Tom Swift and His Magnetic Silencer
No Alternate Title
By Victor Appleton ę1941 Book #40
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 yet another wondrous element, Bartantalum. An ore that was discovered during an un-chronicled western vacation trip, can be used to produce a blue powder with remarkable acoustical properties. It absorbs sound like a sponge. The only problem is that when the material is subjected to high temperatures, it causes electrical disruption similar to the effect of Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP). It is also a potentially lethal contact poison. Tom carelessly gets it on his bare skin and is nearly killed.
Tom must discover the means of producing the material without destroying Swift Construction Company's power house. The EMP emission destroys even the most robust electrical equipment and wiring. He must also battle the usual inimical enemies who try to rob and kill him to obtain the secret of the material.
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)
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. No description is ever given. He continues his position as Swifts' Business Manager and CFO (Treasurer) of Swift Construction Company.(SCC) He is the voice of caution regarding Tom's expenditures, sometimes obnoxiously so.
M. Pedro Gonzo-Nervous and impatient, he is a representative of a wealthy family in the fictional (European?) country of Ruthenia. He speaks with a heavy accent that sounds much like French.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. During the series, his appearance changes several times. He goes from being "too fat to walk much" and suffering from chronic liver ailments, to being merely "portly" and then to "spry" and fit enough to hike & climb in the Rocky Mountains.. He wears a "luxuriant" snow-white toupee & tortoise-shell glasses and has a moustache. He is described as "jolly looking" and carries a newfangled steel cane He appears to be quite wealthy from business dealings and investments. In this tome, he is once again stout and is absent minded. He has also dropped enough years to be considered "middle aged," rather than "elderly." He has also purchased a farm (to what end is not really explained) but probably to give him a safe place to retreat to when his somewhat overbearing wife tugs his leash too vigorously.
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. He stands 6ft tall, is fit, tanned and a non-smoker. Probably handsome, too, but that is never mentioned. The archetypical All-American Hero. In this episode, he celebrates an unspecified birthday. Since superheroes never age, he is still a young man. In a real world, by now he would be pushing 50.
Pharmhand Phred-No real name or description given. He has a bit part, providing directions to Ned Newton. Ned is searching for Mr. Damon's farm.
Rumble-NFN. A swarthy, forbidding sort of man. He has close-cropped, bristling black hair and a deep, rough voice. He is originally introduced as the caretaker of Mr. Damon's farm. He is later determined to be a generic nogoodnik, and a robber, using the farm as a hideout.
Blondie-No real name given. Companion to Rumble s(he) is "a hard-faced blonde woman" who has a bold stare. Later insinuates into the Swift household as a maid, for the purpose of burglarizing the place. Blondie is actually a male, as determined at the end of the story. Whatever disguise he used must have been a doozy, as it fooled both Ned (from a short distance) and Mrs. Baggert, up close and face-to-face.
Mrs. Damon-She is never physically described, nor is her name given. She tries to keep her husband on a short leash. Her plan is to keep him home or attending social parties instead of "gallivanting" with Tom. She is not very successful, as she spends much time at her mothers' home, (most likely providing elder care) which allows Mr. D to roam freely. She has a bit part as a voice on a phone line in this tale.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. He is devoted, fiercely loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "savage and only half-tame," his height changes several times in the series, varying from over 9ft to almost 7ft-to merely a "veritable" giant-ness. He is antagonist and rival of Eradicate, the Swifts' negro servant/handyman. In this episode, the author splits the difference and he is 8ft tall. Once again he is a mere watchman, guard and heavy lifter. His speech patterns remain very much like those of a Hollywood B-western Indian, in spite of close association with English speaking Americans for many years. In this episode, Tom summons him by whistling. Such behavior demonstrates the continuing denigration of persons of color in the series.
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 several books and stays on top of Tom's research projects. He is described as "a dynamic personality," and "takes charge" of any situation he finds himself in.
Express-man Ed and Helper Henry-Faceless and nameless characters that show up to make a delivery of the raw materials for Bartantalum. Bit parts in the story.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant. Used to "eradicate dirt" in his younger years. Rad has now "become too old to do much," As described in previous volumes, he now has "white hair in a fringe, 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. In this tale he is described only as "old," and seems to be enjoying improved health. Previously he was near death's door due to advanced old age. He is called a "darky" by Tom, and shares the same "status" or lack thereof as Koku does in the author's eyes.
The Purple Shirts-Ruthenian revolutionaries (obviously patterned after the "brown shirt" Fascists in Italy.) Want Tom to build them noiseless aircraft so that they can depose the current government of Ruthenia.
Garrett Jackson-No description given, but is spry and fit for his age. (Original volumes only described him as "aged.") Previously, Swift Construction's Shop Manager/General Foreman, he is now "Chief Engineer" in the powerhouse/electrical generating plant, and "has been employed by the Swifts for many years."
Blackjack Bob-Rough and deep voiced hooligan (probably Rumble, although this is never stated) who mugs Tom and steals important papers contained in a wallet.
