Tom Swift and the Stratemeyer Syndicate

I never read the Tom Swift novels as a kid; I was always more obsessed with the Hardy Boys series. Over the years, I’ve read bits and pieces about Edward Stratemeyer, the man who was behind the long-running book series, as well as those of Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins (a favorite of my mother’s), The Rover Boys and Tom Swift. He conceived of a character, put together a formula, and had a freelancer ghost write the novel before editing it. The process has always fascinated me, but when it came to looking into his background, an entire segment of early science fiction comes to light: the Dime Store novels, which created entire subgenres in their own right. More than that, they carried with them some real kernels of thematic material which have since propagated far into the future, which surprised and delighted me.

Another fun fact? TASER isn’t a word: it’s an acronym that stands for Tom A Swift’s Electric Rifle.

Go read Tom Swift and the Stratemeyer Syndicate over on the Kirkus Reviews blog.

One thought on “Tom Swift and the Stratemeyer Syndicate”

  1. Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) and his Stratemeyer Syndicate are indeed interesting topics. Today we might call the Syndicate a “book packager”. Other literary syndicates were not unknown in this era, often they were devoted to creating material for periodicals.

    Dime novels were one of the popular forms of 19th Century reading. Usually a complete story was presented in 16 or 32 pages of often very small text. The first dime novels were issued by Beadle in 1860. Soon they were sold for 5¢ and were referred to as either “half dime libraries” or “nickel libraries.” Dime stores, thinking of Woolworth’s here, had nothing to do with them because the dime novels, and their periodical counterpart from the same publishers, the story paper, were sold at newsstands.

    In Edward Stratemeyer’s early professional career he wrote extensively for story papers and some for dime novels. Many of the story paper serials were edited and published in book form. Richard Dare’s Venture was the first book so published.

    Although the publicity for Jack Cover (inventor) and TASER International links the device with Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (Grosset & Dunlap, 1911), the descriptions of the two devices differ. Tom Swift’s shot “wireless bullets of electricity” while Cover’s shot barbed darts with trailing wires to conduct the electric current to stun the target.

    The Tom Swift story was ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis (1873-1962) from Stratemeyer’s outline. The series began the previous year (1910) and 15 volumes were published by 1912 with a book a year afterward. Interestingly, another Garis-Stratemeyer collaboration in the 9-volume Great Marvel series (1906-1935) by “Roy Rockwood” contained Under the Ocean to the South Pole (Cupples & Leon, 1907), a submarine story.

    In the story (p. 66) the boys and their adult leader go on an underwater hunting expedition. They are handed rifles which shoot out barbed darts with trailing wires to discharge electricity stored in the butt of the guns. Sound familiar?

    Patent applications can be disqualified on the basis of “prior art” and this is by no means limited to granted patents but can be from any form of literature. Indeed, some patents have been granted with no working prototype but merely a description that sounds like something from a science fiction story (“machine vision”).

    It is fitting, though, that Jack Cover, one of the many people inspired to enter fields of science, engineering, aviation, space, and even writing by reading Tom Swift should choose to commemorate the young inventor in the name of his device.

    Many of the inventions in the Tom Swift stories were based on real or proposed vehicles or devices that were described in the popular science literature of the day. Pretty much every invention from the original Tom Swift series (1910-1941) has an analog in the real world.

    In the Tom Swift stories (like Jules Verne stories before him) the engineering limitations were brushed aside in an effort to write a good story. Tom’s aircraft could be larger, faster, and not be concerned with weight, fuel consumption, or wind resistance. Of course, whatever Tom was working on at the beginning of the story was just what was needed for the adventure at hand.

    The Tom Swift Jr. story (1954-1971) was more involved with space and undersea adventures, including the use of electronics and atomic power. Like its predecessor, it inspired a couple generations of young minds to pursue the future and try to make it a reality. Sometimes they succeeded.

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