Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight

or, On the Border For Uncle Sam

By Victor Appleton ę1912   Book #15

Review by JP Karenko, May 2005

Full-color image courtesy of Carl Swanstrom 

 White Quad and Duotone dustjacket 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: US Customs has been fruitlessly pursuing smugglers who have been bringing contraband gems, silk, lace and other valuables across the Canadian border into the US, apparently using airships. Shopton seems to be a waypoint for the repackaging and trans-shipment of these goods. When Andy Foger, Tom's old nemesis, shows up with a new airship, the plot begins to thicken. Tom has coincidently "invented" (with the able assistance of giant manservant Koku,) a searchlight brighter than any other due to it being given an electrical current "of peculiar strength and intensity"--a current, it was described, "that would seem to be made especially for searchlights."  The brilliant beam, mounted on Tom's "noiseless" airship Falcon, is used to discover and track down the smugglers.


This book is available on line at:  Tom Swift and His Great Searchlight



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. Is a decent cook, too.

Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom, once again, employed as a cashier in Shopton National Bank. (In the previous volume, it was said he no longer worked at the bank.)  We find in chapter IV that he attends church regularly.

Andy Foger-Red haired, squinty-eyed bully, who makes great trouble for Tom. "Poor little rich kid," son of wealthy family, born with a chip on his shoulder. Reckless, blustery and angry. "Has money, but lately not much.-Well, he does have a new bi-plane..." This time, he is messing with the "Feds," and ultimately feels the heat.

Sam Snedecker-Cohort of Andy Foger. No current description given. We know from other tomes that he has "big ears."

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, "--so strong. He doesn't realize how much muscle he has."  A man, immense in size, a veritable (8-foot tall) giant, one of two whom Tom Swift had brought away from captivity with him. Koku's English is strange, for he frequently gets his words backwards. Koku also likes to talk, (as in gossip.)

Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor master machinist and holder of numerous patents.  In this episode, he is described as "aged, nervous, distracted  and sometimes  oblivious to his surroundings." Mr. Swift, has failed in his health of late, and the doctor has recommended him to be out of doors as much as possible. He delights in gardening, and is now at it, all day.

Mrs. Baggert-Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family for 10+ 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.

Mr. and Mrs. (Amos) Nestor, the parents of Mary. Passing mention.

James Dillon, a carpenter who lives down the street. Hired by Fogers.

Special Agent William Whitford, of the United States Customs force, a big man, with a badge under his lapel.

Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. "Eradicates dirt." In this episode, is suffering the ravages of old age, including difficulty moving and "having de misery in his back." Eradicate is "geting (sic) batty" in his old age, and I guess is now 'seeing things.' He and his mule Boomerang are growing old together. Eradicate has now become too old to do much.

Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person.  Apparently quite wealthy, he has graduated from cycles and automobiles, to piloting Tom's airship. In spite of having ongoing trouble controlling any conveyance he tries to command, (including airship Red Cloud, See Book #5) he does a creditable job of flying the Falcon, while in pursuit of the aerial bad-guys... In this volume, resides in the neighboring town of Waterford (See errata) Mr. Damon's house, is an estate, situated as it is in the midst of extensive grounds including the garden,"

Mrs Damon ˝ NFN given. "She's more than ever opposed to airships," according to Mr. D. (The odd man had an idea that she was violently opposed to his trips.) She was routinely nearly always willing to let him do as he liked.

Miss Mary Nestor ˝ Budding love interest who lives in neighboring town of Mansburg. Described as a "fair young woman with flashing brown eyes." Blushes easily, especially around Tom. Gives Tom a book of poetry, much to Ned Newton's amusement..

Mr. Foger- NFN given. Currently impoverished, and reduced to a life of crime. Still blustery and pompous, would probably make a good US Senator... Role model for nasty son, Andy. Currently resides in Logansville, not very far from the Canadian border.

Colonel Henry Denterby-- A Civil War veteran, described as something of a fire-eater. "Search my house; eh? Well I guess not! A man's house is his castle, sir! That's what it is. No one shall enter mine, no matter if he is a government official, unless I give him permission, sir! And I won't do that, sir!

