Sunday, April 22, 2012

The A to Z of Fiction to Reality: Tom Swift and the TASER

I should have grown up reading Tom Swift. Should have, but I didn't. No, it's not through some kind of weird hindsight thing and a latent desire to have done so that makes me say this. I say it for one reason and one reason alone: my mother grew up reading (and loving) Tom Swift. You'd think that since my mom grew up reading Tom Swift that she would have passed that on to me. But you'd be wrong. I discovered all of my own reading as a kid, which lead to me "doing it wrong" and being labeled "delayed" at one point by a school counselor because I was reading the wrong books. What was I reading? Science.

No, really, I was reading science books (which is also why I say I should have been reading Tom Swift). As I've said before, all of my early reading was non-fiction. Starting at about age 4, I was reading books about dinosaurs. No, not story books. Science books. I was fascinated with them, and I wanted to learn everything I could about them, so what I would ask for was books about dinosaurs. I still have a lot of them, and some of these books would be a struggle for adults. That lead to astronomy and zoology and, actually, history (because I was a patriotic munchkin, and read all I could about the revolutionary time period and the people involved). At any rate, I was in 4th grade before I really discovered fiction.

But Tom Swift... See, Tom Swift was about this boy genius who was all into science and all the adventures he had and all of his inventions! Science and adventure! And my mom never told me about it or got me any of the books. I didn't even know who Tom Swift was until I was in high school, and I was way past being interested in reading about him at that point. [Interestingly enough, though, the first fiction I really got into reading was The Hardy Boys, which was "written" by the same author (but -that's- a subject for another post (and one I've mentioned previously somewhere)).]

As it turns out, the Tom Swift books served as an inspiration to a few people you may have heard of, like Steve Wozniak, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. It also turns out that several inventions have been tied directly to these books or appeared in them before they were a real thing. Here's a short list:

synthetic diamonds: Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers (1911) -- the actual technology to do this was not produced until the 1950s

sending photographs by telephone: Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1912) -- the technology for this was developed in 1925 (1925! I had no idea.)

portable movie camera: Tom Swift and His Wizard Camera (1912) -- the first portable movie cameras didn't come out until 1923

But my favorite, my absolute favorite is the taser. Everyone always thinks that taser has something to do with laser. And why not? After all, there is also the maser and the (fictional) phaser with names that tie to laser. But not taser. Taser stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.
Jack Cover, 60 years after the book was published, invented the taser and named it after his inspiration for it. How much better can it get than that? He read about it as a boy and thought, "I want to make that," so he grew up and did it. That's, like, the height of cool.  It's just too bad Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Tom Swift, wasn't around to see it.


  1. I had no idea about any of those things. And that's so cool that the taser was named after Jack Cover's inspiration.

  2. Thomas Swift has always just been a name for me. I had no idea of the stories. Cool.

  3. It's funny how fiction can inspire reality. I watched a History Channel special about the inventions Star Trek helped inspire like cell phones and MP3s.

  4. With regard to Star Trek, I suspect that this "vision" of future design has been influential on what things "should" look like. Yes we had colorful 3.5" floppy discs and flip cell phones but they were used in a rather different way. Also Star Trek failed to predict the personal computer. Only Spock has a computer and that is considered unusual. Otherwise computers were the 1960s vision of mainframes.

    Like many of the Jules Verne stories, the inventions in Tom Swift usually had some direct inspiration in the real world. Publications like Scientific American or Popular Science Monthly had articles where people made claims, described a prototype, or suggested possibilities.

    In the case of "artificial diamonds," there were many claims made by people to do this well before the 1911 Tom Swift story. Note that in the book, Tom is not able to reproduce the diamond maker's method after their mountain-top lab is destroyed.

