzon with MacArthur. By the end of the series they were second lieutenants. The readers loved it.

It made little difference to Stratemeyer whether the popular heroes by whose adventures he made his profits were real or fictional, or even if they had been created by someone else. In the twenties, when the Tarzan series was at its peak and Edgar Rice Bin-roughs could not write episodes fast enough to satisfy his avid readers, Stratemeyer skimmed off some of the surplus income with a series about Bomba, the Jungle Boy, a teen-ager of superhuman strength who wore a furry loincloth, swung through trees, and could speak to animals. Around the same time, he created the led Scott books about a lanky, taciturn young pilot who achieved international lame by flying the Atlantic alone in a light plane, thus earning the nickname “the Lone Eagle.”

Back in 1899 Stratemever, mindful of the success of the Frank Merriwell stories, written bv his Street & Smith colleague Gilbert Patten, decided to move into the school and college athletic hero area. Although he had never been to college, much less to a fashionable prep school, he was able to construct a creditable facsimile for his readers. The Rover Boys Series For Young Americans moved him into the big time. Before the series went out of print it sold six and a half million copies.

In 1904 Stratemeyer created the Bobbsey Twins, aimed at a much younger audience. This series, which is updated yearly, is still going strong, and to date has sold thirty million copies.

By 1906 the demand for Stratemeyer’s work was so great he could not fill it. He set up a kind of assembly-line writing factory, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, that would enable him to turn out a number of series books simultaneously. Working nine or ten hours a day, he wrote plot outlines, locales, chapter titles, character names and descriptions, and backgrounds, and turned them over to contract writers, usually unemployed newspapermen, who had a month to fill in gaps with suitable prose. Working under pseudonyms, the writers got $50 to $250 a book with no royalties or rights of any kind.

When the books began to sell in the millions, some of Stratemeyer’s hard-working authors anathematized him as a skinflint and an exploiter, but Stratemeyer was not without compassion for his hapless gnomes. Undoubtedly he saw the tragicomic possibilities of their plight. Imagine a starving ex-police reporter, suffering from the grandfather of all hangovers, staggering to his typewriter to begin an episode of Honey Bunch, Her First Day at School . When Stratemeyer died in 1930 he remembered his beleaguered writers in his will. The astonished ghosts were tracked down in remote corners of the world and informed that they would receive lump sums equal to 10 per cent of all wages they had received from the Syndicate. Of course a writer would have had to produce a hundred or more books to make the sum a significant one, but it was a noble gesture. It was Stratemeyer’s way of saying thank you, a rarity in his profession.

In 1910, with the Rover Boys leading the juvenile field, Stratemeyer sat down with his prolific assistant, Howard Garis, to plan a new series. They decided on a boy hero who would be a mechanical wizard, able to do wonders with exciting vehicles such as airplanes, speedboats, or motorcycles, tuning them up to win breathtaking, suspenseful races. The young marvel would have an action-oriented Anglo-Saxon name (as all Stratemeyer heroes did). He would be called Tom Swift, and he would be, as Tom himself was fond of saying in the books, “Swift by name and swift by nature.” Garis was told to drop other projects and begin a program of research.

 
 

In the world of Tom Swift fans there is a theory that Garis originated the series and wrote all the books, and that Stratemeyer robbed him of his just fame and financial reward. This is apocryphal. Garis was an assistant, nothing more. He suggested plot lines, and did the research on many of the inventions, filled in the prose gaps, and often created minor characters, but the books were Stratemeyer’s.

Some enthusiasts believe that Tom was a spin-off of the young Thomas Edison, but in fact he was nearly 100 per cent Stratemeyer’s own idol, Henry Ford. In 1910 Edison was a deaf old man in his sixties, and hardly a figure with whom a teen-ager could identify. Ford, on the other hand, was in his vigorous prime, and in the news almost every day. Boys could read about his thrilling association with the racing-car driver Barney Oldfield, and about Ford’s own auto-racing career. They could marvel at his Model T, introduced in 1908 and not unlike Tom Swift’s own “runabout,” and read of his involvement in the glamorous and highly publicized New York to Seattle race in 1909 to promote the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition.