Sam, the chicken thief-Most likely Samuel Rastus Washington Jackson Johnson.  He was introduced in the previous volume, as Rad's cousin, and seems to spend a lot of time counting  other folks' chickens. He is a person, who Tom describes as a 'worthless character about the town.' When caught raiding Rad's poultry, he states: "I didn't go fo' to do nuffin', Massa Tom. I were jest goin' t' look in de coop, t' count an' see how many fowls mah friend Eradicate had."

The Committee of Three˝Most likely Andy and the two unnamed fellows with him in the airship.

The Nocturnal Prowler ˝ May be Ike Shafton, below.

Castaways of the Sinking Yacht ˝ Contains Mr. & Mrs. Jacob Illingway, the missionaries Tom saved from the Red Pygmies, and three other unnamed and descriptionless men.

Ike Shafton -- A man who pretended to give US Agents information about smugglers that drew them off on a  false scent.

Big Foot ˝ Chief of St. Regis Mohawk tribe. Large left foot. Good natured, but a "little off  in his head."

The Canadian-Side Smugglers --  Several unnamed, rough and unpleasant men, armed with unspecified weapons.

Mr. (James) Period ˝ Motion picture promoter and purveyor of Tom's Wizard Camera films. Wants photos of the smugglers' apprehension. His time is now more valuable than ever, now $100 a minute, up from the dollar a minute rate when he was first introduced in the previous volume. Wears a "brilliant" red neck tie.

The Airship (US Side) Smugglers --  The Fogers, father and son, plus several unnamed and undescribed men.



Major Inventions:  We start by leveraging two old inventions.   " last I have perfected my noiseless airship motor! -- the secret lies in a new way of feeding gasolene into the motor, a new sparking device, and an improved muffler" It is said the aircraft cannot be heard from a distance of ten feet. These developments have taken three story volumes to perfect. (Perhaps Tom is slowing down in his old age???)

"I'll set my automatic (Wizard) camera ( Book #14) to take the moving pictures of any one who tries to get in my shop, or in the chicken coop. I'll also set the burglar alarm." ( Holy surveillance camera, Batman! A burglar alarm for chickens? Whoops, wrong program.)

A searchlight Tom had fixed outside his bedroom window, never before had such a powerful beam "There must be something that I have stumbled on by accident. Say, that is a light all right! Why it goes for miles and miles. The alternating current from the automatic dynamo has become crossed with direct current from the big storage battery in a funny way. It must have been by accident, for never in the world would I think of connecting up in that fashion. I would have said it would have made a short circuit at once.  Some one (Koku) meddled with the connections after I made them."  Tom's accidental discovery ..."my latest invention, a great searchlight!"  Tom takes credit for his servant's discovery. Sounds like an outfit I used to work for... Construction details include: A parabolic mirror,  the lens, and the carbons and parts made from brass that is extra hard. They are mounted on the Falcon, a ship built to search for Platinum in Book # 13, Tom Swift and His Air Glider.



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 all the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted, like a handheld 2 Million candlepower battery powered spot light. 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: "that sort of bosh" meant  baloney, BS, etc. "put a little more wind in those tires," was to fill them with air. "Everyone to their notion, as the old lady said when she kissed the cow," was country wisdom, of some kind...


Instant Federal Officer? "You can have the honor of representing Uncle Sam. I'll make you assistant deputies for the night. You will be made a regular custom official. Here are some extra badges I always carry," Tom, really did not care for the commission, but Agent Whitford persisted.

Property rights in 1912 are already compromised when the Feds are in town: "I wouldn't do anything rash, if I were you," said the man (Agent Whitford) quietly. "As for this being private property, that doesn't concern me."  Later: "Mr. Whitford, Tom, Ned and I will go up the steps first, and knock. If they don't let us in, I'm going to smash the door."  Reference was to a warrant-less search.

Later, after the bad guys are all corralled, Tom shares the considerable reward money with the agents. Nowadays, "The Department" gets to keep the seized contraband.

It also seems "guilty until proven innocent" is still the order of the day: Tom is taken into custody again, on simple hearsay. "It did not take Tom many hours to prove to the satisfaction of Mr. Whitford that none of our hero's airships had taken any part in cheating Uncle Sam out of custom duties. "Well, I don't know what to make of it," said the government agent, with a disappointed air, as he left the office of the Shopton chief of police, who, with others at Tom's request, had testified in his favor."

