The Boy Inventor in American Series Fiction:
1900-1930*


Francis J. Molson**


Anyone today who recognizes the name Tom Swift probably is aware that Tom was an inventor, if he was anything. From the first volume, Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle or, Fun and Adventures on the Road, to the last, Tom Swift and His Magnetic Silencer, the very titles of the 40- volume series devoted to the young inventor-the first series or what can be called "vintage" Tom Swift-attest that the real focus of the stories was the celebration of the youth's new inventions despite the various adventures which made up large parts of the plots. From the beginning of the series to its demise, the favorite epithet of Victor Appleton, the author, (or, to be precise, of the anonymous contract-writer, inasmuch as "Victor Appleton" actually was a housename of the Stratemeyer Syndicate) to describe his hero was "the young inventor." Appleton also went to great lengths to inform readers that Tom was a very good inventor. For instance, his application and persistence were exemplary; as a result, he never rejected any challenge. "It is the impossible that inventors have to overcome," Tom once insisted, going on to point out that if experimenters "believed in the impossible little could be done in this world" (Tom Swift and His Electric Locomotive or, Two Miles a Minute on the Rails 36). Undaunted by a lack of extensive knowledge of mathematics, innocent of any ambition to uncover fundamental scientific principles, but blessed by a fecund imagination and luck, Tom Swift knew better than apparently anyone else how to apply someone else's basic research in his experiments-and did so successfully. Even his father, Barton Swift, a renowned inventor in his own right, was deeply admiring of his son's work. When the latter's sweetheart, Mary, a witness to the testing of Tom's new tank, gushes how exciting it is that the youth "should know how to build such a wonderful machine," Swift senior points out, "And run it, too, Mary! That's the point! Make it run! I tell you, that Tom Swift is a wonder" (Tom Swift and His War Tank or, Doing His Bit for Uncle Sam 100).

Tom Swift's inventions are wondrous: improved forms of the wireless, talking pictures, tank, locomotive, submarine, camera and seaplane; an electric rifle; an air glider; a photo-telephone; a floating airport; a TV detector that sees through walls; and various gigantic versions of dirigibles, guns, telescopes, searchlights and magnets. Indeed, it is a fair assessment of the whole Tom Swift series that it was intended to be a "gee- whiz" glorification of the inventor whose fantastic applications of science are a constant source of wonder; and it is this intention, as is more and more appreciated today, which renders the series an important precursor to modern American science fiction. At the same time, Tom's inventions are not only wonderful but profitable. E.F. Bleiler argues that "the first Tom Swift stories are really economic parables" in which Barton and Tom Swift "are small businessmen who make their living by intelligence and hard work" (112). Moreover, as the series continued, the Swifts expanded their business enterprises and became, in the process, successful entrepreneurs who oversaw a rather extensive collection of shops and work areas-kind of invention factory!--which proved to be financially very lucrative.

Tom Swift, however, was not the only young inventor whose achievements were being celebrated in series fiction at this time. In fact, six years before the appearance of the first Tom Swift books, Lee and Shepard published Alvah Milton Kerr's Two Young Inventors, the story of Dannie Dool and Thad Manton's design and building of the New Marvel, the name they had given their innovative flying boat. Both boys are skilled in the "employment of tools" (57), possess "inventive talent" (59), exhibit a "strongly-developed aptitude for working out mechanical processes" (88), and have undergone "discipline and training" (92). Thad, in particular, realizes that all details must fall into place if an orderly process of design and testing is to occur.

We shall have to make the working parts, or have them made in Chicago. Everything must be as perfectly finished as a fine bicycle. My models and patterns are in my shop in Chicago. I would like to have the same foundry and brass-workers that did the work before again make certain parts. We shall improve the work by doing so. (255)

At the conclusion of the story, Dannie and Thad, having been successful in launching their new flying boat and anticipating obtaining sufficient capital, "propose putting a line of swift mail and express boats upon the Great Lakes" (312). Years before Edward Stratemeyer was to do so in his Tom Swift stories, Kerr was acknowledging the necessity for inventors to reach the important insight that, if they wished to see their radical inventions fully operative and eventually profitable, they themselves had to assume responsibility for both production and delivery. In other words, Dannie Dool and Thad Manton had to become entrepreneurs.