Trooper Terry-No name or description given. (NY) State policeman who pulls Tom over for suspected drunk driving. Tom is woozy from the beating he took during the mugging. When the motorcycle cop realizes what happened, he stashes his bike and gives Tom a ride home.
Dr. Granville-NFN or description. SCC Company Doctor, he treats Tom unsuccessfully for exposure to the Bartantalum powder.
Mr. Mawson-NFN or description. SCC Chief Chemist. Called in to consult in the case of Tom's poisoning.
Mrs. Baggert-Swift's aged housekeeper and mother figure. In this tale, she has a minor part and apparently cannot see well enough to detect a man dressed as a woman. She hires the cross-dresser as a temporary maid. Bustles about and claims that she needs no help around the Swift manse. Previous episodes had he bossing several scullery maids.
Detective Bright-NFN. He was a keen, shrewd-looking young man, who speaks in short jerky, staccato phrases. Employed by a local private investigation firm on retainer to SCC.
Phireman Phrank-No real name or description given. SCC smoke eater who responds to a fire in Tom's lab. Pulls Tom to safety, when he is overcome by fumes.
Chief Char-ley-No real name or description given. SCC fire department manager. Pontificates on the source of the blaze in Tom's lab.
Mailman Mike- No real name or description given. Arrives with a special delivery envelope for Tom.
Mr. Smathers- No real name or description given. Rival inventor, competing for the contract to build silent airplanes for the Army.
Lt. James, US Army- No first name or description given. In charge of prototype testing for the silencing devices. Bit part, introduced and discarded.
Col. Brooks, US Army- No first name or description given. Project manager and superior of Lt. James, he has "final say" about which silencer is purchased. Bit part, introduced and discarded.
The following major characters are absent from this tale or only have passing mention:
Dr. Chester Chilton-Introduced and having pivotal roles in the two previous volumes as a newcomer to Shopton, he is "exceptionally well educated and a very likeable person." Conspicuously absent from this tale.
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.
Helen Morton-Fianc╚e and love interest of Ned Newton. No mention.
As is usual lately, many of these characters (especially the ones introduced late in the story) do not rate any development or even a description. They are brought forth and discarded after they do their bits to make the story flow. The (hopefully humorous) alliterative names are my "inventions" to make reading these reviews a bit more fun.
The Controlled Bomb-A cone-shaped device with an explosive charge in the center, used to disperse various "products" around an open area. The products, such as seed or insecticide powder are placed in layered baffles that allow even dispersion when the explosive charge is detonated. It is also suggested that shrapnel could be the payload during wartime, and thus the precursor to the "Claymore Mine" can be credited to our decidedly pacifist-minded hero.
Bartantalum-Made from ground, refined and cast molten unspecified ore, this blue powdery and remarkable material literally absorbs sound like a sponge.. It has wonderful acoustical properties that allow it to be used as a "magnet" to reduce sound emissions from sources merely nearby and not in contact with the material. The unspecified, but heavy ore is ground, dissolved in acid and refined in an electric furnace under vacuum. When a certain critical temperature is reached (as signified by a green flame) the material disrupts electrical machinery, causing circuit breakers to melt, wall wiring to start fires and motor ignition systems to cease functioning. Tom may have discovered EMP, as there is concern expressed for a radiation hazard. The material is also a highly toxic contact poison, as Our Hero learns when he gets it on his skin and is only saved in the nick of time by his father, Barton.
Electric Vacuum Smelter-An electric powered "clean" furnace under development for a large steel manufacturing company. Tom uses it for refining the Bartantalum alloy.
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 1940's.
Attitudes, Prejudices and Author's Identity-This tale is attributed elsewhere to a ghost writer, one Thomas Moyston Mitchell. 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. The following link has a bio. http://www.nndb.com/people/116/000063924/
Whoever it was penned this tale, was not the same person as the author of the previous two adventures. S(he) had at least a passing knowledge of the many characters in other stories, but the "look and feel" of the characters and environment were only passing familiar to the last few volumes.
On closer examination, many details do not match up. For example, SCC and Tom's "private laboratory" (which is now air-conditioned and has an adjacent apartment) were no longer in Swift's "back yard." SCC's sprawling, distant and walled manufacturing complex, described in previous tomes, again requires an automobile ride to get to from the Swift manse. SCC is once again big enough to rate chemistry and legal departments and now has its own coal-fired power generating station. In the previous two tales, much ado was made of the vault (erroneously called the Chest of Secrets) under Tom's lab. In this tale, all of Tom's valuables are left exposed where they are at risk to the hazards of theft and destruction by fire or the ravages of an automatic sprinkler system.
Another characteristic (previously exhibited) of this writer was the abandon with which characters were introduced, used and discarded. They come and go like cartridges through a sub-machine gun. This author had a writing style/attitude very similar to Volume #37 and to a lesser extent, #36. These include a pacifist & ultra-temperate outlook, ambiguous geography and a total absence of female love interest for both main characters-Mary Nestor Swift, Tom's wife, is conspicuously absent, as is Ned's fianc╚e, Helen Morton. Koku, once again changes size and is now only 8ft tall. Eradicate (Rad) is portrayed in his usual stereotypical manner, with the usual denigrating reference to his color. Barton Swift (previously invalided by old age and a heart condition) remains rejuvenated, and is up and around, writing books and staying on top of his son's projects. Mr. Damon does not get in a car wreck, as has been de rigueur in past adventures. Mrs. Baggert the Swift housekeeper, and Garret Jackson, the SCC "Chief Engineer," also reappear for the first time in a long while, in this tale.
