Tom Swift First Series Essays


Children have always thrilled at the prospect of flight. However, the earliest children's books were purely instructional, making little concessions to the interests of their readers. It wasn't until the 17th century that such collections as Mother Goose and Aesop's Fables appeared. Soon after this breakthrough, John Newberry's Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, published in 1744, featured an illustration and a few verses on flying a kite�a fitting choice since many children first experienced the thrill of flight through kites. Kites have been featured in children's books every since. Even today there are books that teach children the principles of flight through kites.


Beginning in the 1800s, children's literature closely followed well-publicized technological developments, but not always with adult approval. Experiments with hot air and hydrogen balloons in the 1780s, prompted warnings against the dangers of ballooning. The Third Chapter of Accidents and Remarkable Events Containing Caution and Instruction for Children, published in 1807, recounted two stories of recent ballooning accidents. Child's Museum: Containing a Description of One Hundred and Eight Interesting Subjects similarly warned young people to avoid the temptations of ballooning. But parallel with these dismal tales, more favorable depictions of ballooning were published in several titles including editions of Mother Goose Melodies and Mother Hubbard. The latter character even accompanied her dog on a balloon trip to the Moon. Books featuring balloons became more informative, giving directions for creating paper balloons, retelling the adventures of actual balloonists, and incorporating ballooning in mathematical problems. In 1855, Samuel G. Goodrich published Balloon Travels of Robert Merry and His Young Friends Over Various Countries in Europe, which taught a number of subjects from the vantage point of a balloon.


Older children at this time were entertained with stories by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells about balloons, airships, and interplanetary travel. Alberto Santos-Dumont, a great balloonist from the turn of the century, was first inspired by Wells' stories in his youth. He went on to inspire a later generation with his autobiography for children titled My Air Ships. Dime novels occasionally featured balloons, airships, and fictional flying machines. One popular character, Frank Reade, Jr., invented a new machine in every story. In the course of one year, he invented 15 airships, almost twice as many machines as he invented for water or land transportation. Younger children, however, were reading about Oz leaving the Emerald city in a hot air balloon in L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, of 1900.


Perhaps some of the earliest instances of bonafide airplanes in children's books appeared in series books. The Boy Aviators, by Captain Wilbur Lawton, and Aeroplane Boys, by Ashton Lamar, both appeared in 1910. These series featured pairs of boys in planes similar to the Wright Flyer. Surprising for the times, the series Girl Aviators, by Margaret Burnham, began the following year. The first book intended for children that gave an account of the Wright brothers may have been The Light Bringers, by Mary Wade, in 1914. It features, along with the Wrights, other notables who, by making "a vastly different world to-day from that of a century ago...have won for themselves the name of Light-Bringers." This charming volume ends its biography of the Wrights with the speculation that aeroplanes, as weapons of terrible destruction, will someday bring an end to all war.


As a young boy, Charles Lindberg read the story of World War I ace Tam o' the Scoots, which inspired him to become a fighter pilot. Possibly the earliest children's book telling his famous story was The Lone Scout of the Sky: The Story of Charles A. Lindbergh, by James E. West, 1927, which included instructions for making a model of the Spirit of St. Louis. Children's interest in aviation was further encouraged in 1928 by the publication of Books on Aeronautics: A Bibliography of Books Likely to be of Use in Elementary and Secondary Schools, by Roland H. Spaulding. Consisting almost entirely of nonfiction, this annotated list included autobiographies of aviators and World War I aces, model airplane guides, information on gliders and zeppelins, and textbooks on air navigation and the economics of air transportation.


In the 1930s, numerous informational books appeared with illustrations and photographs of the various kinds of aircraft, the history of aircraft, how to fly, and how the world looks from the air. At least two books about Amelia Earhart were published. This decade also marked the very first appearance of Dick and Jane in Dick & Jane's Our Big Book, which included a scene where the family watches an airplane. Several aviation characters, such as Flying Jenny and Steve Canyon, and space flight heroes such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon appeared in the comic strips before moving on to big little books and comic books.


