Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon
or, The Longest Shots on Record
By Victor Appleton ©1913 Book #16
Review by JP Karenko, July 2005
Image of a White Quad and Duotone dustjacket is from the collection of Mark Snyder
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:
The story begins with Our Hero high and dry, hung up in the power lines that provide electricity to one of his shops. The trailing wireless antenna on the Humming Bird has become tangled with the charged cables and Tom is in imminent danger of once again becoming a crispy critter. Alec Peterson, a fortune hunter who is trying to get Tom's father Barton to invest in a treasure hunt, rescues Tom. The treasure Alec is searching for reposes on an island off the coast of Panama. The story then segues into the main plot, which is Tom's desire to build a giant cannon. The device is needed to protect the Panama Canal, which is approaching completion. Coincidently, Tom has the desire to get his name in the record books for firing the longest cannon shots ever.
Tom also has to develop a new propellant to drive the two-ton 30 inch shells, a daunting and dangerous task all by itself.
This monster pop-gun is constructed in spite of the efforts of nefarious enemies and is used to save the town of Preston, NY. Just how, you will have to read the rest of the story to find out.
This book is available on line at: Tom Swift and His Giant Cannon
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Alec Peterson-Elderly ex-cohort of Barton Swift. Has spent his life and fortune looking for various forms of wealth, usually of a mineral nature. Looking for a backer to finance his latest expedition in search of Opal gemstones.
Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, he is described as "aged," and with "white hair." Mr. Swift, has failed in his health of late due to his "weak heart," and seems to no longer be interested in inventing or adventure.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Quite wealthy, but only semi-retired from a life of business.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. "Eradicates dirt." Now is suffering the ravages of old age, including difficulty moving and "having de misery in his back." Eradicate has now "become too old to do much," but remains faithful to Tom and helps out where he can. Described as "tottering," he and his mule Boomerang are growing old together. The mule is not even mentioned in this tome.
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. Is a decent cook, too.
Mrs. Baggert-Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family for "many" years at the time of this story. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom, In this tale, no longer employed as a cashier at Shopton National Bank. Has "given up his position to become Tom's handy-lad," and has moved in at the Swift residence. He has his own "apartment," next to Tom.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "simple and child like," he is antagonist and rival of Eradicate. He also now resides in the Swift household, with his own apartment. Tom has taught him to pilot a small plane. (It can't be too small, as it is said that he weighs 400 lbs. and stands 9 feet tall.) More on that, later.
Miss Mary Nestor - Budding love interest. Passing mention only in this volume.
Pvt. Flynn- NFN or description, Army sentry at Sandy Hook military base. Good natured, but duty bound and obstinate.
Capt. Badger- NFN or description, Sandy Hook contact, who was involved in the purchase of some of Tom's aircraft for Army testing.
Gen. Herodotus Waller-Arrogant, overconfident and blustery Army ordinance-man. Designer of a new 16-inch cannon that bursts during testing.
Col. Washburn-NFN or description, Voice of caution during cannon test. Ignored by "superiors" with disastrous results.
Adm. Woodburn-NFN or description. CNO (Chief of Naval Operations) & observer of Waller cannon test.
"Pvt. Snafu"-No actual name or description, given He gets blown up during Waller's cannon test. Seriously injured, but not fatally.
The Bearded Saboteur-Speaks with a German accent. Has tic in his eye and erect military bearing. Contaminates Tom's new gun propellant to force a failure during testing.
Sam (Johnson) the Chicken Thief-Rad's cousin, introduced in Air Glider. Gets a load of 12ga. rock salt from his cousin when snooping around the Swift grounds after dark.
Hans-NLN or description. German gardener at the Swift estate. Under suspicion as possible saboteur.
Plant Manager, Universal Steel Corporation (USC)-No name or description given.
Baudermann-NFN or description, except "acting crazy" and "German." USC employee who appears to be more intelligent than he lets on. Cruel, sharp and hard eyes.
Blackwell-NFN or description, except USC foreman.
Preston Dam Worker-No name or description, except as having witnessed the 1889 Johnstown Flood.
Schlicter-NFN or description. German laborer employed by USC, who ruins a batch of Tom's cannon powder. Spy/saboteur.
Capt. Waydell-NFN or description, except member of Army Ordinance Board.
Chief of Staff, US Army- No name or description. Witness to Tom's cannon test.
Gen. von Brunderger-German ex-Secret Service. Saboteur and spy trying to disrupt cannon project.
Rudolph-NLN or description, Batman/servant to Gen. von Brunderger. Accomplice in von B's plots. Is the Shopton "bearded saboteur" and the "crazy German" at USC, above.
Lt. Blake- NFN or description, except naval officer on unnamed USN warship.
Humming Bird has resurfaced, with a new style magneto. The "biggest gun ever made" is said to be 100 feet long, have a bore (caliber) of 30 inches and will throw a 4000lb shell for a distance of 30+ miles. The gun will be extra strong, combining the US technologies of both casting & layered jackets and European wire-wound manufacturing techniques.