Ned Napier and Alan Hope, the heroes of H.L. Sayler's Airship Boys Series, are another pair of young inventors whose exploits predate Tom Swift's. In The Airship Boys or, The Quest of the Aztec Treasure, the boys devise a unique propulsion system utilizing liquefied hydrogen and install it in the dirigible balloon, the Cibola, that they had designed and assembled in Ned's workshop. More impressive, however, are their inventive accomplishments in The Airship Boys Adrift or; Saved by Aeroplane. Forced to crash-land in the Mexican wilderness while flying in with the Cibola to retrieve the Aztec treasure they had earlier uncovered, Ned and Alan remain undaunted by their predicament. They calmly sit down, plan, plot out and construct a workable aeroplane, the Cibola II, out of the bits and pieces of the crashed Cibola I. In a most interesting sequence (Chapters XIX, "The Cibola II," and XX, "Ned Napier's Ingenuity"), Sayler matter-of-factly lays out and describes the process whereby the two youths design and build the Cibola II in a ten-day period! The highlight of this sequence is not the youths' successfully taking off in their new aeroplane-an entirely predictable eventuality given the conventions of series fiction-but a detailed, illustrated two-page spread which shows for the benefit of readers how a dirigible balloon might be refashioned into an aeroplane! (See Appendix I.) How young Americans must have been delighted and excited to read and discover how they too could put together an airplane, provided they exhibited sufficient determination, enterprise and inventive ingenuity, and had at their disposal a modicum of tools and material!

Sayler continues the story of the Airship Boys in six subsequent volumes, the most interesting of which is The Airship Boys in Finance or, The Flight of the Flying Cow. In this volume, Alan and Ned, now the proud proprietors of The American Equipment Company, envision a technologically sophisticated, nation-wide aerial transportation system which would include balloons for meteorological observations and airplanes powered through a rocket propulsion system of their own ingenious creation.

Beneath it, on the spring platform, stood the product of their months of work and inventive genius-"the rocket engine."

Cartridge shaped, on a circular base, it stood thirty-four inches high and thirty inches through in its widest part. Instead of a flare of polished steel, the engine was dull-blue in color. Not an outside wheel, valve, or lever could be seen. Midway on opposite sides of the cartridge-like engine projectile, two slender triangular legs extended downward, with an arm crossing the bottom of each and a set screw to regulate the pitch and direction of the suspended engine. A section of one side stood open, revealing within the end of a heavy shaft and a clockwork arrangement. (150-51)

As Dannie and Thad of The Young Inventors had done-and again in anticipation of Tom Swift-Alan and Ned perceive the importance of their planning, obtaining financing for (from the Morgan House!) and then keeping control of a coherent delivery system in order to ensure that their various inventions would realize their full potential and profit.

Most likely because the first Tom Swift books sold well (and in so doing, convincingly demonstrated the viability of a market for stories about the boy inventor), the Hurst Company in 1912 decided to capitalize on the new market by releasing its own series devoted to the boy inventor. Unabashedly entitled the Boy Inventors Series and written by Richard Bonner, the Hurst series featured Jack Chadwick and Tom Jesson who, despite being only 14, already were talented inventors. Before the actual beginning of the adventures narrated in The Boy Inventors' Wireless Triumph (the first of the Boy Inventors series), readers are informed that the boys had built and tested "models of a dozen different kinds of craft," "constructed a complete miniature railroad" and assembled "gliders of various types" (12). All of these accomplishments incorporated the boys' own designs and inventions (some of which were actually patentable, such as a gun capable of shooting shells filled with a paralyzing gas!). After such an introduction, it comes as a surprise that the boys' new invention-the wireless triumph alluded to in the title-turns out to be a life jacket which, when made airtight, filled with gas, and sent aloft, carries to a sufficient height the aerial necessary to send messages via wireless at great distances. This invention Tom Jesson describes as "the invention of the century" (236). Except for Chapter XXIII, "The Boy Inventors Solve a Problem" (226-58) which details the alteration and sending aloft of the life jacket, nowhere in the book does Bonner depict the youths' tinkering, discussing inventions or actually inventing anything. Therefore, it would appear, whatever justified the boys' reputation as "inventive wonders" took place before the events narrated in The Boy Inventors' Wireless Triumph.