Shopton, which has varied from a "small village" to a "small city with suburbs," is back to being a "small town," but it rates a private detective firm that is on annual retainer to SCC. Local police and G-men, previously mostly incompetent and bumbling, are back to being effective minions of law-enforcement, a la Volume #36. The FBI is quite well-regarded, probably after a pointed phone call to the author from J. Edgar. ( JEH did things like that... )
Notably, and for the first time in nearly forever, Tom does not "rescue" someone from danger. It has previously been "in the formula" that one or more characters are beholden to Our Hero for the preservation of life and limb. He does, however, suffer the usual panoply of personal violence, including mugging/robbery, poison/drugging, smoke inhalation, and for the first time, having to parachute from a burning plane. However, no chloroform (the authors' drug of choice) was released in this tale.
War (WW2) and warlike times are finally referenced in several places in the story. This is only the third time that real-world events actually play a part in a TS story. The others were Volumes #21-22 War Tank and Air Scout, referencing WW1. Tom remains Militantly Pacifist, emphatically saying, "They'll never kill men with my ideas!"...except, maybe with Giant Cannons, Aerial Warships, War Tanks, Air Scouts, and (military) Floating Airports...There's also that wonderfully lethal Electric Rifle right at the top of the list. Go figure. See also, below, regarding "controlled bombs."
I feel that whoever it was wrote the original draft manuscript for this tale, had previously penned one or more of the TS stories. I suspect the "author" merely dusted off an unused early draft and "filed off the serial numbers." At 32 pages (the usual story was padded out to 200+ pages) this tale is a "short story" at best. Frankly, the way it is thrown together, it feels like quick cobble so that the series could end with a round 40 volumes. I know that if I had spent a hard earned 50 cents on this tale as a child, I'd probably think twice about investing in Volume #41, if one were ever published. I sure won't pay the premium prices demanded on e-bay˘ to complete my hardcover collection.
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 working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate that contributed to this series. In this series, some cross-pollination amongst the writers would have been a good thing, at least as far as keeping background and geographical details straight.
There are now 4 distinct categories. In this tome, Mr. D's home is in not mentioned.
The final tally for the 40 volumes in the series is:
Waterfield-17, Both places-2, Waterford-11, and Neither place-10.
The numbers don't total properly, (42) because of the 2 volumes where more than one location is referenced.
Errors in spelling and malapropisms were surprisingly infrequent. Since this was an e-text, I cannot say if what was there were introduced in transcription, or were the result of quick-and-dirty editing for a cheap BLB edition.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy
Bartantalum-A magical powdery blue material that "attracts" sound from a distance "like iron filings to a magnet" and absorbs it like a sponge. Sigh! I can sum up with one word. Fantasy. If it were real, though, can you imagine straight through "mufflers" with no back pressure for automobiles? Then there's the nefarious aspects: Hang a bit near a gun muzzle to making a "silent" gun. (BATFE would have an absolute canary.) Personally, I'd have made a pendant necklace out of the stuff and given it to my now ex-wife. 'Nuff said? Let's move on...
The Controlled Bomb-I'd use the term "directed" rather than "controlled," here. Since Tom nearly gets blown up during a test, I'd say the "control" aspect was minimal. The idea of dispersing chemicals or seeds by an explosive is certainly possible assuming the pyrotechnics used didn't incinerate the "product" being delivered. Sixty years later, the real world mimics fantasy, but nothing as innocuous as corn seed is the payload. Tom's invention is corrupted by modern man into various implements of mayhem. Air burst munitions are routinely used to disperse everything from leaflets to mines. An RDD, (Radiological Dispersal Device.) what is popularly called a "dirty bomb," is a device (specifically used as a terror weapon) to spread contaminants of various types (biological or radiological) around. A unidirectional variant (as suggested by Ned Newton) is today's Claymore Mine.
Tom would roll in his grave, if he had one. See also, http://www.ead.anl.gov/pub/doc/rdd.pdf for more information.
Electric Vacuum Smelter-An electric powered "clean" furnace under development by SCC for an undisclosed large steel manufacturing company. Tom's prototype can handle a small crucible, and will contain a 'melt' under a vacuum to prevent atmospheric contamination of the Bartantalum. Tom's technology improvement for the furnace is not explained or described. Vacuum smelting, usually used for refining precious or reactive metals such as Gold, Silver, Mercury and Zinc had been around for some time when this tale was penned.
Geography-Shopton still sits on the shore of Lake Carlopa, but has changed size, yet again. It is now back to being a "small town." The state it is in is not mentioned, but it sits on a major rail line and is an easy ride from NYC and Washington DC. Mansburg is still the nearest town of any size, but that is all the geography specified. Geography is mostly consistent with other stories and purposely vague.
Tom Swift and his Giant Telescope | Index