 

The Tom Swift series also paralleled Ford’s distaste for labor unions; and Ford’s attacks on Jewish film makers in the Dearborn Independent were reflected in Tom’s problems with theatrical Jews. Stratemeyer made frequent derogatory references to Jews and blacks in his early books. He was not alone; many writers of children’s books used blacks and Jews for comedy. However, these references were later expunged in revised editions.

The new series was successful beyond Stratemeyer’s most grandiose dreams of glory. It made a rich man of him and a star of his pseudonymous author “Victor Appleton,” who had had onlv a moderate success earlier but would later be assigned as creator of the Don Sturdy series.

From 1910—when the young inventor made his debut in Tom Swift and his Motor-Cycle —until the late 1930’s, the Tom Swift series held center stage with the juvenile reading public. No one seems to have an accurate sales tally, but Tom’s publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, estimate his sales at about thirty million. The late Andrew E. Svenson, who helped manage the Stratemeyer Syndicate until 1975 in partnership with Mrs. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the founder’s daughter (and the “Carolyn Keene” who writes the durable Nancy Drew mystery series), guessed that sales were closer to fifteen million. Whatever the total, a very large segment of the juvenile population read and loved Tom Swift. In 1926, Tom’s sixteenth year of existence, a survey of 36,750 school children in thirty-four representative cities revealed that 98 per cent of them were reading Stratemeyer series books, and that most of them liked Tom Swift best.

Three years after the series was first issued, Tom had passed the Rover Boys in popularity. Although the Rover Boys series was Stratemeyer’s all-time favorite, the Tom Swift books are generally considered to be his best work. Young readers who felt uneasy with upper-middle-class Brill College and Putnam Hall Military Academy, where the Rovers were educated, could feel at home with the peppy young inventor who had never been to college but was able to build airplanes, army tanks, and submarines in his own back yard. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning popular culturist Russel B. Nye wrote, Tom’s inventions were “ almost plausible, just far enough around the corner to be visionary, not quite far enough to be absurd.”

Stratemeyer and Garis worked out a foolproof formula. They combined the magic of machines and tinkering, fascinating to boys of all ages, with the American dream of commercial reward. By the 1930’s Tom’s back-yard innovations had made him a millionaire. Each book contained one major invention and a number of minor ones. There was always a hell-for-leather chase and a race, either impromptu or sponsored by some international organization devoted to speed, with a valuable prize to be won at the finish. There were always villains intent on stealing Tom’s thunder or preventing his success. Best of all, there was a pert, pretty, warmhearted girl, Tom’s sweetheart, Mary Nestor, waiting to reward him with a kiss or a few words of doting praise.

 

The technical jargon in the books, if somewhat inaccurate, sounded genuine. A teen-ager could reel it off to his schoolmates and win prestige for being conversant with the mysterious world of science. As Tom explained the workings of his electric locomotive to his chum Ned, a non-inventor:

I have only had rigged here one trolley wire. There must be two attached alternately to the catenary cable. Such a form of twin conductor trolley will permit the collection of a heavy current through the twin contact of the pantagraph with the two trolley wires, and should assure a sparkless collection of the current at any speed. You noticed that when I took the sharper curves there was an aerial exhibition. I want to do away with the fireworks.

For the most part, anyone trying to duplicate one of Tom’s simple-sounding innovations would be doomed to failure, though a few were valid enough. In some cases research was sketchy, as when Tom was able to cruise at fourteen thousand feet without pressurization or oxygen and experience no discomfort, but felt dizzy at three thousand.

To make the young readers keep going, Stratemeyer used the dime-novel device of ending each chapter with a holding point, a scream, an explosion, or a character in mortal danger.

