Tom Swift and his Triphibian Atomicar

By Victor Appleton II

Summary: Extracted from one of the title pages of the book:

An atomic-powered car that travels on land, water, and through the air -- Tom Swift Jr.'s latest invention -- is an extraordinary achievement. But even its young inventor could not anticipate what a dramatic role the Triphibian Atomicar would play in a technical aid mission which takes Tom and his top-flight engineers to the untamed Asian land of Kabulistan, to help the new republic develop its natural resources.

Time and again Tom must pit his skill and courage against fierce, nomadic tribesmen. But this is not a one-sided conflict between the ancient and the modern. Beneath the façade of thunderous hoofbeats, spears, and scimitars is a scientific mastermind bent on destroying the members of the Swift expedition in order to conceal from the Kabulistan government his discovery of a fabulous ruby mine lost for two centuries.

After a series of danger-packed episodes, Tom and his pal Bud Barclay are caught in a seemingly inextricable, underground trap. How Tom builds a "do-it-yourself" rocket in a cavern laboratory and sends it homing for aid is a brilliant stroke of ingenuity.

The young scientist-inventor's daring exploits in the primitive Middle East country of Kabulistan will keep the reader breathless with suspense until the last page of this gripping story.



Major Inventions


This book is from what might be Tom's most prolific period. There are a number of major, important, earth-shattering inventions in this book, and I will deal with each of them one at a time.

The first and perhaps the biggest invention in this book is the Triphibian Atomicar. Below I've typed in the first few pages of the book, so that you can get a feel of this amazing invention for yourself:


ÖShe and Sandy soon forgot the frightening experience the sheer exhilaration of spinning along as quietly as a breeze. The lack of engine noise, Tom explained, was due to the car being driven by four small electric motors, one of them mounted at each wheel.

"And that steering lever does everything?" Phyl asked.

"Practically everything," Tom said. "Accelerates, slows, stops, turns, or reverses--depending on how you move the stick."

Passing motorists goggled admiringly at the bronze, bubble-hooded sports car. As Tom drove farther into the country, the highway skirted pleasant green woodland on the left, while off to the right the blue waters of Lake Carlopa sparkled in the June sunshine.

"How about that triphibian feature you mentioned?" Sandy asked from the back seat.

"Well, you know what amphibian means."

Sandy grinned at him in the rear-view mirror. "Don't pin me down, professor, but it refers to something that exists on both land and water, doesn't it? I know the Marines make amphibian landings and an amphibian plane can take off from land or water."

Tom nodded. "Well, my atomicar is triphibian--meaning it can get around on land, through the air, or over water."

To demonstrate, Tom pushed the repelatron switch on the dashboard, and again the car's wheels soared gently up off the road.

"A repelatron lifter does the trick," Tom explained. The repelatron was a repulsion-ray device that Tom had invented to drive his revolutionary spaceship, the Challenger.

Tom brought squeals of excitement from the girls by veering off the highway, hedgehopping straight down to the short of the lake, and then skimming out over the waves.

"Oh, this is fun!" Phyl exclaimed. "What makes the car go, now that the wheels aren't driving us?"

"A small air jet," Tom replied. "Doesn't take much motive power once we're air-borne--you could push it along with one finger."

Sandy looked down at the blue scudding surface just below them. "It's like surf-sledding!" she said gleefully. "But what if our repelatron conked out--would we float?"

"Sure." Tom flicked the switch and the car settled down on the waves with a slight splash. "Everything's watertight and there's an air ballast tank on each side of the frame."
"Great for a fishing trip!" said Bud.

"It'll be great for all sorts of transport purposes," Tom said. "This baby can cross rivers and operate over any terrain--swamps, wild bush country, even mountainous areas."

Its repelatron, the young inventor added, made the atomicar far nimbler than ground-hugging air-cushion vehicles. Moreover, it would not churn up clouds of dust on dirt roads as they do [notice the swipe here against other science-fiction vehicles that were in books at the time]. Tom proved its versatility on the way back to town by more hedgehopping stunts--even skimming a treetop.

"Seriously, though," Tom added, as the girls caught their breaths amid gasps of laughter, "the biggest selling point is that the car will run for hundreds of thousands of miles at almost no operating cost--that is, when my new atomic power capsule is installed."


How does the Triphibian Atomicar work? As the above passage indicated, the car is a perfectly ordinary car except for two things: it can fly, and it has no need for fuel. Flight, according to Tom, is possible because of the car's repelatrons. The car's extraordinary range of "hundreds of thousands of miles" is due to Tom's unique atomic power capsule -- another amazing invention that I will discuss later on.


How feasible is it to build a Triphibian Atomicar? As is the case for nearly all the Swift inventions, the answer to this question depends on the feasibility of the Swift inventions that the atomicar is built upon -- in this case, the repelatron (invented in Tom Swift and his Deep-Sea Hydrodome) and the atomic power capsule.

