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No. 491:
Tom Swiftly

Today, I'll swiftly tell you about Tom. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Do you remember a kind of pun called a Tom Swiftie? It was a game we played with famous names: "'I'll build a palace in the desert,' Donald trumpeted." Or "'I'm tired of being president,' said George, bushed."

That was just about all that remained of Tom Swift by the 1970s. But for two generations of young readers, he mirrored American invention. In volume after volume of Tom Swift books, he grew up. He married. He begat Tom Swift, Jr. After WW-II, Tom Jr. carried on the family trade of invention.

Edward Stratemeyer created Swift. He began writing books for young people in 1889. First he gave us the Rover Boys, then the Bobbsey Twins. Finally, in 1910, he wrote Tom Swift and his Motor Cycle. By then, Stratemeyer was turning books out on a conveyor belt. He'd rough out plots. Then he'd hire writers to finish the books at $50 to $250 a crack.

So Tom went on from the super motorcycle he'd invented to a dizzying array of high tech -- dirigibles, airplanes, telescopes, X-rays, and (later) nuclear-powered airplanes. The eerie thing about Swift -- or Stratemeyer, or his ghostwriters -- was the way they read the future.

Swift used a lithium battery to drive a car in 1910. He invented color TV the year before Bell Labs did. He built a monoplane two years before one actually took to the sky. He orbited Earth seven years before Yuri Gagarin.

Like the technologies they reflected, the Tom Swift books had a life of their own. When Stratemeyer died in 1930, his daughters took over. The books kept rolling out, seamlessly. His daughter Harriet kept it up until 1971.

But we'd finally put a man on the moon. Somehow, after that, our dreams weren't the same. The world wandered away from Swift's workshop. Harriet kept running the enterprise -- but no new stories. She published one last Tom Swift book in 1981, but it wasn't right. Swift could not be written into the 1980s.

Tom Swift was born in the heat of our love affair with invention. Stratemeyer probably modeled him on Glen Curtiss with a little Edison stirred in. For sixty years Swift echoed our love of invention. He echoed progress and our brave new modern world. It was cheap formula stuff, but glorious in its own way.

Swift died when that love affair with invention died. I suppose it was our childhood's end. The end of soapbox racers and model airplanes. And Swift leaves us all asking: How can we make that lost child live and breathe once more?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Swift, E. The Perfect Inventor. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Fall 1990, pp. 24-31.