As Tom opened the door there was a click, followed at once by a blinding flash of blasting fire. Then a dull explosion shook the building. Tom had no chance to leap back. The force of the blast hurled him forward, across the corridor and out through a wire-screened window into the yard. He fell heavily, uttered an inarticulate cry, and then seemed to be sinking down into a pit of dense blackness.

No boy could close his book and go off to bed after a paragraph like that one. He’d have to turn the page and read another chapter. And in every volume there was a tantalizing hint of exciting things to come in the next book of the series.

The dashing young inventor was depicted on the stamped bindings in an oval medallion, wearing a striped blazer and a snap-brim fedora turned up on one side like an Australian infantryman’s. He had on a high collar and a narrow tie, and sported a bright red band on his hat. In some of the jacket pictures the fedora was replaced with a tweed cap, large and floppy. In the earlier books he was in his teens, still attending “lessons.” By 1918 he was engaged to be married, and in the later books, when he had important business and financial decisions to make, Stratemeyer was careful to point out that he was twenty-one.

The Stratemeyer books usually avoided physical description because too much detail inhibited reader identification. Save for the sketch on the jacket there was little indication of what Tom looked like, except that in the first book of the series he is described as “a muscular lad and no lightweight.” Other descriptions are general, such as that Tom was a “bright-looking young fellow with an alert air and a rather humorous smile”.” It was not until 1926 that readers were told he was “tall.”

Tom’s home base, where most of the action took place, was the mythical town of Shopton, New York, near enough to New York City for easy access, and at the same time close to the New Jersey shore so that Tom could keep his seagoing inventions there. The Swift house was large and comfortable, with a roomy front porch and plenty of acreage. A wide back yard sloped down to the shore of Lake Carlopa, scene of Tom’s motorboat races. The Swifts maintained a boathouse there.

The back yard contained a few outbuildings and workshops at first. Later it would be the location of the Swift Construction Company, Tom’s great conglomerate of industries, “broadly known not alone through the United States, but in several foreign countries.”

From some of the tall chimneys faint clouds of smoke arose, for certain of the industries carried on by the Swift Construction Company required that furnaces be kept going day and night. “A great plant—a wonderful plant!” mused Tom. It gave him a certain sense of pleasure to dwell thus in introspection on the accomplishments of his father and himself.

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.

MOMENTS OF CRISIS

 
 
 

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:

“All right, Dad. Go ahead, laugh.” “Well, Tom, I’m not exactly laughing at you … it’s more at the idea than anything else. The idea of talking over a wire and, at the same time, having light waves, as well as electrical waves passing over the same conductors!” “All right, Dad. Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind,” said Tom, good-naturedly. “Folks laughed at Bell, when he said he could send a human voice over a copper string. …”

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.

“You have, by your invention, shoved the clock of progress forward. I am proud of you, my boy. I know now that, no matter what may happen to me, you will make an enviable mark in the world of invention.”

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.

Because of his race Rad never became a chum, but he was fiercely loyal to Tom and once rescued the young inventor by stepping between him and the murderous Anson Morse and dousing the villain with a bucket of whitewash. This was pretty strong stuff for 1910, considering that Morse was a white man. Only a few years earlier Gilbert Patten had written of how Frank Merriwell was booed by a crowd because he shook hands with a Negro jockey. But this did not deter Tom Swift. After the whitewash incident he gave Rad a warm handclasp. Then he offered the old handyman fifty cents. After a token refusal, Rad accepted it.

In 1912 Stratemeyer allowed Tom to add a new member to the Swift official family. This was Koku, a friendly South American aborigine between eight and ten feet tall who weighed about four hundred pounds. Koku could lift five hundred pounds, and for this reason was very welcome in the shops. He was an alert guard but a slow runner. His tribe was “almost white” and resembled the “old Norsemen.”