Now, obviously, if you don't have a repelatron or a power capsule you can hardly build the car the way Tom did. You would have to go about it a completely different way, and you would have to find a way to get today's technology to work and yet still make the machine look like a car. Flying vehicles that are legal on the highways have been built, but the result only vaguely looks like a car, really seems to belong more in the air than on the highway, and is extraordinarily expensive.

Today's technology just cannot build a cheap car that can easily maneuver in three dimensions. The mechanical challenges of such a vehicle are really more than we can handle today. Perhaps one day we'll have mass-produced triphibian cars, but they will only appear after a major scientific breakthrough -- antigravity, perhaps -- hits the streets.


How much impact would a Triphibian Atomicar have on civilization? The atomicar, as it is presented in this book, has an enormous range of potential uses, and if Tom were to create special models of this invention it would have even more. Here are a few ideas:


Personal Uses. Imagine having a car that could fly, swim (and possibly submerge) or drive, and had enough fuel in it the day you bought it to last until you drove it to the junkyard. If this car were priced cheaply enough, who wouldn't want one? Gasoline stations would go out of business nearly overnight for the simple reason that the car does not use gasoline and can take a round trip to the moon with the fuel built into the car. Because the car uses no gasoline, it does not deplete fossil fuel reserves and thus frees up billions of barrels of oil a year. The car is also a Zero Emission Vehicle (goodbye, smog!) and completely silent (imagine that!), making it an extremely environmentally friendly car.

Out-of-state and out-of-country travel would doubtless boom tremendously. After all, if fuel isn't a factor and if the car has enough speed, why not drive over to Paris or London or Sydney and spend the weekend? Or why not tackle Tibet or Siberia or the North Pole, for that matter -- normally inaccessible locations could, after all, be easily reached with a vehicle as easily maneuverable as an atomicar.

Imagine what it would be like to fly down the Grand Canyon, or to soar high over the majestic Rockies, or to look down on teeming tropical rainforests. Equipped with even a basic atomicar you could get a birds-eye view of any place on Earth. This machine, with a few modifications, could have a lot of other uses as well. If Tom were to make this car submersible it would be a great replacement for his Diving Seacopter. Wouldn't it be cool if you could fly right off the road and plunge into the Atlantic Ocean? Imagine being able to dive deep beneath the sea and race alongside a blue whale. Or cruise alongside a group of dolphins. Or cruise over sunken ships. Or pay your respects to the Titanic.

Another edition Tom could put out would be an atomicar car suitable for long-distance space flight. It really wouldn't be too difficult do make this one -- just replace the air jet with a powerful repelatron, make the ship airtight, add one of Tom Swift's foolproof navigators, and there you go! Imagine having a quick afternoon jaunt to the Moon, or cruising over to Mars for the weekend, or taking a week off to fly by the magnificent Saturn. What could be better?

Other Uses. A larger edition of the Atomicar suitable for transport could be enormously useful in countries with either poor infrastructure or huge areas of swampland and rainforest. Imagine how easy an atomicar would make it to get supplies to and from desolate areas (after all, you wouldn't even need a road or a place to land!). No longer could any region of earth be truly called hard-to-reach. Mines that had to be passed up before because they were too remote could go into operation. Remoteness, in fact, would no longer be an issue.

An atomicar, with a few modifications, would really be the perfect vehicle for use on other planets. Flight, you know, is impossible on the Moon because the moon has no air. An atomicar, on the other hand, doesn't need air to fly! And why use a slow ground-based lunar rover when you can zoom over the lunar surface in an atomicar?



Another important invention is the Atomic Power Capsule. The Atomic Power Capsule (also called the Mighty Midget) is basically a miniaturized nuclear power plant that is equipped with enough fuel to last for years. It is quite an amazing invention -- I would say that it rivals the repelatron itself.


What does the atomic power capsule look like? Here is the description that was provided in the book:

The power plant was housed in a small, rectangular, capsule-like casing. It has a copper boss at each end, one positive and one negative, through which the electrical output would be drawn off. A sheathed cable led from the capsule to a small control box, which was connected to an outside control panel.


How does the atomic power capsule work? The book, believe it or not, does not say, so I really have no idea. In fact, I can't even hazard a guess -- the entire idea of creating a machine no bigger than a microwave that can harness nuclear power is just mind-boggling. My only guess is that it uses a fantastic type of nuclear fusion -- cold fusion, perhaps.


How feasible would it be to build an atomic power capsule? I can't even fathom how it would work, so I can hardly guess as to how practical it would be. Maybe someone out there, someday, will have a fantastic idea that will lead to an atomic power capsule. I wouldn't hold my breath, though, if I were you.