In the 1940s, children's books followed developments in military aviation and featured many stories about World War II pilots. At the same time there was no lack of aviation-themed books for younger children, for we see Airplane Andy, by Sanford Tousey, and, possibly the first book to teach young children their ABCs through aviation, The New Alphabet of Aviation, by Edward Shenton.


Most early nonfiction aviation books for children were for older readers. But in the 1950s, the people of Crowell and Science, Inc. taught their youngest readers how to fly a Beechcraft plane from Milwaukee to Chicago in Tommy Learns to Fly, by John Lewellen. As early as 1951, Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt introduced children to the facts of space flight with Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Space Ships. A year after the 1957 launch of Sputnik 1, Crowell published A Book of Satellites for You, by Franklyn Branley.


Grosset & Dunlap, publishers of popular series such as the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, issued two new series in the 1950's featuring Tom Swift, Jr. and Tom Corbett. The books of the Tom Swift, Jr. series often focused on a fictitious scientific device or vehicle, much like the Tom Swift series in the 1910's to the 1930's. Typical titles were Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane and Tom Swift and His Cosmotron Express. The Tom Corbett series was an offshoot of the avidly-watched television series. Although shorter-lived than the Tom Swift, Jr. series, Tom Corbett was remarkable for having Willy Ley, an influential rocketry expert of the era, as a technical advisor. These series and others like them only fed the enthusiasm of youngsters who would soon witness the first manned space flight.


Children's books successfully kept pace throughout the space race. Soon after the "Mercury Seven" were introduced to the world, children met them in Charles Coombs' Project Mercury and Erik Bergaust's First Men in Space. Youngsters in the Soviet Union were able to read about their hero, Yuri Gagarin, the same year as his flight. Similarly, there were immediate publications celebrating Alan Shepard's and John Glenn's flights. For each successive accomplishment through the 1960's, children's books conveyed the achievement to the Nation's youth. Apollo 11 ensured that juvenile biographies of Neil Armstrong would always be available to inspire the next generation of explorers.


In 1971, Don Dwiggins introduced children to space shuttles with Into the Unknown: The Story of Space Shuttles and Space Stations, ten years before the first shuttle launch. Since then, children have read about all aspects of the space shuttle in a continuous stream of books. Children in the 1970s, first read about women astronauts in a handful of titles, including a biography of the Valentina Tereshkova. But it wasn't until the 1980s, that they could read about African American astronauts. Even then, there was only one title until the 1990s. Amazingly, books about the Challenger accident appeared the very year of the launch. The large number of titles published about the Challenger accident is an example of the progress made in children's books dealing with a topic that previously would have been avoided.


Today's children's aviation books are incredibly varied. They cover all topics from the history of ballooning, through the early days of aviation, and up to the present with how to fly a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Astronautics generates even more interest. Public and school libraries are well-stocked with titles on astronauts, space shuttles, the history of the American and Russian space programs, and even the International Space Station.


In fiction, we no longer have aviation characters. Instead, air transportation is depicted as part of everyday life. Most major characters, from Arthur to Curious George, have flown in balloons, planes, or spaceships. Aside from its pervasiveness, aviation's impact on children's literature is most telling in today's ABC books. The very first children's books were designed to teach children how to read by introducing letters and giving examples of their use. For the first few hundred years, A was for Archer. Later, A was often for Apple. But today, A is for Airplane.


-Andrew Pedrick



Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976.

Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America 1900-1983: From the Wrights to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Cox, J. Randolph. The Dime Novel Companion: A Source Book. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences. Exhibition of Early American Children's Books of Aeronautical Interest, Dime Novels About Flying Machines, Aviation Fiction for Boys and Girls. New York: Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences, 1942.