For the second volume, The Boy Inventors' Vanishing Gun, Bonner adopted a similar strategy of narrative evasion. That is to say, when the story begins, readers find out that Jack and Tom's reputation as inventors has become even larger on account of their creation of the "Flying Road Racer," which is described as "a sort of monstrous flying machine" powered by a gas generated from radolite crystals (120). Because of their growing reputation as inventors, the boys are approached by an eccentric adult inventor, Pythias Peregrine, who requests their help: "Invention won't work-heard a lot of you boys-thought I'd get you to help me out-Pay well-very grateful" (20). Needless to say, Jack and Tom rise to the challenge. In the one part of the book (91-100) which contains a sustained description of the boys' actually at work inventing, they do solve a glitch in the guidance system of a rapid-firing machine gun so that it can at last "vanish" airplanes by the simple means of shooting them down! In this novel, by the way, Bonner employs a plot device that Victor Appleton was already extensively using in the Swift series-and would continue to use: the presence of rivals who will go to any length short of murder to steal the protagonist's inventions.

In subsequent books Jack and Tom are credited with even more "wonderful" inventions. In The Boy Inventors' Diving Torpedo Boat, they assist in the trying out of an innovative, electrically powered diving torpedo boat by designing for it a radical diving apparatus. Bonner shows the boys at work, first putting together a model of their diving apparatus, then testing it and finally constructing a full-size prototype-a coherent process of design, testing and model building Bonner had not depicted in the previous volumes.

"We would have to test it out with a model, of course," said Tom. "Of course...." There was much apparatus of various character about the workshops attached to High Towers, and they anticipated that the work of constructing a rough model would not take long.... But, in spite of the idea of the young enthusiasts that it would not take long to construct a model, it consumed more than a week. The work of installing the Archimedian screws, so that they would be worked properly, was especially tedious.... The complicated model of the White Shark was very like its original, only it was built on a scale of an inch and a half to the foot. It was an odd looking thing, with its two screw-like fins attached to the sides. Inside it were electric motors, and Jack had devised a system of controlling it from the shore with electric wiring; for it had been previously decided to test it in the lake at High Towers. (62-64)

In The Boy Inventors' Flying Ship, the youths plan, successfully test and put to use the "most ambitious thing they had undertaken," the Wondership (10). In creating the latter, a craft that can travel on land, in air and upon water, the pair "radically departed from anything hitherto known," in particular, the work of Glen Curtiss, the famous pioneering aviator and manufacturer of motorcycles and airplanes (10). For the next volume, The Boy Inventors' Electric Hydroaeroplane, Bonner, besides describing the invention alluded to in the title, adds new, important details to the portrait of the boy inventor which readers increasingly can discern in the series. Jack Chadwick and Tom Jesson carry out their Inventing in a place explicitly set aside for that purpose, a place, readers are assured, any inventor would be pleased to work in. "It was a very business-like looking room. Books on technical topics lined the shelves at one end of it. Models, samples of material, test tubes and other apparatus occupied most of the rest of the available space" (18). In the final volume, The Boy Inventors' Radio Telephone, the now prosperous pair of young inventors are responsible for two more inventions: an electric motor car and a wireless telephone. Bonner concludes his series somewhat abruptly:

But the boys were not made lazy by wealth and fame. To this very day, Jack and Tom, with Mr. Chadwick's aid, are devising many inventions calculated to benefit mankind. Possibly, at some future time, we shall hear something more about these, but for the present let me take our leave and say good-by. (303)

A. Frederick Collins in Jack Heaton, Wireless Operator weaves together two stories which involve what he calls "kid" inventors, one of whom is historic, the other fictional. Guglielmo Marconi is the historic "kid" inventor whom Collins refers to as the "first wireless kid" (because he had his own experimental wireless set by the time he was 20, although readers might question whether being 20 qualifies an individual to be considered still a "kid") and "the boy who invented the wireless telegraph" (on account of Marconi's pioneering experiments with aerials and grounds) (113). The other "kid" inventor is the fictional Jack Heaton who, insinuating himself into the party Marconi assembles at St. Johns, Newfoundland, for the purpose of constructing a transoceanic wireless relay, finds ways to make himself indispensable to the successful conclusion of the Marconi party's task.

Gerald Breckenridge's Radio Boys (1922-31) begins as a series of adventure stories whose protagonists, Frank Mennick, Bob Temple and Jack Hampton, always carry with them a wireless radio that is involved one way or the other with their adventures. Near the end of the series, however, a significant change occurs in focus and characterization. The three youths move from tinkering or making various small improvements in their wireless sets to inventing entirely new radio products. For instance, in The Radio Boys With the Border Patrol, Jack Hampton sets for himself the goal of developing a "complicated Super-Heterodyne" which would be exceptionally strong in "sensitiveness and that anybody could have access to its wonders, regardless of whether he possessed any engineering skill" (22-23). The following year, in The Radio Boys as Soldiers of Fortune, Jack invents the Synchronizer, a device for transmitting "a whole moving picture film which would unroll before the eyes of an audience any number of miles away as fast as it was 'shot' by the camera-and to send it, not by telegraph, but by radio" (55). As might be expected, by their various inventions, Frank, Bob and Jack not only "reap a fortune" but enjoy the keen satisfaction of both "advancing the cause of science" and-a new note in these stories-assisting their country. Concerning the former benefit, Breckenridge waxes as eloquent as the conventions of series fiction will allow:

The radio enthusiast was to the fore in Bob at this moment. Regardless of the momentous issue hanging upon the approaching demonstration of Jack's invention, he was beginning to feel the thrill incident to taking part in a great event; nothing less than the first known trial of a revolutionary device never before existent in the history of the world.

History is not lacking in its great discoveries, great inventors.... Jack Hampton was about to do what no man had ever done; he was about to make the vision of mankind limitless; to enable man to behold occurrences any number of miles distant from him, simultaneously with their happening. Bob trembled with excitement at the thought. (217)

There were several other radio or wireless boy inventors whose exploits are found in series fiction at this time; but it is their adventures rather than their inventions or the inventive process, which are the primary element in the stories: young Jack of Captain Wilbur Lawton's The Ocean Wireless Boys on the Atlantic who has created a "Universal Detector" which makes possible receiving signals from any source; or, A. Hyatt Verrill's hero of The Radio Detectives, Jack Pauling, described as an individual blessed with "a naturally inventive and mechanical mind" (4) and likely to "stumble on some little thing that will revolutionize a great science at any moment" (8). Yet the youth is credited with only one major invention-undersea radio telephony-and spends most of his time in routine spy/mystery adventure. Finally, in the plot of Stand By: The Story of a Boy's Achievement in Radio, Hugh McAlister does give some prominence to Lee Renault's invention of a powerful portable radio by means of which the adventures of an arctic exploration ship are flashed to a concerned, yet enthusiastic worldwide audience, although the author focuses most of his attention on narrating these adventures.