 

Rad was jealous of the giant, and their quarrels inconvenienced Tom greatly in the later books. Koku would lift Rad by the seat of his pants and shake him and call him “black coon.” In spite of it all, the readers knew they were pals, and when Rad was almost blinded in an accident at the lab, Koku sat by his bedside and nursed him like a baby.

By 1915 Koku had demonstrated linguistic talent.

“Is the alarm ringing, Koku?” “Yes, master,” replied the giant, in correct but stilted English. “I have set the indicator to signal the alarm in every shop on the premises.”

Oddly enough, in the following year Koku (or Stratemeyer or Garis) seems to have backslid.

“If me break, me fix,” said Koku, who, from his … imperfect command of English, was evidently a foreigner.

No Stratemeyer book was complete without a retinue of chums. The heroes, or heroines, needed subcharacters, straight men, or an occasional stereotypical fat boy with an enormous appetite for apple pie and ham sandwiches. Of all the chums in Stratemeyer’s various series, Tom Swift’s were the oddest, if you discount the fact that Bomba’s were all animals. Ned Newton, Tom’s contemporary and sidekick, was a rising young banker, and Mr. Wakefield Damon was a middle-age eccentric.

Ned was a personable chap and a “natty dresser,” successful with the ladies, and a source of wonderment to Tom, who observed that Ned had a “smooth line of talk” and could probably “sell chloride of sodium to some of the fishes in the Great Salt Lake.” He first appeared as a clerk in the Shopton Bank, although he was still in his teens. His promotion to assistant cashier at so early an age was the result of Tom’s insistence that Mr. Swift deposit $3000,000 (a treasure recovered on Tom’s 1910 undersea adventure) in the bank. Tom “asked his father to speak to the president, Mr. Pendergast, in Ned’s behalf … for the request of a man who controlled a three hundred thousand dollar deposit was not to be despised.” Such barefaced nepotism was surprising from the man who had written eleven Horatio Alger books.

Later on, Mr. Damon, who had “some mortgages falling due pretty soon,” deposited the money from them in the bank and had a further word with the long-suffering Pendergast, to “see what we can do about Ned.” The result was a step up to cashier. In 1917 Ned resigned to become “general finance man” for the Swifts, because they “could not look after the inventing and experimental end, and money matters too.” His duties were now “much less irksome” than those at the bank, to which he would return in 1919 as an “important bank official.” Ned spent the war (as did Tom) in civilian status, working for the Red Cross and selling Liberty bonds. In 1920 Ned left the bank again to return to the Swift Construction Company as financial manager and also as a stockholder.

 

Ned’s major function in the books was as a tease, especially with respect to Tom’s association with Mary Nestor. “Oh you get out!” Tom would shout, blushing furiously as Ned would twit him mercilessly about “a certain person.”

Mr. Damon flew into Tom’s life on the same motorcycle that gave its name to the first book of the series. A lifelong lover of mechanical devices, the “middle-age” Mr. Damon was totally incapable of controlling them. The motorcycle ended up wrapped around a tree in the Swift’s front yard. Tom bought it for $50, repaired it, and the series was on its way. In the following years Mr. Damon would crash his monoplane into the Swift roof three times, fly into Tom’s dirigible mooring mast, drive his automobile into the Swift front porch, and even collide with the house in a horse and buggy. His entrances were always announced by crashing metal and wood, the tinkle of broken glass, and loud cries of dismay.

Mr. Damon was a true chum, and Tom was able to rescue him from kidnappers, recover his stolen fortune, save him from a giant iceberg, and make him a great deal of money by allowing him to invest from time to time in inventions. Damon was good in a scrap too, and once saved Tom from a burly assailant by spraying the miscreant with a seltzer bottle and then beating him over the head with it. But for all their palship and shared adventures, Tom never presumed to address Mr. Damon by his first name.