Jones, Ernest Lester. Flight in Literature. Washington, D.C.: National Capital Press, 1925.

Launis, Roger D. and Gillette, Aaron K. Toward a History of the Space Shuttle: An Annotated Bibliography. Chapter 15 � "Juvenile Literature." Monographs in Aerospace History, No. 1. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1992.

Spaulding, Roland H. Books on Aeronautics: A Bibliography of Books Likely to be of Use in Elementary and Secondary Schools. New York: The Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, 1928.

Sutherland, Zena and Mary Hill Arbuthnot. Children and Books. 8th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Wohl, Robert. A Passion for Wings: Aviation and the Western Imagination 1908-1918. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.


Edwards, David B. Book Safari: Aviation Series Index. 1 April 2002,

FAA List of Aviation and Space Books for Grades Kindergarten Through Three.

"Gallery of Teen Space Books."

Guinan, Paul. "Frank Reade's Victorian Airships." 2001.

Pippin, Ed. Grosset & Dunlap (G & D) TC Adventures.

Pepin, Christopher James. Tom Swift Jr. - Series 2 Book List.

"Space Books for Children."



Educational Organization

Standard Designation (where applicable)

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology.

Growing up, you probably came across Edward Stratemeyer’s handiwork. His name almost never graced the covers of the books he was responsible for, but they numbered in the hundreds of millions of copies, many of which are still in print today. You’ll know their names: The Bobbsey Twins, The Rover Boys, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift. While they were all influential in their own ways, the adventures of Tom Swift in particular helped set a particular tone for the opening years of the science-fiction genre.

The various packaged adventure novels were the product of Edward Stratemeyer, the brainchild behind the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The company found its success in cheaply written juvenile novels, written by ghost writers to a strict formula. Stratemeyer had, from an early age, loved the written word. Born on October 4, 1862, Stratemeyer was the youngest of a German immigrant father named Henry Julius Stratemeyer, who arrived in the United States in the 1830s. The six Stratemeyer children grew up in a household and community which supported the arts. Edward wrote his first story at the age of six, and aided by a toy press, he published his own newspapers which he sold in his neighborhood, reading compulsively all the while. Following graduation from high school, he worked as a clerk in his brother’s store, writing on the side and selling his stories to magazines aimed toward younger readers before eventually selling to the growing pulp market. Business was good, and shortly after marrying Magdalene Baker VanCamp in 1891, he began working for the Street & Smith Company, a major publishing house that would eventually produce some of the major science-fiction publications, such as Astounding Science Fiction.

Stratemeyer’s time at Street & Smith was influential. According to Melanie Rehak, in her book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, he would “later adapt many of their practices when he formed his own company,” using the guidelines and formula to create ongoing adventures for a couple of notable characters, usually under pseudonyms so as not to oversaturate the market. Soon after leaving the company, he published a number of successful juvenile novels before coming up with a new series: The Rover Boys. The brothers, their adventures and the series formula were incredibly popular, and in 1904, produced another series, The Bobbsey Twins. Unable to keep up with demand, he began to hire ghostwriters who would work under one of his pseudonyms, while he outlined and edited each story. In 1910, he started a new series, under the name Victor Appleton, one that tapped into America’s obsession with technological progress: Tom Swift.