Upon inheriting his uncle's plans for an experimental airplane, young Andy, the hero of A Cruise in the Sky or, The Legend of the Great Pink Pearl by Ashton Lamar, proceeds to build, test, alter and test again until he actually is able to fly the radically innovative airplane-an accomplishment which owes as much to the young boy's inventive genius as to the uncle's. Noteworthy is Lamar's relative success in suggesting the excitement and "joy of...discovery" which Andy feels as he studies, builds, tests, adapts, and retests.

The boy was already on his knees. He didn't understand boats, but gas engines he did understand. For several minutes the excited boy hung over the motor; his fingers moved over its perfect parts. Then he sprang to his feet. "Do you know what that is, Captain Anderson?" he exclaimed with all his former fervor.... "Listen to those cylinders!" exclaimed the boy, as he tapped them with a pencil. "Thin as a drumhead. Auto-lubricating alloy for bearings, too," he added with increasing excitement. "And hollow steel tubing instead of solid rods-every atom pared away that can be spared. Captain Anderson," concluded the young expert, springing to his feet again, "I'll tell you what this engine is--it's the most perfect aeroplane motor ever- made!" (37-38)

In the loosely sequenced Aeroplane Boys Series, published by Reilly and Britton (1910), and also written by Ashton Lamar, different individual boys or pairs of boys are depicted as rising to various challenges posed by aeronautical inventions by altering or adapting them by means of their own seemingly small, but always important, technological breakthroughs. Unfortunately, content this time merely to refer to the former as "wonderful" or as "marvels," Lamar skips over the task of detailing or rationalizing the process of inventing, testing and organizing a delivery system. In his five-volume The Hunniwell Boys Series (1928-31) L.P. Wyman uses his protagonists to demonstrate that, in spite of the highly organized and competitive airplane business, youth is capable of conceiving, building, testing and flying new kinds of airplanes. The final instance of a youth who is enamored of airplanes as well as talented enough to invent is Hal Dane, the hero of Hugh McAlister's A Viking of the Air: A Story of a Boy Who Gained Success in Aeronautics. Dane is introduced as someone so fascinated by the "marvel of the piston" (92), the "sheer wonder of mechanisms" (93) and "the high splendid vision of following the river of the wind on a great exploration" (138) that he is driven to experiment until he comes up with a radically designed helicopter which is steered by a new kind of gyroscope. Both inventions, McAlister informs his readers, will enable humanity to realize what the author calls a "dream picture in the sky."

"Hal Dane," he said, "I've been seeing a dream picture in the sky; it's the dream city all our artists have been painting ever since the Wrights new their first plane off Kill Devil Hill. In this pictured city-to-be, airplane terminals are built right upon the roofs of high down-town buildings; every little home has its private landing field upon its own rooftop; big planes, little planes swoop straight up without ever a waste acre of runway. Until this minute, we have never been a inch nearer that marvelous goal than we were twenty-seven years ago. Suddenly you open up a new world of aviation. (155-56)

The existence of other boy inventors besides Tom Swift is just part of what we discover when we examine series books published in the first decades of the 20th century. There are two other principal findings. The first is that in these books we can delineate a composite portrait of the boy inventor; the second, that this portrait paradoxically both supports and contradicts what Thomas Hughes in American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm has observed about the public's understanding of the independent inventor.

One of the country's foremost historians of science and technology, Hughes advances the thesis that in the period 1870-1970 Americans created the modern technological nation-a feat, he argues, comparable to what any other group of people or nation in any period of history had accomplished. While discussing what the independent inventor like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison or Orville and Wilbur Wright had contributed to the creation of the modern technological nation, Hughes complains that a "host of older popular biographies and children's books have reduced the independents, in the public's imagination, to one- dimensional heroes, thereby mystifying their creativity" (18). Since the phrase "children's books" is customarily all-inclusive, it seems fair to extend the objects of Hughes's complaint to include any children's book or genre, whether past or present, which reflects popular fascination with inventors and their inventions-specifically popular understanding of what inventors are and do and the circumstances under which they go about inventing. When Hughes's complaint is tested against what early children's series fiction actually says, however, it does not appear to be germane. For analysis of the composite portrait of the boy inventor reveals that any tendency for one-dimensional hero worship about which Hughes complains is more than offset by the fact that prominent elements in the composite portrait correspond to the four main features he says characterize the great independent inventors of that hundred-year period.

