More than a century ago, Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of a book-packaging company, created the character of Tom Swift. Stratemeyer wrote under the pseudonym of Victor Appleton. The very popular adventures of Tom Swift appeared in a series of books (40 volumes), published from 1910 to 1941. The protagonist, Tom Swift, is portrayed as a hero and scientific genius (modeled after famous inventors of the time — Thomas Edison and Henry Ford). In some ways, Swift was the early 20th-century version of Jimmy Newtron, or a Tesla for teens. Many of Swift’s inventions, like a fax machine, hand-held movie camera and taser, predated the actual invention by several decades. In fact the word TASER is an acronym of “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.” The Tom Swift canon influenced many notable science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Ray Kurzweil. Over the several decades, different writers have continued writing Tom Swift adventures for new generations of children. As of 2009, the Tom Swift book series has sold more than 30 million books (compare that to the Hardy Boys series, another successful Stratemeyer creation, that has sold more than 70 million books since 1927).
Another impact of the Tom Swift books was the rise of a clever word game. Stratemeyer, and the writers that followed him, tended to over-use adverbs to modify the verb “said.” A popular word game that began in the 1950’s was the adverbial pun, a type of Wellerism (introduced by Charles Dickens’s character Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers), that came to be known as a “Tom Swifty.” Below are samples of some clever Tom Swifties, enjoyed by punsters worldwide:
“I lost my crutches,” said Tom lamely.
“My pants are wrinkled,” said Tom ironically.
“I lost the flower,” Tom said lackadaisically.
“I admire the Venus de Milo statue,” said Tom disarmingly.
“I enjoy sleeping in when I camp,” said Tom intently.
“I know how to kill vampires.” said Tom painstakingly.
For further reading: Amazing Words by Richard Lederer, Marion Street Press (2013)
The Tom Swift Collection: 28 Novels in One Volume, Halcyon Press (2009)