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Literature / Tom Swift

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The first Tom Swift book
1910s to 30s Stratemeyer Syndicate kids' series following the adventures of boy inventor Tom Swift. Each book began with Tom inventing some new gadget that conveniently proved essential to resolving the plot. Invented or popularized many Gadgeteer Genius tropes.

While popular in his time, Tom proved to have less staying power than his Stratemeyer stablemates Frank and Joe Hardy and Nancy Drew, perhaps because of how quickly his "cool technology" was superseded in the real world. An Atomic-age attempt to revive the franchise in the mid-1950s with a new series starring his son failed when people started questioning the wisdom of atomic-powered airplanes and automobiles. If anything Tom Swift Jr.'s Gee-whiz tech went obsolete even faster than his father's did.

The series was revived in the early 1980s, in Southern California in the 1990s and in the first person in the 2000s.

Origin of the "Tom Swifty", such as "Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily or "How was your colonoscopy?" asked Tom probingly. This is something of a Beam Me Up, Scotty! (or "Play it again, Sam") situation, as while Stratemeyer was eager to employ adverbs and reluctant to use the plain verb "said", actual "Tom Swifty" puns were rare.

As early as the 1910s, plans were made to adapt the books to live-action, but nearly every single one of them have failed, with progress being usually no further than a finished script. The only screen adaptation of the books in the 20th century is a 1983 television special called The Tom Swift and Linda Craig Mystery Hour, starring Willie Aames and Lori Loughlin and airing on ABC. A television pilot starring Gary Vinson was completed in 1958, but it was not greenlit because of legal problems. Tom's unlucky streak ended in 2022, as The CW ordered a series focusing on him (with Tom now being a gay African-American man), set as a spin-off of the network's ongoing Nancy Drew series. The luck didn't last long though, as it was swiftly cancelled. Despite CW announcing its cancellation five episodes in, they allowed the remaining five to air and finish out the run.