First, Hughes insists that the great independent inventors "were not poverty-stricken loners working in delipatated garrets, using only a hunt-and-try approach" (21). Second, in an "attempt to change or make over the world," they liked to withdraw to "spaces of their own choice or design," often their own machine shop and even sometimes a kind of invention factory (24). There, they proceeded to devise a method of inventing that worked for them specifically. Third, the independent inventor employed models, model rooms and skilled model builders in order to give visual embodiment to their radical inventive concepts. Subsequent experiments with the models are what eventually brought about the breakthrough designs that led to the great inventions. Finally, the independent inventor specialized in what Hughes calls radical inventions: those that are system originating-e .g., the dynamos, generating plants, distribution networks and eventually a power grid demanded in order to utilize fully Edison's invention of the long-lasting incandescent lamp-rather than system improving, the outcome of conventional inventions.

The boy inventor, like Hughes's independent inventor, was definitely not poverty-striker. For example, Thad Manton, Ned Napier and Alan Hope, Tom Swift and Jack Chadwick and Tom Jesson, when they began their careers as inventors, were all relatively well off, initially enjoying financial support from parents or friends. Not only was Thad's family comfortably middle class and able to afford the youth's tinkering and inventing, but his mother was also pleased to indulge her son in order to keep him "out of mischief" (252) definitely not a scientifically pure motive but one readily understandable even today. Because Ned and Alan were hired by a family friend, Senor Oje, to bring a treasure hoard out of Mexico, the youths were able to fund the experimentation which led directly to the construction of the Cibola I. Barton Swift originally subsidized his son's first inventive endeavors until Tom was able, through the profits and royalties generated by his own patented inventions, to finance all of his subsequent enterprises. And Jack Chadwick's father, Professor Chester Chadwick, a successful inventor in his own right, was in a position to lend financial assistance to his son as he began his experiments.

Most of the boy inventors, as has been seen, worked in pairs, and even the individual boy inventor, like Tom Swift, was never a bona fide loner. Tom, for instance, enjoyed the support of his father; his friend, Ned Newton; and his two handymen, Eradicate Sampson and Koku. Moreover, each of the boy inventors, once inventing became a definite commitment in his life, sought and found a special workplace just as their adult counterparts did. In Shopton, a village somewhere in "Central New York," Tom Swift had access to perhaps the most elaborate of workshops, those making up the Swift Construction Company, a veritable invention factory. Thad Manton referred to "my shop in Chicago." Ned Napier and Alan Hope put together the Cibola I in the former's workshop. Jack Chadwick and Tom Jesson benefited first from the workshops which Jack's father had constructed at High Tower where there was "much apparatus of various character," and later from their own "very business-like looking" workshop.

Virtually all the boy inventors, like the independent inventors, were adept model makers or users of models in order to visualize and test what would otherwise remain abstract or conceptual. Witness Thad Manton who spoke of the "models and patterns" he had "worked out" in his own shop, and expressed his preference for the "same foundry and brass-workers" who previously had cooperated with him in the construction of his flying boat. Jack Chadwick and Tom Jesson in particular were accomplished model builders. As has been mentioned, in The Boy Inventors' Diving Torpedo Boat, Richard Bonner depicted his heroes actually at work constructing their own models of the diving apparatus and craft. In A Cruise in the Sky, Andy, working from plans, built a model of his uncle's experimental airplane and, in so doing, greatly modified and even improved the airplane. Hal Dean achieved success in his creation of a new helicopter and gyroscope only after he was able fully to visualize his radical design by means of the many models he fashioned. Finally, more often than not, the boy inventors too were responsible for system-producing inventions. Tom Swift, for instance, set up a host of business enterprises in transportation, mining' munition manufacturing and so on, all of which allowed him to demonstrate the radical nature of his inventions. Seizing upon the potential they saw in their innovative flying boats, Dannie Dool and Thad Manton proposed to put a "line of swift mail and express boats upon the Great Lakes." Alan Hope and Ned Napier wished to alter significantly the country's aerial navigation and transportation system through their observation balloons and rocket-propelled airplanes. By his invention of "radio vision," Jack Hampton, one of Breckenridge's Radio Boys, was in a position to begin implementing a delivery system that would revolutionize public communication and popular entertainment.

