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
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
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