  • Alternate Universe: In one of the 90s books, Tom accidentally swaps places with a Mad Scientist version of himself from one of these due to a black hole experiment gone wrong, with many of friends' analogues being criminals in the alternate universe (and his best friend being a police officer and implied recurring nemesis of his).
  • Androcles' Lion: Prior to the second book of the fifth series, Swift Enterprises executive Yvonne Williams was kidnapped by anti-technology terrorists. One of her guards was dying after being bitten by a snake, and Yvonne used her cellphone battery to shock him back to life. The next day, that guard let her escape.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Inevitable, due to the time they were written.
  • Bad Boss: Roscoe in the final 90s book is willing to brainwash his henchmen, use them as test subjects for a forcefield device (while using bullets) and even outright shoot a loyal one who hasn't done anything just to make his own attempted escape go smoother. And while none of this is completely unique to the series, Roscoe is a lot scarier because of how he succeeds in killing multiple people.
  • Big Bad: David Luna, during the 80s series and Xavier Mace, a.k.a. "The Black Dragon", in the 90s one, both Corrupt Corporate Executives out to crush the Swifts.
  • Brains and Brawn: George and Len (whose names are a Shout-Out to the main characters in Of Mice and Men), the henchmen of Tom's evil alternate universe counterpart in the 90s book "The Negative Zone" are a nervous thug and a skilled engineer. They get tricked into helping the real Tom when he ends up in their world.
  • Bluff the Imposter: in the 90s book Monster Machine, in the aftermath of the main cast being kidnapped, Tom and Rick are trying to rescue their girlfriends from a room, and a computer sensor tells them it's filled with poison gas. They ask the girls (really dummies lying next to a radio transmitter) to answer specific (trick) questions, which they are unable to do. A little later, when they find the real girls (wearing gas masks), they ask the same questions just to make sure, and this time they know the right answers.
    Tom: Mandy, tell me what color bathing suit you wore on our date last Friday.
    Mandy: Tom, what are you talking about? Nobody wears a bathing suit to the movies, not even in California!
  • Character Name and the Noun Phrase: Probably the Ur-Example.
  • Crossover:
    • The 90s series crosses over with The Hardy Boys Casefiles for two "Ultra Thriller" books, "Time Bomb" and "The Alien Factor".
      • The former seems to take place midway through Tom's solo series (since it features the Black Dragon as the Big Bad, who dies in the sixth book) and serves as something of an epilogue to the Hardy Boys' "Operation Phoenix" trilogy storyline, which ended the same month that "Time Bomb" was published.
      • The latter appears to be set after Tom's solo 13 books and thus serves as the Grand Finale to the 90's series, while also setting up the second Hardy Boys Casefiles trilogy, "Ring of Evil" (which started in the same month that "The Alien Factor" came out).
    • In the comic book series The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew : The Big Lie, Tom is a minor character who is the Hardys' old friend and finds information for them.
  • Deconstruction: Intentionally or not, many of the 1990s books did this to "For Science!" as a motivation for Tom's various inventions. Many of them prove to cause all manner of unforeseen problems for Tom and his friends to deal with. Tom can come off as a younger more idealistic version of a Mad Scientist.
  • Either/Or Title: All of the books in the original series, such as Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle; or, Fun and Adventure on the Road
  • Fantasy Metals: Thomasite. More a fantasy plastic, but it had amazing properties that allowed such things as a quarter-inch of it to be sufficient shielding for a nuclear reactor, or light and strong enough to replace aluminum in planes.
  • For Science!: Because what else would a supergenius teenager get up to in a series of adventure novels?
  • First-Contact Math: Tom Swift Jr. and his father communicate with aliens this way.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Possibly the Ur-Example of this trope too.
  • House Pseudonym: Per the usual practices of Stratemeyer Syndicate. Tom Swift books are always credited to Victor Appleton, while the Jr. series is Victor Appleton II. Both are simply names for a parade of ghostwriters. Gets ridiculous when you realize the first book was released in 1910 and new books were being released as late as 2019, which would make Victor well over a century old.
  • Impersonation-Exclusive Character: In "The Space Hotel," a scientist invited to the eponymous location is kidnapped and replaced by an Eco-Terrorist. While the real scientist is rescued, this happens off-screen, and he never meets Tom. 
  • Kid Detective
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: In the nineties series, The Black Dragon attempts to recruit Tom, claiming that Tom is actually his son, from a past relationship between the villain and Tom's mother. After rolling the idea around in his head for a short bit, Tom decides he takes entirely too much after Tom Sr. for the Black Dragon's claims to be anything but an attempt to mess with his head.
  • Mad Libs Catch Phrase: Mr. Damon in the first series always said some form of "Bless my [noun]!"
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: One of these characters appears in "Mutant Beach".
  • Men of Sherwood