Stratemeyer was far from the first enterprising individual to devise a packaging scheme for his stories. He had entered the tail-end of a major publishing trend that occupied the final quarter of the 19th century: the blend between dime-store novels and what SF critic John Clute has termed “Edisonade” fiction. Inspired in part by a particularly American mythos of a self-made inventor along the lines of Thomas Edison, the genre saw stories that followed young, male inventors as they get in and out of adventures. Throughout the latter part of the 1800s, a number of these types of stories were published as technological innovation flourished throughout the country. Notably, Edward Sylvester Ellis’ 1868 novel, The Steam Man of the Prairies, heralded the start of a largely home-grown science-fiction publishing trend, which drew in heavy influences from the likes of existing authors, such as Jules Verne. Imitators followed after its publication, most notably with the Reade novels from author Harry Enton, whose Frank Reade and His Steam Horse, Frank Reade and his Steam Team and Frank Reade and his Steam Tally-Ho celebrated the advances of a growing technological world in a country that seemed to have no limits. Almost 200 novels followed in a sequel series, and soon, other, similar stories reached newsstands: the Jack Wright series from Luis Senarens (known as the American Jules Verne), and the Tom Edison Jr. stories by Philip Reade, all reinforcing American ideals of the self-made man who uses technology as the ultimate solution to his problems. The market was lucrative: Edisonade stories sold in the billions before they were largely overtaken by the pulp magazine market at the turn of the century as their target audience faced increased censorship while also outgrowing the juvenile stories.

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The dime novel trend had some fuel left and Stratemeyer saw his opportunity. The first Tom Swift novel came in 1910, under the house name Victor Appleton, written by Stratemeyer author Howard R. Garis. Tom Swift and his Motor-Cycle introduced the titular character, the son of an inventor, and followed his first adventure as he was forced to outride a group of men keen on stealing his father’s blueprints for a new invention. The novel was quickly followed in 1910 by Tom Swift and his Motor Boat, Tom Swift and his Airship, Tom Swift and his Submarine Boat and Tom Swift and his Electric Runabout, each of which followed roughly the same formula. Over the next three decades, the Stratemeyer Syndicate churned out 40 novels in the first series. The inventions were tame and constrained, but carried with them the ideals of the American Edison mythos. This style of fiction, according to Brooks Landon in his survey Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, was particularly influential within the science-fiction genre, and was closely linked with the “rags to riches” stories by Horatio Alger Jr., a close friend of Stratemeyer’s: “With this economic turn, the edisonade codifies another consistent feature of early genre SF: a preference for the small businessman-entrepreneur over corporate interests, a focus that would feature prominently in many of Robert Heinlein’s stories and novels.” 

As Tom Swift captured the imagination of the youth of America, he was setting the stage for greater things; just two years before the first Appleton novel was published, Hugo Gernsback had begun his own work in the magazine market, publishing Modern Electrics magazine, aimed at the same type of Edisonade inventor that had been so popular in fiction. In 1911, he published his own science-fiction story, Ralph 124C 41+ within its pages. The idea of a single genius inventing gadget after gadget within his own lab was a popular one, and as Tom Swift continued forward, other variations on the story type were published to great success, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Skylark of Space, which appeared in Gernsback’s own magazine, Amazing Stories. The Edisonade stories throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries were tireless and optimistic proponents of the benefits of technology, even as they glossed over the imperialistic and racist nature of the society which they supported.

Tom Swift outlived its creator, who died of pneumonia in 1930, and eventually wound down in 1941. However, with the beginnings of the Cold War and the accompanying Space Race, the character was revitalized in The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures, featuring the son of Tom and Mary Swift from the original series. Outlined by Edward Stratmeyer’s daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the new stories carried the juvenile novels into the Space Age and closer to science fiction than its predecessors. The first novel, Tom Swift and His Flying Lab, was published in 1954 and followed the new titular character through 33 adventures, involving rocket ships, robots, satellites, astronauts and much more, before coming to a close in 1971, nearly covering the entire span of the space race. Three additional iterations of the character followed but none reached the same heights of the first 70 novels.

The Tom Swift novels, while not part of the conventional science-fiction genre, were fairly influential in supporting the genre down the road. Numerous authors—Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein among them—read the juveniles at a young age, which helped to introduce a sort of Edisonade-mindset in their works. The mythos of the American individual is an exceptionally powerful one that has permeated far and wide into the science-fiction canon, and while Stratemeyer and his novel factory wasn’t the origin point, it did help ensure that it would last for generations.

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter @andrewliptak.

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