Tom Swift Series

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Tom Swift Series

A popular series of forty boys' novels published by Grosset & Dunlap between 1910 and 1941, the Tom Swift books were mostly published under the pen name "Victor Appleton," though they were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a book packager that created other popular juvenile literature. Attempts were made to revive the series three times over the years, once in the 1950s with the Tom Swift, Jr. books, and again in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were never as successful as the originals. The hero of the first series was Tom Swift, a young inventor, portrayed as a plucky, ingenious figure who used modern technology and American know-how to create new devices and foil his rivals. An excerpt from an advertisement written by Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) for the first Tom Swift books characterizes the scope of this series: "It is the purpose of these spirited tales to convey in a realistic way the wonderful advances in land and sea locomotion and to interest the boy of the present in the hope that he may be a factor in aiding the marvelous development that is coming in the future."

The Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created more than 1400 books between 1904 and 1984, devised the series concepts and hired writers to complete book-length stories from a limited outline in exchange for a flat-fee compensation ($75.00 for the first Tom Swift book in 1910). The writer hired to become "Victor Appleton" for the majority of the Tom Swift volumes was Stratemeyer's close friend, Howard Roger Garis (1873-1962), who created the Uncle Wiggily stories and ghostwrote nearly 300 books for the Syndicate. Stratemeyer and Garis worked closely to craft a series of adventure stories with inventions inspired by the real-world work of inventors who were mentioned in magazines like Scientific American. Other writers involved on a limited basis for this series included W. Bert Foster and John W. Duffield.

The early Tom Swift volumes featured existing vehicles, like a motorcycle and a motorboat that Tom acquired and improved with suggestions from his father, "the aged inventor," Barton Swift. Next, Tom helped others with their inventions, the Red Cloud, an airship designed by John Sharp, and a submarine built by his father. By the fifth volume (all five were published in 1910), Tom built his first invention, an alkaline battery for an electric car. Later inventions of note included his sky racer (1911), a revolutionary photo telephone (1914), a coast-to-coast airline express (1926), a motor home called a "house on wheels" (1929), and a device to allow radio listeners to see the performers on a silvery screen with his "talking pictures" (1928).

In most cases, Tom Swift's vehicles were bigger and faster than their real-world counterparts, which often did not become practical until much later. A typical story involved a discussion of an exotic locale or strange event by the main characters, Tom, Barton, Tom's chum Ned Newton, and their eccentric friend, Mr. Wakefield Damon, who "blessed" more than 1,200 items and parts of his body throughout the series. Tom and friends were usually dogged by rivals, including Andy Foger, the squint-eyed redheaded bully who seemed to be on the scene no matter how remote the locale.

The Tom Swift series generated a combined sales of more than six million volumes so it is no surprise that in the early 1950s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate created a spin-off series, Tom Swift Jr., to try to reclaim part of the market share lost to the Rick Brant series (1948-1967), published under the "John Blaine" pseudonym. Work on the Tom Swift, Jr. series was begun in 1951 and by January 1952, a manuscript of the first volume was far enough along to receive comments by one of the Syndicate's science consultants, Robert H. Snyder. Despite this early start, the first five books in the series would not be published until 1954 after rewrites. Between 1954 and 1971, Grosset & Dunlap published thirty-three books about Tom Swift, Jr., his sister Sandra, pal Bud Barclay, and potential girlfriend, Phyllis Newton, daughter of Ned Newton from the original series. Tom Swift, Sr. makes appearances as a middle-aged man who remains active in science and invention. While the original series had titles like Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (1911), the Tom Swift, Jr. series used atomic, electronic, and outer-space themes, like Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster (1954). For the Tom Swift, Jr. series, plot took a back seat to title in the early development of a volume. Long lists of proposed titles were considered. Once a title was selected, a story idea would be devised to match it.

"Victor Appleton II" was said to have "inherited his wonderful storytelling ability from the original Victor Appleton" in dust jacket ads for the early books. It is hard to say whether the Syndicate was referring to the ghostwriters or itself. While several writers wrote a volume or two, most of the newer series (volumes 5-7, 9-29) were written by James Duncan Lawrence (1918-1994), a Syndicate ghostwriter who also wrote for a number of different media, including screenplays for television and radio, books, and comic strips.

The Tom Swift, Jr. series was discontinued in 1971 due to declining sales, which had more to do with the aging Baby Boomers than it did with the perceived problem of Tom's achievements being surpassed by a real-world NASA. At the close of the Tom Swift, Jr. series, an anonymous memo laid the groundwork for yet another new Tom Swift series set in the far future where Tom Swift's inventions have become a reality. This new series was, indeed, set in the far future and contained science-fiction stories of interplanetary space travel with titles like Terror on the Moons of Jupiter (1981). Very little in the way of invention was included in the stories, and little or no reference was made to the previous two series. Part of the reason for this was that the new group of ghostwriters had published science fiction books under their own names, and because this series was published by Wanderer, a division of Simon & Schuster, which had purchased the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1984. The third Tom Swift series was discontinued at this time.

In 1991, Simon & Schuster decided to try the venerable name of Tom Swift again in a new series published under its Archway imprint. Thirteen volumes were published of Tom Swift in a contemporary setting with inventions again being the focus, as in Cyborg Kickboxer (1991) and Death Quake (1993). This new series did not sell well and it was soon discontinued. All in all, Tom Swift appeared in ninety-nine stories in four series since the first volume was published in 1910.

—James D. Keeline

Further Reading:

Dizer, John T., Jr. Tom Swift and Company: "Boy's Books" by Stratemeyer and Others. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 1982.

——. Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and Other Heroes of American Juvenile Literature. Lewiston, New York, Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.

Johnson, Deidre. Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York, Twayne, 1993.

——, compiler and editor. Stratemeyer Pseudonyms and Series Books: An Annotated Checklist of Stratemeyer and Stratemeyer Syndicate Publications. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1982.