A Swift Proposal
When I say Tom Swift how many recognize that iconic name? I hope at least some of you do. Tom’s been out of the limelight for quite a few years now, but he turned 100 in 2010, and he deserves to be remembered. Stories about the adventures of a brilliant boy-inventor Tom Swift may not have been the absolute first science fiction works for children, but they are among the first and certainly the most influential and lasting from the early part of the 1900s. Back in 1910, when Tom Swift and His Motorcycle by Victor Appleton first came into print, it was a dime novel about a stock group of characters in serial form, where each book would feature a different invention and an exciting storyline surrounding it. Stories that were not considered proper children’s literature by many adults, but were hungrily read by the audience they had been designed for. Tom Swift was one of the Stratemeyer Syndicate earliest creations, but unlike their other serials for children (The Rover Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, etc.) The Tom Swift serial did not rely on mysteries, family drama, or even basic adventure. It relied on science, invention and science fiction. The original Swift series continued to be published from 1910 until 1941. After the first series, a second one was created featuring Tom Swift’s son (Tom Swift Jr.) that continued to be published until 1971. Since that time, Tom Swift has gone through at least 4 more incarnations, but none has been as successful as the original run. The very last incarnation was in 2006-2007 with only a handful of books every making it to print. Tom’s changed a great deal since his glory days of the early 20th century. He’s become more politically correct, but he’s also gotten a darker set of stories, stories that reflect science gone wrong, rather than the unceasing optimism of the original series. There hasn’t been a lot of interest in the boy inventor in the last few decades, and this last series got pulled before all the titles were published.
Find the entire list of Tom Swift titles here.
Interested in reading some of the oldest examples? Find the first 25 titles for free on project Gutenberg here.
For the moment, I want to look at a handful of titles:
Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat; or, Under the Ocean for Sunken Treasure, 1910
Tom Swift and His Wireless Message; or, The Castaways of Earthquake Island, 1911
Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle; or, Daring Adventures on Elephant Island, 1911
Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone; or, The Picture That Saved a Fortune, 1914
At first glance, you wouldn’t think much of these titles, or the inventions they describe. In today’s world, a title about a wireless message, an electric rifle or a photo telephone, seems a bit silly–we already have those things in our day to day lives. But a hundred years ago, all these gadgets hadn’t been invented yet. For me , it’s a bit of a wow moment, a moment when I get to feel vindicated in my love of science fiction. 100 years ago, the writers of Tom Swift had already imagined things that we have today. Scientists, engineers and inventors–many were inspired as children by the adventures of Tom Swift. For instance, the Taser . Did you know it was invented by nuclear physicist Jack Cover and named after his boyhood hero? The Taser brand is an acronym for Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. Even though the series about the boy inventor have dwindled, his legacy lives on. Look around on the internet and there a plenty of sites devoted to the boy-inventor.
Here’s just a few:
At Tom Swift Lives!, fanfic writers continue to share Tom’s stories and adventures, only from a modern setting.
There’s the Unofficial Tom Swift Fan Page
Want to know what Tom Swifties are?
So we come to my proposal. Ladies and gentlemen, we need a new Tom Swift. I don’t mean we need the old books reprinted for kids today: obviously these books are dated and at times downright offensive in the antiquated social attitudes that would have been mainstream at the time they were published. And while I know there’s a lot of fan fic that has continued the stories of Tom Swift, it’s not being published in mainstream formats. There are few young inventor/scientists, and none in serial form I can think of that populate the children’s section of bookstores and libraries today. If we want to encourage a new generation into pursuing the scientific dreams of the future, we not only need to provide them with the knowledge and information. We need to inspire the vision, the drive and the dream. We need to give them heroes that they can identify with and want to grow up to emulate. That’s part of what the Stratemeyer Syndicate intended with the original Tom Swift series: to encourage young boys to become the next generation of scientists and inventors to enhance the interest in the sciences. I think that it worked. But with the national desire to see our young men and women succeed in the maths and sciences, maybe we can give them a reason to be interested. Not just for the eventual job, or the good grades, but for the excitement of discovering something new. The adventure of treading new territory. The hope for the future that these books can inspire.
If there’s one area where fantasy breaks down, it’s here. Fantasy can’t provide a reader with the same kind of hope and role models. Kids can grow up with the same values as Harry Potter, but they can’t grow up to BE a wizard. Readers may learn to be strong and stand up for themselves in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet, but they can’t grow up to be a knight with magical healing abilities. But a reader can grow up to be a scientist. They can be the one to discover a cure for a disease, or a way to travel to distant planets. Tom Swift science fiction is can do science fiction.
Maybe we need a girl inventor scientist. Maybe a group. But I think we need a dynamic serial title that focuses on adventure and invention rather than fashion, food or fantasy. We’ve plenty of dystopian tales out there, but let’s give kids the option of hoping for a positive future–one that they have a hand in creating.