Tom Swift and His Giant Telescope
No Alternate Title
By Victor Appleton ©1939 Book #39
Review by JP Karenko, May 2006
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
Tom Swift has discovered that the wondrous "Element X" that was found in the Planet Stone meteorite, can be used to produce a green glass with remarkable optical properties. The only supply of the element lies on the bottom of the Caribbean Ocean after it is jettisoned from a cargo ship during a storm.
Tom must recover the element in order to make an observation of the planet Mars, the suspected source of Element X. Industrial spies, robbers and saboteurs stand in his way, however and he must battle not just the hazards of the deep sea, but inimical enemies who try to rob and kill him.
How these problems are resolved, you will have to locate a copy of the story to find out.
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Tom Swift-Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home-schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. In this tale we find he is fit, tanned and does not smoke cigars.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. No description given. He continues his position as Swifts' financial advisor and CFO (Treasurer) of Swift Construction Company. He is the voice of caution regarding Tom's expenditures, sometimes obnoxiously so..
Koku-Giant 9ft tall manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "savage and only half-tame," he is antagonist and rival of Eradicate. In this episode, he is once again a mere watchman/guard and is denigrated with the term "boy," several times.
The Insidious Intruder-Sneak thief / burglar who appears several times in the story.
King Amo-Youngest of Koku's brothers. Monarch reigning in Ambolata, or Giant Land, South America. Sends Tom an important message.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Never fully described, except as "portly" with a moustache and "tortoise-shell glasses." Appears to be quite wealthy. In this tome, he is "spry" jolly looking" and carries a cane. Has once again taken up his old hobby of wrecking transportation conveyances.
Hiram Leatherby-Annoying neighbor of Wakefield Damon. Retired Director of Shopton National Bank, he bothers Mr. D with discussions of his fossil collection. While the Shopton bank has had several directors, this is the first mention of this one, even though he was allegedly Ned Newton's boss before Ned moved up in the financial world.
Duo of Dastardly Damon Delinquents-Pair of nogoodniks posing as lost cousins of Wakefield Damon. They assume false names of Brown and Jones and claim to be Damon's relatives. Later determined to be Messrs Hammer and Anton, sneak thieves looking to steal Tom's flexible glass formula. Currently in custody.
Mr. NFN Stern-No description. President of Apex Glass Works, a rival concern located 50 miles north of Shopton in Portville, NY.
Happy Harry & Dr. Bane-Nemeses from previous adventures, mentioned casually in conversation. No significant parts in story.
Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, he is rejuvenated. Mr. Swift is now working on a book about electricity, and plays chess incessantly.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant. "Eradicated dirt" in his younger years. Rad has now "become too old to do much," As described, he now has "white hair in a fringe and is bald on top and shuffles." He remains faithful to Tom and his father and helps out where he can. Constant rival and antagonist of giant Koku.
Mrs. NFN Damon-Never described, she tries to keep her husband on a short leash. Her plan is to keep him home instead of traveling with Tom. Not very successful, as she spends much time at her mothers' home, most likely providing elder care.
Dr. Chester Chilton-Introduced in the previous volume as a newcomer to Shopton, he is "exceptionally well educated and a very likeable person." Attending Mr. D's injuries.
Shopton Police Chief-No name or description. Walk on part.
A. Mawson-Captain of S.S. Perry freighter who must jettison Tom's meteorite in order to save his ship in a tropical storm.
John Britten-Captain of salvage barge Betsy B. Red faced and grizzled, an old friend of Barton Swift and a salty dog if there ever was one. Sincere, friendly and slightly eccentric (aren't all Tom's friends?) he talks like a movie pirate (the seafaring kind, not the baseball team.)
Trio of Dusky Deckhands-No names or descriptions other than :"grinning darkies." These "retainers of Captain Britten" may be the same men who act as divers, later. If so their names are Manuel and Alvarez. The third man, an "engineer," is not named.
Ruiz-NFN or description. Cook on the Betsy B. Described as "coal black" and speaking Spanish.
Prof. NFN Standish-educator at a state college, who lends Tom a "large refracting telescope" for his research.
The following major characters are absent from this tale or only have passing mention:
Mrs. Baggert-Swift's aged housekeeper and mother figure. In this tale, she has passing mention only.
Mrs. Mary Nestor Swift-Love interest and radiant bride of Tom. Described as a "very pretty young woman with flashing brown eyes, and a sweet trilling laugh." Blushes easily, especially around Tom. Also described as "plucky." No mention.
Garrett Jackson-No description given, but is spry and fit for his age. (Original volumes described him as "aged.") Swift Construction Shop Manager/General Foreman. No mention.
Helen Morton-Fiancee and love interest of Ned Newton. No mention.