 Native Americans played a part in this story, but in a way that was typically very demeaning.  These "redmen" gathered around Tom's airship, made "guttural exclamations, and many grunts of surprise." They also abandoned the "their usual reserve," and "jabbered among themselves."  The tribal leader, one "Bigfoot," seemed mostly interested in "baccy" (tobacco) and "firewater," (imported from Canada?) They played a small but significant part in pointing the way toward capturing the bad-guys. Dialogue was 100% Hollywood "dime-store" Indian with broken English, similar to Koku's. A reality check of  Google, searching for NY State Indian Reservations,  turned up this reference to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, AKA  Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, of  Hogansburg, NY 13655  From    


Errata- Mr. Damon is back in Waterford, NY. The current score of his many moves between there and Waterfield stands at 9-Waterfield, 2-not recorded, and 6-Waterford, for 15 volumes, to date.  The numbers don't total, because two volumes have him residing in both places at once

Spelling and typos noted were numerous. They include: "Nonsence, Tom!  Eradicate is geting batty in, he and his chum poured over them, He was not a vindicative youth, contrabrand goods, a better parobolic mirror, patroling the border, and nitro-glycerinne, later a note "didn't came trough the mail." There were broken belts when just previously bolts were made reference-to. We also had broken steering geer and Tom's hand is graspsd. The Falcon flies noiselessly and resistlessly.  Some binoculars get focussed, too.  I have not indicated page numbers, as I read a Gutenberg e-book edition, and the typos may have been introduced during transcription, Also, no page numbers were indicated in the e-text.

The Fogers apparently still own their Shopton house/mansion. Several volumes back, it was said they had to sell it in order to finance the trip to Mexico. While looking for the City of Gold, things did not turn out well for them.

In the book, "Tom Swift in Captivity," it was related how Tom brought away two immense men from giant land. They were twin brothers named Koku and Tofa.  In that volume, Koku was renamed August, a fact, which the authors seemed to have forgotten. Koku is never called by his new name, and has become even more "child like" and "simple" over the past two volumes. In the previous tome, Koku was given his very own Electric Rifle. Hm!

In the middle of the story, Tom & Ned "camouflage" the Falcon by "cutting branches and covering it." Falcon is huge-I once again reference the joke about hiding elephants in cherry trees and painting their toenails...


Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy- In this volume, it is apparent that no new limits of the scientific knowledge of the author(s) have been revealed. Tom's (or perhaps Koku's) new searchlight configuration was of an odd arc variety. It is entirely possible that a DC offset to an AC current might just produce a brighter beam, but I suspect it would not be the quantum increase claimed by Tom, i.e. "miles and miles." Arc lights don't have filaments that will burn out, but I imagine that the carbons would be consumed at a prodigious rate, if the beam was all that much brighter. I haven't yet figured out the significance of the "extra hard brass" used in construction.

I'd tack "relatively" to the descriptor "noiseless" when referenced to the Falcon and its power plant. Especially when run at high speeds, much of the noise a propeller-driven aircraft makes comes from the prop itself. The hand-built laminated props of the day were beautiful pieces of woodworkers' art, but not real efficient or quiet. Falcon is still subject to a plethora of mechanical breakdowns,  even though it has been distilled from a long established design .  In Chapter XX, we find out that the lifting gas used is still highly explosive, as they have a close shave with immolation due to a stuck pressure valve. They claim that the gas pressure reached 800psi, during the crisis. I'd like to see the gas bag that could contain such pressure.

Geography- The Swift homestead is now described as a "pleasant and large old-fashioned residence, in the suburbs of Shopton," which has apparently grown from a village to a town, and now, to something larger. The streets now seem to have curbs and pavement. They were dirt at the beginning of the series. The street by Tom's house is not a public one, being cut through by his father. Montford, in Canada, is almost opposite Logansville. Interior house lights were still gas, as Mr. Foger had to "turn on the gas and light it." Shopton is south of the Canadian border, and "that's only a few hundred miles," a bit longer distance than has been visualized in the past.  Huntington, Canada, is "on the dividing line between the British possessions and New York State," and  runs along solid ground (away from the St. Lawrence). It's a wild and desolate part of the country--still relatively true, even today.

JP Karenko 7/4/05

Tom Swift and his Wizard Camera | Tom Swift and his Giant Cannon | Index