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Catching Up With Tom Swift a Century Later


Have you heard about the electric locomotive that can make two miles a minute? That's pretty fast. Maybe you call it the bullet train. Or how about a rifle that can shoot electric bullets and disable its victim? You might call it a Taser today. In fact, both of these inventions were first described by that famous fictional teenage inventor, Tom Swift, way back at the dawn of the 20th century.

New inventions back then brought electricity to light our cities, combustion engines to drive our cars. Science made it all happen, and in this new age, you know, they needed a new role model to reflect the times. An engineer? A scientist? No. How about an inventor?

Tom Swift, boy inventor, has inspired children with his incredible creations for over a century. Some of those children include Steve Wozniak, Isaac Asimov, Jack Cover, inventor of the Taser, who named his device as an acronym of Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, one of Tom's many fictional inventions.

Are you a Tom Swift fan? Marc Abrahams is, and he's here to talk about the book series and some of Tom's inventions that have predicted technology decades in advance. He's editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Welcome to - welcome back, Marc.


FLATOW: Wow, what a list of stuff he came up with.

ABRAHAMS: It was an amazing list. This started around 1910. There was a long list of books, and, at the start, they were things that sound pretty ordinary now, the things you mentioned, titles of things like "Tom Swift and His Airship," "Tom Swift and His Wireless Message." My favorite is "Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone." If you read "Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone," which is written in 1914, it sounds like you're hearing the description of Skype or Google Hangout.


ABRAHAMS: The boy inventor invented this in 1914 fictionally, but the details are surprisingly similar.

FLATOW: Are people still reading those books, the Tom Swift books?

ABRAHAMS: That's a good question. There were two big series. The first series started in 1910, went up to about 1940. They updated it in the 1950s and '60s with things like "Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship," "Tom Swift and His Giant Robot" and on and on. Those petered out. And they started up a few later, but the later ones just got off into sort of fantasy.

The initial ones really had a lot to do with science and invention, and they were a way to sell books, but also a way to get kids really interested in this stuff. And a lot of scientists grew up...


ABRAHAMS: ...slurping this stuff down.

FLATOW: Was there one author for all of this?

ABRAHAMS: It depends on how you want to look at it. They were all listed as being written by Victor Appleton.

FLATOW: Right.

ABRAHAMS: In fact, there was a guy named Edward Stratemeyer who apparently was amazingly clever. He started what's called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He would write out little, short versions of this and hire authors who would write these books, all using the same pen name. This is the same guy, the same factory that put out a long series of books - the "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories," also the "Hardy Boys Adventures."

FLATOW: Oh, no kidding.

ABRAHAMS: There were a bunch of others, "The Rover Boys," a whole bunch, all out of this little, tiny factory.

FLATOW: Wow. Anything like it around today?

ABRAHAMS: There are a million things descended from it. As far as I know, there's nothing really like it that would center each one on...


ABRAHAMS: ...an invention or a piece of science. And I wish somebody would do it anew and wonderfully.

FLATOW: I remember Danny Dunn, he came later...

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. That was - I'm pretty sure Danny Dunn came out of a different person, but I couldn't guarantee that.

FLATOW: Yeah. I think "His Electric Something Paint" and...

ABRAHAMS: I have a feeling you read a lot of this.

FLATOW: I did. "Anti-Gravity Paint," or something like that. It's all fascinating.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: It's all good stuff. Thank you, Marc.

ABRAHAMS: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: See you next time. Marc Abrahams is editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, also founder and master of ceremonies at the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which you can hear on SCIENCE FRIDAY every Friday following Thanksgiving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.