The idiosyncracy that most endeared Mr. Damon to the readers was his habit of blessing himself and any part of his body or equipment. There were fifty to sixty blessings per book. “Bless my vest buttons,” he would say, or “bless my fountain pen, I must write a check.” “Bless my aspirin tablets, I am getting a headache,” and so on. There were other eccentrics, but none of them lasted more than a book or two. Mr. Damon was the only one who became a member of the family.

To perk up the series, Stratemeyer-“Appleton” designed some of the most dastardly villains in juvenile history. There were felons of every stamp: arsonists, bushwhackers, kidnappers, bank robbers, and even a molester who tried to force his attentions on Mary. In the first few books, before Tom had hit his stride, the nemesis was bully Andy Foger, a boy about Tom’s age. The grown-up heavies came later. In the war there were German spies, and afterward there were unscrupulous business competitors.

By manipulating the villains, Stratemeyer was able to work off some of his own prejudices. Tycoons in fancy clothes were usually swindlers. Foreigners were to be avoided or mistrusted. Frenchmen were effete and twofaced. Englishmen were unbearable; red-faced, arrogant Basil Cunningham “plainly showed his English ancestry not only in his face and figure but in his general bearing and manner.”

And as already remarked, there were Jews. The murderous Greenbaum of Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures became mentally ill after losing his fortune and tried to blow Tom up with a bomb. It was later explained that Greenbaum recovered fully when he made another fortune on a wise investment. Greenbaum’s employers were the heads of motion-picture and theatrical interests anxious to keep Tom’s talking-picture machine (a kind of color TV set with a fifty-inch screen) off the market at any cost. After the bomb plot failed, they kidnapped Tom and confronted him, wearing masks, but “from two or three little signs Tom had an idea that some of these men were wealthy Jews.” Among these little signs was the fact that although the room was in partial darkness, one of them (referred to as “the fat Jew”) refused to turn the lights up because it would cost money.

Anson Morse, who “wore kid gloves and all that, and had a little black mustache,” was a member of the notorious Happy Harry gang, hired by the shyster law firm of Smeak & Katch to steal Mr. Swift’s turbine engine patent. The gang included Happy Harry himself (so called because he was always smiling), Ferguson Appleson, and Wilson Featherton (alias Simpson). Later they would add a man named Boreck (alias Murdock). These desperadoes lasted through three books before they were put away for good.

Addison Berg, tool of unscrupulous submarine manufacturers, tried to cripple Tom’s undersea boat, and later tried to disable the electric runabout before a big race. Amos Field and Jason Melling burned down a factory to cover the theft of a secret formula. Renwick Fawn stole Liberty bonds and tried to pin the crime on Ned Newton’s father. The master spy La Foy tried to bribe Tom’s secrets out of Rad with half a dollar (and failed). “I think he were a Frenchman,” Rad said. “I done didn’t see him eat no frogs laigs, but he smoked a cigarette dat had a funny smell, and he suah was monstrous polite.”

The worst of the lot were oilman Hankinshaw, who smoked “villainous tobacco” and drank whiskey, and rich young yachtsman Floyd Barton, who wore fancy sweaters. Both of them actually laid profane hands on Mary Nestor. Hankinshaw got a good beating and a five-year sentence in Tom Swift and His Great Oil Gusher , and Barton went to prison for dealing in stolen goods in Tom Swift and His House on Wheels .

Stratemeyer always handled love very carefully. Although he had Tom give Mary a $1,500 diamond brooch in Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers, he was careful to explain that they were just good friends. Tom and Mary would stay engaged for eleven years, eventually marrying when the series was on its way out.

