Tom Swift and his Big Dirigible

by Victor Appleton II

(The top image is of the dustjacket found on the Grosset & Dunlap editions. The lower image is of the dustjacket that can be found on the later Whitman reprints of this title.)


"Yes, it must be the biggest dirigible ever built!" exclaimed Martin Jardine. "And you must build it, Tom Swift!" So the newlywed Tom Swift launches into his next big adventure: the construction of the Silver Cloud, a blimp over 1000 feet long and the largest in the world at its time. Equipped with 50 passengers and a crew of 40, the gigantic blimp was to have a range of 10,000 miles.

All went well for a while, but the deal turned sour when it was discovered that Martin Jardine did not have the authority to enter his company into contract with Tom -- and his older brother Lawrence, who does have authority, refuses to make good on the deal.

Stuck with thousands of dollars of losses and a half-completed blimp, Tom decides to complete the blimp himself, hoping to sell it to the government or a private concern after it is completed. When Tom completes the blimp, it proves a smashing success -- capable of bucking even a hurricane-force gale -- but no one wants to buy it!

The book comes to a climax when a madman sets a ring of fire around a resort on Mount Camon -- the very resort where Mary Swift, Mr. Damon and the ailing Barton Swift are staying on vacation. Tom Swift must use his dirigible in a desperate race against time before his family and friends are killed in the blaze!



The Cast of Characters


Before I launch into a discussion of the invention featured in this book, I thought I'd stop to say a few words about some of the characters involved -- without, hopefully, ruining the story for those who haven't had a chance to read it yet. I normally wouldn't do this, but the characters struck me as being so amusing that I thought I'd stop and say a few words about them.

All of the old familiar characters, of course, either appear in the book or are mentioned. Koku, the giant with the fantastic strength, is still here and helps Tom build his colossal ship -- although he spends his time fighting with a dwarf instead of with Eradicate, which is kind of disappointing. Eradicate is here, although he has aged very much and is too feeble to go along on the daring rescue. Ned Newton, the faithful financial manager, is still at Tom's side, and still provides Tom with good practical advice -- which Tom continues to ignore.

Barton Swift (Tom Swift's father) appears in the story as an aging man who is failing fast. It was known as long ago as Tom Swift and his Air Glider that he was in ill health, and it appears his health has only grown worse. "Great projects did not interest him as they once had done", the first page of the book tells us, and during the story he had a bad blackout spell while simply working out some mathematical problems. Tom sent him to the mountains to build up his health -- which is how he happened to be at Mount Camon when the insane gardener set fire to the mansion.

Mr. and Mrs. Nestor make appearances as guests at the same resort where Barton and Mary Swift are staying. They appear to be in fine health, albeit they have aged over the years. Tom Swift would have been at the resort as well had he not been called away on dirigible business.

Mr. Damon is also -- by coincidence -- staying that the same resort. He hasn't changed a bit throughout the years, as the following scene testifies:


"Bless my watering can, but those are the finest roses I ever saw! I must have one!"

He reached over to pick a blossomÖAs he did so, the man beside him, with a cry like that of a wild animal, shouted:

"No! You must not! I forbid you!"

"My man, you forget yourself!" said Mr. Damon severely. "I have been a guest here before and I know it is allowed to pick a few flowers. Stand aside!"Ö

"No! No! You must not pick that rose!" cried the man, and he raised his hand as if to strike Mr. Damon. But that eccentric character was very quick, and a moment later the gardener went flying backward into some bushes, propelled by the vigorous fist of Wakefield Damon.

"There!" exclaimed Mr. Damon with a grunt of satisfaction, as he straightened up. "Bless my golf clubs, but I think I've taught that insolent fellow a lesson!"


Insolent fellow indeed! When was the last time you heard an insult like that? Least you feel sorry for the poor chap who was hit by Mr. Damon's "vigorous fist," the man (who was the head gardener at the Mount Camon Resort) later turned out to be a true maniac. He had a lot to say about flowers, for instance:


"They are my roses!" snapped the man, and one could see that he had a passionate love of flowers. "No one must pick them! Why should they not live out their lives on their own stems? To pick them is to kill them. Let them live their allotted lives."


When the hotel manager disagreed with him, the enraged gardener chased him around the hotel with a knife, shouting that "No one shall kill my roses and live!" The gardener was caught and put in jail, but later escaped, stole a gasoline truck, poured gasoline in a huge ring around the resort, and set it ablaze as an act of revenge against the hotel. He was unable to escape his own blaze, however, and perished in the flames.

The mad gardener wasn't the book's only odd character. Martin Jardine had some eccentricities of his own. The book describes him as being a "fussy little business man," and indeed he was: he seemed to spend every minute of his free time micromanaging Tom's business affairs. Martin smoked big black cigars (described by Tom as being "particularly deadly, if you'll excuse my saying so") which he was always trying to give away. Tom kept telling him that he didn't smoke, but that didn't stop Martin from offering him and his father one about five times during the course of the book.