How did Tom deal with the threat of a capsule meltdown? Nowhere in the book is there mentioned even the possibility of the capsule having a runaway chain reaction and exploding. There were pressure problems, but Tom's durastress alloy solved them. Evidently, if the book is to be believed, the type of atomic reaction Tom used was vastly different than the type commonly used today. Perhaps, as I said before, he used a type of cold fusion cell. Cold fusion cells, however, do not generate any pressureÖ


How did Tom deal with the radiation from the atomic power capsule? While the capsule is known to release radiation, there is no account anywhere as to how Tom dealt with it. (Perhaps I'm wrong; if so, then e-mail me.) My guess would be that he coated the capsule with Inertite, a material he developed in Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire that was impervious to radiation.


How much impact would an atomic power capsule have on civilization? An atomic power capsule would probably have an enormous impact that would mainly be focused on countries that have no centralized power supply. In such places the capsule would be of enormous use since it's cheaper and can be built faster than a power plant and requires no infrastructure.

A good example of its potential uses is actually found in this very book. Look at how Tom used the capsule to develop Kabulistan. Expensive dams and nuclear power plants, as Tom pointed out, were simply forgone, as they were not needed. Instead, every large factory, hospital and school was equipped with their own atomic power capsule. This, of course, had enormous benefits. Once you had paid for the capsule, you had enough electrical power to last for years, depending on the size of the capsule and the power you used. Not only that, but the power it provided could be counted on -- no storm, however, severe, could knock out your power supply.



Another important invention, this one crucial to the success of the atomic power capsule, is Durastress. Durastress is a tremendously strong plastic that is capable of withstanding enormous pressures. Tom used its tremendous strength in his atomic power capsule to keep the capsule from exploding under its own pressure.


How does Durastress work? I have no idea. No explanation of any kind was provided in the book.


How feasible is Durastress? Once again, since I have no idea how it works, I can offer no ideas on how feasible it is.


How much impact would Durastress have? That depends on how expensive Durastress is to manufacture. If Durastress is quite expensive then it would probably only be used in areas that absolutely require light but high-strength materials (such as space flight or military aircraft). If, on the other hand, it was very cheap (which I doubt), then it would probably be used in all sorts of areas. Extremely light cars could be made out of it. Bridges could use it. Passenger jets could use it. Buildings could use it. And on the list goes.



The last important invention in this book is Tom's Mechanical Homing Pigeon. (I really doubt that that is its proper name, but it is the only one that I could find.) The Mechanical Homing Pigeon is kind of like a cross between an aerial plane and a homing pigeon.


How does the Mechanical Homing Pigeon work? In the words of Tom Swift:

To accomplish this, Tom went on, he proposed to build a fleet of small atomic-powered drone planes. These would carry Tom's detecting Damonascope to spot radioactive ore, and his father's mineral detectors. By sending the drones out in a search pattern across the whole country, it would be possible to locate any deposits quickly.

"But if you're using unmanned drone planes, how do you expect to map the deposits?" Ned Newton asked with a puzzled frown.

Tom grinned. "Chow gave me the idea last night--a magnetic homing device."

Tom sketched his plan on paper. Each plane would carry a magnetic sensing unit--trailed through the air at the end of a cable. This would "sense" the patterns of terrestrial magnetism that the plane passed over.

These patterns would be recorded on a magnetic memory drum, connected to a master steering unit inside the plane. When the drone was "played back" through the master unit, the plane would automatically retrace its course to home base.

"Each plane will beep a radio signal whenever it detects a mineral deposit," Tom said. "This will start the playback. And then the plane returns to base, we simply check its flight course as recorded on tape to get the location of the deposit."


How feasible would it be to build a mechanical homing pigeon? From what I understand, the basic principles -- especially the homing device itself -- works out just fine. However, building a reliable unmanned robotic drone is a tremendous task -- it isn't anywhere near as simple as Tom let on. The Air Force has been trying to build such unmanned drones for years and has had a rough time at it. In short: while yes, it's possible, and no, it doesn't break any laws of physics, it would be an enormously difficult project, and would probably take many, many years to perfect.


How much impact would a mechanical homing pigeon have? The mechanical homing pigeon would probably find a large market in the mining industry, and a vast number of other industries could use the basic robotic drone. (Don't forget that a basic, reliable, unmanned, cheap robotic drone is still merely a dream). The defense department, for example, could use them both as spy planes and fighters. Airlines could use a scaled-up and reliable version to do away with pilots. Conservationists could use them to track the movement of animals. Firefighters could use them to help spot and fight forest fires. Farmers could use them as crop dusters.

In short, any field that could use an aerial tracking device would find these useful, not only because the drones are unmanned but also because they can stay up in the air for years.


Tom Swift and his Electronic Hydrolung | Tom Swift and his Megascope Space Prober | Index

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