    • About half the books in the second series end with a villain's base being swarmed by either a party of Swift Enterprises guards and workers or local authorities (generally composed largely of unnamed and/or One Shot Characters), who easily defeat the antagonists and sometimes rescue a captive Tom.
    • In the fourth series, Harlan Ames and his security force are generally formidable enough to deter attacks on the plant with their mere presence, and even when they don't, they're nothing to scoff at in a fight.
      • In Quantum Force, some mercenary commandoes do briefly make it into the base due to having face field technology and an inside source, but as soon as Tom disables the force fields Ames and his men quickly gun down or capture the mercenaries.
      • Almost all of the guards who accompany the Swifts to field test a new invention are gunned down, but some go down fighting, and the two survivors, including Harlan, are blazing away throughout their retreat. Later, when the Black Dragon has an army teleport into the Swifts' complex, the guards do an effective job of fighting the intruders and protecting the heroes, and win handily. Unfortunately, this becomes a Pyrrhic Victory when the Black Dragon then uses his time machine to teleport his surviving men into an unstable device to make it blow up and kill a scientist everyone is trying to protect.
  • Might Makes Right: In Mind Games, the human antagonist, Gary Gitmoe, says, "The strong get what they deserve. So do the weak."
  • Minovsky Physics: The radiation-blocking Tomasite plastic can block radiation, and is a good neutron reflector. Period. Apart from that, it's just a strong, hard plastic. The repelatron device can do one thing: Push on the specific combination of elements it's been tuned to. The potential complications and the difficulties of keeping the things properly tuned are not ignored.
  • MST: Tom Swift's War Tank is one of the more extensive MSTings available. It has its own tropes page, here.
  • Parrot Exposition: Notoriously overused in the earlier novels and the source for much of the humor in the aforementioned MSTing.
  • Raygun Gothic including the inevitable Zeerust
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Most of the government officials Tom and his dad market their inventions to have good uses for the devices and are fair-minded about any difficulties. Some, like Peter Newell from Monster Machine, even tag along on adventures.
  • Revival: Tom Swift Jr. in the 1950s, and again in the 1980s, and again in the 90s, and for good measure in 2006.
  • Recycled IN SPACE!: The adventures of Tom Swift the Somethingth, interstellar traveller.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Villains often flee or try to flee when things go bad. A great example is in Tom Swift and his Electric Railroad, where the villains see Tom's gigantic associate Koku walking up while carrying the unconscious Dragon over his arm without any effort or difficulty.
    Big Bad: Get him!
    Random Mook: Get your grandmother.
    All of the mooks flee.
  • Sidekick: Mr. Damon and Ned in the original series, Bud in the 1950s, Ben in the 1980s, Rick in the 1990s. Given who they're playing the Sidekick to, they also get to be The Watson.
  • Story Arc: The "Jr." novels had an ongoing arc about Tom's interaction with the alien "Space Friends". Since the arc never really went anywhere before the series ended, it's arguably also an Aborted Arc.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Particularly in the 90s series.
    • Invoked in Aquatech Warriors, in which the Big Bad plans to use a massive conventional bomb to raise an island into the sea he can call his own. After his plan is thwarted, Tom tells the gang what would have happened if the plan had succeeded: No new island nation for the Big Bad; "only" a tsunami that would have hit Jamaica, killing upwards of 50,000 people.
    • In Death Quake, being only eighteen, Tom has a difficult time being taken seriously by a visiting adult scientist.
    • In Quantum Force: Tom Swift uses his newest invention to exact some payback on some muggers — and gets grounded as soon as he gets home for doing something so stupid.
  • Swiss-Cheese Security: In one "Jr." novel (the one with the giant robots) a villain knocks out a Swift worker who resembles him and walks into their plant with the man's security pass, boasting that their security "makes a bank job look tough."
  • Teen Genius: Tom, of course, and his twin sister as well in the 90s version. Tom is probably the Ur-Example of this trope as well.
  • Those Two Guys: The mutated assistants of the mad scientist in the 90s book "Mutant Beach".
  • Tom Swifty: Trope Namer, though as mentioned actual examples are rare.
  • Uncertain Doom: In the 80s books, David Luna is presumed dead in the fourth book along with a sympathetic alien pursuing him during a dangerous hyperspace jump. Luna returns alive but his pursuer's chances were less good.
  • Ungrateful Bastard:
    • Zigzagged in "The Aquatech Warriors" from the 90s series. After Tom and the others save the surviving crewmen from The Black Dragon's undersea base from drowning, they end up held at gunpoint. The leader of the group says its not that they aren't grateful, it's just that they'd prefer not to stand trial for piracy and murder by going quietly, although they do plan to leave Tom and the others with the materials to make a raft of their own (on the rapidly sinking land platform) as well as the scientific data which had brought Tom to the area in the first place. Naturally though, Tom and the others turn the tables.
    • Played completely straight in "Moonststalker" also from the 90s, when the Big Bad and one of his men pull a gun on them after being rescued from their own destroyed spaceship and attempt to murder Tom and the others.