Martin seemed -- well, he seemed a bit insane. One day he insisted that Tom take out the weather observation tower in his blimp and replace it with a deluxe private cabin for him and his friends; the next day he had forgotten all about the idea and insisted that Tom carry on as planned. He seemed constantly nervous, incapable of remembering that Tom didn't smoke, and willing to be unscrupulous if possible. Some of his conversations were hilarious:


"Well, I'll think about it," said Tom, once more reaching for some blue prints. "But I must also take my wife on a vacation."

"Tom hasn't been married long," observed old Mr. Swift, smiling.

"Congratulations," murmured Mr. Jardine. "It's a big contract, I know."

"Do you mean marriage?" asked Tom, with a smile.

"No, I'm speaking of this big dirigible. When can you let me know [if you can build it]?"


Finally, the last page of the book gives a big surprise: Ned Newton and Helen Morton are said to be engaged. Unlike Tom Swift, however, Ned never seems to get married: the later books have no mention of the engagement, and no ceremony ever takes place. The Tom Swift Jr. series mentions a Mrs. Newton, but never gives her name -- and thus we never know if Ned married Helen or not.


The Dirigible


The main invention in this book is, of course, Tom's Big Dirigible, the Silver Cloud. The author claims that at 1,000 feet long it was the largest blimp in existence at that time -- which, of course, is why the Jardine company wanted Tom to build it. "It's the most scientifically constructed dirigible I ever built" is how Tom put it, and while no other dirigibles built by Tom are described in the series, I am willing to take his word for it.

The specifications of the blimp were fairly impressive. Mr. Jardine wanted a blimp that could travel 10,000 miles on a single stretch with a full load of fifty passengers, plus a crew of forty. The gas bag portion of the blimp was to be made out of oralum -- a special metal stronger and lighter than duraluminum which was manufactured only by Mr. Jardine's company. Oralum, in fact, was the entire reason behind the contract: the Silver Cloud was to serve as a gigantic advertisement for the strength and lightness of the Jardine's new alloy.

The blimp was christened the Silver Cloud by Tom Swift because the blimp with its all-metal gas bag resembled a "silver mass of vapor in a blue sky." Several flat, wave-shaped fins protruding from the sides of the gas bag at its widest point kept it on a steady keel. While Tom never flew the blimp faster than 160 mph, the top speed of the blimp was estimated to be at about 200 mph.

The big problem as he saw it was not the technical issues but the construction: fitting the huge blimp together was going to be no easy task. Because Martin Jardine wanted the blimp to be completed as soon as possible, Tom didn't make all of the engines and accessories himself at the plant -- his firm simply didn't have the capacity to build every nut and bolt and still assemble the dirigible on time. Instead, Tom had certain machines constructed by other firms -- which caused some difficulty when the parts didn't arrive in time and when the firm sent the wrong part.

Here is how the book described the blimp:


Briefly, it may be said that while the generally familiar cigar-shaped envelope to hold the lifting gas was the design followed, there were some radical departures in construction. The stabilizing fins, for one item, were a novelty.

Instead of having the powerful motors suspended in more or less unstable gondolas protruding from and beneath the oralum frame and envelope, the driving apparatus was within the outer skin. Only the powerful propellers, six in all, were exposed, Each motor was accessible from the interior of the oralum envelope.

Within the metal envelope were the quarters for the crew and accommodations for passengers. The latter were forward, and were to be, in miniature, as elaborate as the living quarters on a palatial ocean liner.

The gasoline and oil for the motors, the stores of food and water that would be needed on a ten-thousand-mile voyage, and tools and space parts for use in an emergency, were to be carried near the quarters for the crew and officers.

The greater part of the oralum envelope, of course, was filled with a new and powerful lifting gas, perfected by Tom Swift and his father. It was not as explosive as nitrogen, but not quite as safe as helium. However, it was easier and cheaper to make. One reason that Martin Jardine had come to them to build his giant dirigible, was because the Swifts held the secret of this gas. The craft was to be built on a cost-plus basis and would be the property of the Jardine company when finished, though of course much credit would accrue to Tom Swift for his work on it.


Unlike many of Tom's other inventions, Tom didn't have any technical trouble inventing his dirigible. In many of the other books (such as Tom Swift and his Wireless Message), Tom gets into fantastic trouble while trying to perfect one of his inventions -- it's almost a Swift tradition. This time, though, the construction of the blimp goes so well that Tom can afford to take a few days off to be with his new wife at the Mount Camon resort. Perhaps at long last Tom Swift's luck had turned! It didn't last, though: Tom's Sky Train was fraught with problems -- one of which caused his plane to crash into the all-glass greenhouse of a particularly fussy characterÖ


Tom Swift and his House on Wheels | Tom Swift and his Sky Train | Index