Given the similarities between the composite portrait of the boy inventor found in early series fiction and Hughes's description of the great independent inventor, it is possible to argue that the composite portrait is more or less realistic. Conversely, it is also possible to argue that, in the face of the virtual impossibility that "mere" youths could be significant inventors, as well as of the incredible range of inventions they supposedly were responsible for, readers have no choice but to conclude that the composite portrait is more or less fantastic. (No wonder, incidentally, it has become commonplace to propose that the Tom Swift stories-and now all boy inventor stories from this period-are important elements in the formation of modern American science fiction and of its audience.) The contradictions in the portrait of the boy inventor, some observers might conclude, are flaws, perhaps serious ones; further, the contradictions are pretty much what can be expected to occur in a genre which these same observers are prone to judge as the result of pedestrian, if not careless, writing. However, these contradictions are not as damaging as they appear to be at first glance, provided they are recognized as instances of an important phenomenon unique to children's series fiction yet still largely unacknowledged, in spite of Selma Lane's calling attention to it some years ago in Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children's Literature.

In the chapter, "A Series Is a Series Is a Series," Lanes argues that individuals who are inclined to write off series fiction as formula driven, inherently fantastic, escapist and, hence, inconsequential have failed to perceive that beneath the surface implausibility or impossibility is a "bedrock of conventional practicality and sensible rules of day-to-day behavior which surely would rate general grownup approval" (134). Because of this bedrock, series fiction can be genuinely helpful to youth at a time when it needs both practical advice "for getting along successfully in the workaday world" (134) and moral support as it goes about preparing for entry into the "real" adult world. Particularly valuable is that in the mystery adventures so common in series fiction "applied intelligence" is the means by which the youthful protagonists attain success. "The constantly repeated message that the forthcoming mysteries of adult life are manageable, using one's own good sense, is part of these books' perennial appeal" (135). Expressed another way, what Lanes is proposing is that it is the nature of series fiction to function on two levels and that, on both of these levels, even if there may be contradictions between them, series fiction appeals to its intended audience in ways which are valid and complementary. The relevance of Lanes's argument is twofold. First, we see that the contradictions in the composite portrait of the boy inventor are relatively unimportant. Second, and more importantly, we can better appreciate the value of that portrait. That is, series books celebrating the boy inventor and his "wondrous" inventions did so by featuring implausible situations and fantastic inventive exploits which were deliberately selected to attract and hold young readers' attention. At the same time, communicating as a subtext (but occasionally embedded among the surface implausibilities and fantastic plot situations) was not only a reliable guide to careers in inventing or engineering, which were then actually opening up, but positive encouragment to youngsters to believe in themselves as the next Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Orville or Wilbur Wright, Nikola Tesla, Elmer Sperry or Lee de Forest.

There is evidence that some publishers, if not the authors themselves, were aware that stories of wondrous inventive exploits, while intended to entertain (and, hopefully, make money), could also inform, encourage and even inspire. For instance, each volume in the Radio Boys series, written by Richard Bonner and published by Grosset & Dunlap, contained an exhortative foreword. In these forewords, Jack Binns, one of the first heroes of the radio age whose distress signals via wireless on the occasion of the collision at sea between the Republic and Florida in January 1909 helped save all but five of the passengers, spoke to his young audience about the possibilities in the new and exciting "art" and science of radio-research, development, broadcasting as well as "doing good." Typical are his remarks in the foreword to the first volume, The Radio Boys' First Wireless.