Bendable Glass-A special formula and annealing process creates a glass that is clear, but flexible enough to tie in a knot. It will not shatter when smashed with a hammer. No details of the material except a slow and complex annealing process.
Transparent Glass-Made from ground, refined and cast molten "Element X," this green opaque and unremarkable material literally vanishes when an electric current is passed through it. It has wonderful optical properties that allow it to be used as a booster for ordinary optical devices. This allows them to produce magnifications far above those available with ordinary optics. TG is made from "Element X" which is only found in meteorites. The material is ground, dissolved in acid and refined into a yellow powder. The powder is melted, cast into a lens and then slowly and torturously annealed and cooled, producing the opaque green glass. When electrical current is passed through the material, the optical properties change and it becomes clearer than the finest well...glass. The ability to be flexible allows fine tuning of the optic path, creating great improvements in magnification.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted. It also has given me a grasp of just how technologically and culturally unsophisticated the average reader was in even the 1930's.
Attitudes and Prejudices-This tale is attributed to a (new) ghost writer, one Thomas Moyston Mitchell. http://www.nndb.com/people/116/000063924/ A Google search turned up no references for a Thomas Moyston Mitchell, but a Thomas (NMI) Mitchell (b.1892-d.1962 ) was listed as an actor/screenwriter/playwright. Whoever it was penned this tale, had an intimate knowledge of many previous stories (references to past events were accurate and frequent) and the "look and feel" of the characters and environment were familiar. For example, SCC and Tom's "private laboratory" were in Swift's "back yard," again, and not the sprawling distant walled manufacturing complex described recently. Much ado was made of the vault under Tom's lab, but several references to it as his Chest of Secrets were incorrect. Language usage, while modern, included references to "jigger," "by Jove" and "old man," phrases not used in some time. This author had the same writing style as #34 and #37.
Eradicate (Rad) is portrayed even more stereotypically than usual. His language is much more a deep-South patios than in previous volumes. Bart Swift (Tom's father) has once again been rejuvenated, and is up and around, playing spirited games of chess with all comers and writing books. Mary Nestor Swift, Tom's wife, is conspicuously absent. Ned's fianc»e, Helen Morton, is also MIA. Mr. Damon gets in a car wreck, too, his first crash since Episode #35 TS and His Giant Magnet.
Captain Britten sounds like a Hollywood pirate, with much "avast-ing" and "lubber-ing" going on. Koku once again, sounds more like a cigar-store Indian, than an exiled South American Indio, who has spent the last many years in Shopton, getting "civilized."
The Flying Boat, Winged Arrow, is resurrected and details of operation are accurate, but the fabulous deep-sea diving gear invented in Episode #4 TS & His Submarine Boat, are forgotten, and "modern" diving equipment, only good to 1/3 of the depth of Tom's inventions (200ft), must be used. This adds to the peril of all involved, since Tom's pet rock lies in 300ft of water.
Errata- There is a running gag throughout this series. Mr. Damon's home keeps flip-flopping between Waterfield and Waterford, NY. Sometimes it is in neither, and several times in both places, at once. This is partly due to the enforced poor communication amongst the many ghostwriters at G&D that contributed to this series.
There are now 4 distinct categories. In this tome, Mr. D's home is in Waterford.
The tally for 39 volumes, to date is:
Waterfield-17, Both places-2, Waterford-11, and Neither Place-8.
Errors in spelling and malapropisms were rampant. Dozens of them were sprinkled through the story, too many to list. However, since this was an e-text, I cannot say if they were introduced in transcription, or were the result of quick-and-dirty editing for a cheap BLB edition.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy-
Reality mimics fantasy 60 years later... http://www.keckobservatory.org/mirror.php Keck Observatory has a multifaceted (i.e. "flexible") telescope that is of variable geometry. It can adjust for atmospheric distortion in real time and is the future of astronomy both on earth and in space. Largest Reflecting (mirror) Optical/Infrared Telescope: Keck-9.8 m (32 ft), on Mauna Kea in Hawaii (segmented mirror; 2 equal-size telescopes) 9/2005
We are not up to the kind of magnification that allows us to see Martian cities, but they may just be well camouflaged.
Mars Rover Live Photo
I still say firing a plasma electric gun submerged in seawater will do as much damage to the firer as it does to the firee, but Tom dispatches the obligatory "sea monster" with his Electric Rifle, late in the tale.
Geography-Portville, NY is located "50 miles" north of Shopton and the Adirondack Mountains of NY are conveniently close by to provide a location for Tom's observatory.
Port Baracoa, Cuba exists and is a beautiful location on the East end of the island. However, it's more like 500 miles from the closest point in Key West. Also the water is deep enough to make salvage operations (in 1939) hazardous.
Porto Baracoa, Cuba
JP Karenko 5/11/06
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