Tom and Mary met in the usual Tom Swift manner, a near-fatal accident when Tom frightened her horse into running away. Mary had large brown eyes, small graceful hands, and straight white teeth. She was described sometimes as “very pretty,” and sometimes as “beautiful.” She blushed almost constantly in the early books, but suddenly, unaccountably, stopped blushing in the later ones. She was a minor character until the fifth book, when she emerged as a full-fledged girl friend. When Tom won the big Touring Club of America race with his electric car …

The young inventor and his friends drove their car to their shed. As Tom was descending, weary and begrimed with dust, he heard a voice asking: “Mayn’t I congratulate you also?” He wheeled around, to confront Mary Nestor, immaculate in a summer gown. “Why—why,” he stammered. “I—I thought you didn’t come.” “Oh, yes I did,” she answered, laughing. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything . I arrived late, but I saw the whole race. Wasn’t it glorious ’? I’m so glad you won.” Tom was too, now, but he shrank back when Miss Nestor held out both dainty gloved hands to him. His hands were covered with oil and dirt. “As if I cared for my gloves !” she cried, and she took possession of his hands, a proceeding to which Tom was nothing loath. …”

 

By the sixth book they were on first names, and in 1911 they exchanged their first kiss. By 1920 he was calling her “little girl” and sharing rewards. In Airline Express , when Tom was experiencing a cash flow problem, Mary turned over her inheritance to him. “Take all I have,” she said simply. “I’m glad to invest in anything Tom has to do with.”

Of course the real starring roles in the books were played not by the characters but by Tom’s wonderful inventions. Most of them came after similar devices had been announced in the press, but some of them actually preceded the real thing. His color television was twenty years ahead of its time. His electric rifle, first produced in Tom’s Shopton laboratory in 1911, anticipated the first Browning machine rifle by five years. Although Tom’s rifle fired a charge of electricity instead of a bullet, it was similar to Browning’s 1916 rapid-fire repeater. Tom’s “wizard camera,” which was constructed in 1912, was eleven years ahead of Victor’s original portable motion-picture camera. His electric locomotive was in service two years before the Jersey Central ran its first diesel electric, and his photo telephone was eleven years ahead of the Bell Laboratories’ first successful phototelegraphy process.

Only twice in the thirty-eight books of the series did Stratemeyer and Garis allow their fantasies to outstrip reality, and permit Tom to come up with ideas that were not workable, either then or in the future: a process for using lightning to make artificial diamonds that could not be distinguished from the genuine article, and a silent airplane engine.

Each book of the series was constructed around a supermachine of some sort, dreamed up by the boy genius and built by his own hands (with the help of chums and workmen) in his own workshop. Usually there were secondary inventions too. A speedy vehicle, designed to win a great race, would have a totally new kind of battery or gear assembly designed by Tom. Inventions would use a new kind of fuel, or a new process to get under way. Everything, plausible or not, was desribed in great detail. For example, Tom’s sky racer, the Hummingbird , in which he won a $10,000 prize in 1911, was able to reach a speed of 100 m.p.h., although Wilbur Wright had built one only two years earlier that had amazed the world by attaining 37 m.p.h. Tom’s ship was “a cross between the Bleriot and the Antionette, with the general features of both but with many changes and improvements.”

 

The body of the craft, between the forward wings and the rear ones, where the rudders were located, was shaped like a cigar, with side wings somewhat like the fin keels of the ocean liners, to prevent a rolling motion. In addition, Tom had an ingenious device to automatically adapt his monoplane to sudden currents of air that might overturn it, and this device was one of the points which he kept secret. The motor, which was air-cooled, was located forward and was just above the heads of the operator and the passenger who sat beside him. The single propeller, which was ten feet in diameter, gave a minimum thrust of one thousand pounds at two thousand revolutions per minute. This was one feature wherein Tom’s craft differed from others. The usual aeroplane propeller is eight feet in diameter, and gives from four to five hundred pounds thrust at about one thousand revolutions per minute, so it can be readily seen wherein Tom had an advantage.

There is no record of what Wilbur Wright thought of Tom’s design, which was in so many ways superior to his own. Undoubtedly Tom’s racer would have vibrated itself into powder had it not been for his “ingenious” and “secret” device.

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.