The propellant needed to lob the SUV sized artillery shells is also new, based on guncotton and nitroglycerine.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
It's amazing how much technology and society have changed. Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of modern gadgets that most people take for granted, like modern smokeless powder and Army artillery, where bigger is no longer better-Smarter, faster and more accurate are now de rigueur.
Society's attitudes have changed, greatly, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our "modern" society and its' mores (or lack of them...)
Attitudes and Prejudices- Language usage was interesting: A "calamity howler" is someone who does the "Chicken Little" routine, and constantly predicts skyfall, usually loudly. Being "blown to kingdom come" was recognized, but not "back door to front door," as was said in the story. It is also said "War may never come and chances are, it never will." This was less than a year before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 plunged the world into armed chaos.
In spite of the relative calm of 1913 and Germany being described as "friendly to the US," German Nationals are already viewed with suspicion. They are universally being seen as spies, saboteurs and untrustworthy baddies, only smiling with their teeth, not their eyes.
Tom has to "pull wires" in order to get the Army to consider his cannon design. (Some things never seem to change...) After all, what does a home-schooled electrical engineer from an obscure burg in upstate New York know about designing big guns?
"Universal Steel Corporation" may have been Bethlehem Steel. It was one of the "big two" in 1913. It had a large foundry in Lackawanna NY near Buffalo, with the capacity to cast large cannon. Tom might have also had to go to Pittsburgh or Cleveland to get his cannon made if the Lackawanna facility were not up to the task.
Bethlehem Steel Lackawanna NY Foundry
Koku has been taught to fly a "small biplane." It can't be too small, as he stands 9 feet tall, and weighs 400lbs. Also, he repeatedly is described as "simple" and "child like." In spite of this, he gets to play with dangerous toys and has his own Electric Rifle. It was given to him by Tom in Wizard Camera.
He Swift estate now has a "power house," and the residence is electrified. Previously, lighting was gas. The house is also surrounded by shops and hangars for multiple aircraft.
Errata- Mr. Damon has been left residing in Waterford, NY. The current score of his many moves between there and Waterfield stands at 9-Waterfield, 2-not recorded, and 7-Waterford, for 16 volumes, to date. The numbers don't total, because two volumes have him residing in both places at the same time.
Interesting coincidences: Two names (Preston and Capt. Waydell ) were reused. These names without any honorifics first appeared in Tom Swift in Captivity. Preston was a good-guy and Waydell was bad.
Typos were nonexistent, further reinforcing the opinion that this was a new author/editor. Three malapropisms (the kind of thing that would get past spell-checkers, had they existed in 1913) were noted. Necessaries (necessities) on p7, pardners (partners) on p197, and an imbedded (embedded) shell late in the story.
Tom has discovered the exclamation, "By Jove!" He uses it a lot, in this tale.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy- This is the most technically accurate story in the series, to date. It is apparent the author (another "new guy" from the unique "look and feel,") was either previously involved with artillery or did some darn fine research. Cannon design features such as layering, banding and wire-winding, were all state of the art for 1913. All three technologies were not typically used on the same gun, though, as it would make the product too pricey for even a military budget.
The only gun-related error noted was Tom using a flatter (lower trajectory angle) to maximize range. This US Army chart for the 155mm Howitzer would apply to Tom's gun. Maximum range is obtained at an elevation of slightly less than 40 degrees.
US Army Artillery Trajectory Chart
Hitting a target at a range of 30 miles within 3 feet of intended aim point in 1913 on the first shot, can only be considered the best of luck, or a pure pipe dream, especially when the powder charge was calculated by the SWAG method. SWAG stands for Scientific Wild-Assed Guess. (It's an engineering term.)
The "small speedy" Humming Bird is used to transport 150# Tom, 400# Koku and in excess of 500# of gunpowder to do the shot that saves Preston. But then, we already know Tom's airplanes are all miraculously efficient lifting bodies. He also lands it in the street in Preston. No overhead wires or street lamps to worry about, I guess...
Geography- There aren't too many 30mile long valleys in New York State that have large dams at one end and convenient branching valleys that can be used to divert multi-million gallon overflows at the mid point. The other technical issue was aiming this beast for a range of 30 miles, optically. Tom did this by line of sight with a telescopic sight. It must have been a 'dam fine one, (probably German) as the horizon is about 20 miles away on a flat section of topography, like the surface of the ocean. I suppose if the target were far enough up the side of a hill, maybe, but 30 miles is a long way off, and I don't want to bother with the math, right now.
Finally, note the similarity between the two following graphics. Makes you wonder if there wasn't a bit of "borrowing" of ideas going on at G&D....
Note the Page Heading. (Pvt. Snafu is the soldier on the scaffold.)
From Giant Cannon Frontispiece
JP Karenko 7/16/05
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