It is very appropriate at this moment when radio has taken the country by storm, and aroused an enthusiasm never before equaled, that the possibilities for boys in this art should be brought out in the interesting and readable manner shown in the first book of this series.

Radio is still a young science, and some of the most remarkable advances in it have been contributed by amateurs-that is, by boy experimenters. It is never too late to start in the fascinating game, and the reward for the successful experimenter is rich both in honor and recompense. Just take the case of E.H. Armstrong, one of the most famous of all the amateurs in this country. He started in as a boy at home, in Yonkers, experimenting with home-made apparatus, and discovered the circuit that has revolutionized radio transmission and reception. His circuit has made it possible to broadcast music and speech, and it has brought him world-wide fame. (34)

The Tom Swift series offers a more instructive example. When the Edward Stratemeyer Syndicate released the first volumes, printed on the dust jackets were the words: "It is the purpose of these spirited tales...to interest the boy of the present in the hope that he may be a factor in aiding the marvelous development that is coming in the future." Whether these words were supposed to be an advertising come-on or an acknowledgment of a serious didactic intent (or a combination of both) is difficult today to determine. John T. Dizer, the unofficial "biographer" of Tom Swift and author of Tom Swift & Company: "Boys Books" by Stratemeyer and Others, is not afraid, however, to express his belief that the Tom Swift books did suggest for many of their young readers the real possibilities of a career in engineering or inventing. To support his opinion, Dizer cites the remarks of John W. Donahey. "Stratemeyer certainly built an image of the boy inventor which profoundly influenced generations of young men.... Stratemeyer spoke to his readers at their most impressionable age, and he must have sparked an interest in science in many of the men who are today leading scientists and engineers" (13).

If Dizer and Donahey are correct in their estimate of the extensive influence the Tom Swift books had on American youth, then Edward Stratemeyer, if he were alive today, would not be surprised to learn that his dust jacket blurb, regardless of its primary intent, turned out to be prophetic. For Stratemeyer, who had reason to believe that his own life validated the Horatio Alger myth, had the perspicacity to realize that that same myth could energize not just Horatio Alger stories but many other kinds of series fiction. Accordingly, his publishing syndicate, which was so instrumental in establishing the nature and function of American series books, incorporated in its fiction the core Alger myth: that both a sharp eye for recognizing opportunity and the firm decision to take advantage of it-for instance, what can be done with a flair for tinkering and inventing-can lead to personal satisfaction and financial success. Thus, the boy inventor story, 1900-30, is most usefully understood today as an amalgam of fantasy and realism. On one level it aspired to inciting wonder at the prospect of continuous exciting and seemingly incredible breakthroughs primarily in aeronautical technology and radio. On another level it functioned as model and guide encouraging male youth to "hitch their wagon" to the "rising star" of inventing and engineering.


Works Cited

Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Electric Locomotive or, Two Miles a Minute on the Rails. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1922.

____. Tom Swift and His Magnetic Silencer. Racine, WI: Whitman, 1941.

____. Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle or, Fun and Adventures on the Road. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1910.

____. Tom Swift and His War Tank or, Doing His Bit for Uncle Sam. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1918.

Bleiler, E.F. "From the Newark Steam Man to Tom Swift." Extrapolation 30.2 (Summer 1989).

____. Bonner, Richard. The Boy Inventors' Diving Torpedo Boat. New York: Hurst, 1912.

____. The Boy Inventors' Electric Hydroaeroplane. New York: Hurst, 1914.

____. The Boy Inventors' Flying Ship. New York: Hurst, 1913.

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*This article was taken from the Journal of Popular Fiction, vol. 28, 1994, pp. 31-48.Top of page
**Francis J. Molson, Department of English Language and Literature, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, MI. Top of page