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.
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.