    The Electric Rifle was used for the name of the TASER (also because it sounds like laser, maser, and phaser). However, the actual description of the rifle in the book speaks of wireless bullets of electricity. In another Stratemeyer Syndicate series volume ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis, who did most of the Tom Swifts working from Edward Stratemeyer's outlines, called Under the Ocean to the South Pole (Cupples & Leon, 1907) there is a device which shoots out barbed darts with wires trailing behind. These conduct the electricity which stuns or kills the target. This is exactly how the TASER works. My guess is that Cover read stories like this too. What would that mean to the "prior art" part of the patent since some patent applications like "machine vision" read more like a science fiction story description than a working device from a real inventor.

    The 1914 book called Photo Telephone seems particularly advanced. However, there are even earlier antecedents. Photos had been sent by telegraph wire in something akin to a fax machine by Korn in 1908 and these are even alluded to in the story. However, Tom's machine is closer to a 1909 demonstration device made by Rhumer which was considered to be an early form of "television" (remote viewing rather than broadcast).

    For real television, Tom Swift had that too in 1928 with his Talking Pictures. It was an attachment to radio to let you see the performers on stage -- in color. The movie theater companies were not happy about this and tried to stop Tom but eventually a deal was worked out.

    The old Tom Swift books (1910-41) are an interesting way to look at the early development of technology. They were highly influential to aviators, engineers, scientists, and writers. For people like Wozniak, Tom Swift Jr. (1954-71) was the "Tom Swift" in question though Tom Sr. is a character in those books and there are even references to some of the original Tom's inventions in that series.

    The first 25 Tom Swift Sr. books are public domain and available from Project Gutenberg and other places. They are products of their time but better than many of their contemporaries.

    James D. Keeline

  5. Okay, that just blew my mind. As did the Photo Telephone. I'm sad to say I never heard of the Tom Swift books, as my mom skipped straight from the Mickey Mouse books to the Stephen King.

    Also, sorry for being a little scatterbrained lately, as we've been busy beyond belief, but we'd love to hear your awesome idea. If e-mail is easier, drop us a line. We haven't heard from you in a while.

  6. I love the Tom Swift books. I actually still have all of them in a box, and I pull them out every once in a while. Science and adventure...always good times. I had NO idea about the taser being names after him though. That's pretty awesome.

  7. I love all these stories of fiction to reality. So many scientists seemed to have been influenced by literature. How cool is that? We should all think up the most incredible things and put them in our books. We can rule the future!

    Also, I've never read a Tom Swift book in my life. I may have missed out on something there.

  8. Awesome information! I had no idea about the taser. Also, amazing that the technology for photographs via telephone came about in 1925.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  9. M.J.: It is cool.

    Alex: I know! I was so surprised by that.

    Rusty: Yeah, right in there with The Hardy Boys.

    Grumpy: Yeah, Star Trek has probably been the Verne of the late 20th century in that respect.

    keeline: First, thanks for stopping by! I see that you are a big Swift fan.
    However, I'm not sure if you missed the point of the post or not. This series is about the ways that fiction has inspired and influenced reality. Like with Verne and the submarine, even though Verne did not come up with the idea, his story about a submarine -still- influenced the development and later usage of the submarine.
    But with the taser, I'm going to have to go by what Cover said, and he said he was directly inspired to make the taser because of Tom Swift. He didn't mention any other source, so who can say if he read that other story or not. And I really don't think the naming had anything to do with the laser since the original name was the TSER. He said he changed the name because he got tired of answering the phone with that and needed something easier to say so added the "a" in to make it TASER. At any rate, what Cover made was inspired by something he read in fiction, and that's the whole point.

    ABftS: I understand the busy-ies. I'm so swamped, right now.

    S.L.: See, I don't own a single one :(

    L.G.: You probably did, but so did I. What can you do?

    Shannon: It is amazing. Why didn't we know that?

  10. I read the Tom Swift III series when I was a kid, set mostly in space. I still have my old books, up in my mom's attic (LOL, I never get rid of my books!) I had no idea about the taser thing. Wow!!

  11. RG: I'm not really interested in the newer series, but, at some point, I'd like to go back and read some of the originals.