Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone

or, The Picture That Saved A Fortune

By Victor Appleton 1914  Book #17

Review by JP Karenko, July 2005

Full-color image from the collection of James D. Keeline

White Quad and Duotone image 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:

 Tom and his Dad, Barton, are talking about Tom's latest  planned endeavor, a telephone that allows the image of the person speaking to be seen at either end. In the first two pages of the story, Barton tells Tom "It can't be done!" five times, with variations. Three pages later, Barton has mellowed to "Maybe you've got something there..." and by the end of the story, it's "Congratulations, my boy! I knew you could do it!"

 Now that I let the technical cat out of the bag regarding the success of Tom's inventive skills (you expected something less from him?) the rest of the story involves fraud, deceit and despair. Mr. Damon runs afoul of some nefarious financial manipulators and runs the risk of losing both his fortune and his life. Tom has to help locate the bad guys and bring them to justice before they "do unto" Mr. D. Figure that the PhotoPhone plays a prominent part, though, in today's world Tom would be jailed for making surveillance recordings without the knowledge of the criminals involved.

 How he does all this, you will have to read the story to find out. Figure the PhotoPhone plays a prominent part, though.

 This book is available on line at:  Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone



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.

Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor master machinist and holder of numerous patents.  In this episode, he is described as "aged," Mr. Swift, has failed in his health of late, and seems to no longer be interested in inventing or adventure.

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." Described as "tottering, he and his mule Boomerang are growing old together. Eradicate has now "become too old to do much," but remains faithful to Tom and helps out where he can.

Grant Halling- Acquaintance of Wakefield Damon. Introduced by flying over the Swift manse and getting his plane tangled in the wireless antennas strung up there.

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. Previously described as residing in the Swift Household, with his own apartment, he now occupies a "coop.". 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.)

Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. Is apparently back at Shopton National Bank, but is now concerned he will "lose his place" for being away so much.

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. 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 been "taken for a ride" financially, and is on the brink of ruin. He apparently is a photographer, as he has a darkroom adjoining his library.

Miss Mary Nestor Budding love interest of Our Hero. Mere passing mention in this tale.

Shallock Peters-Scoundrel and swindler. Large stout man with florid complexion and intimidating manner. Dresses in finest clothing and is only seen in a suit with a rose boutonniere and silk top-hat. A get-rich-quick promoter.

Snuffin-NFN or description. Mechanic/driver/yes-man for Peters, above.

Mr. Huston- NFN or description. Proprietor of Ramsey's Boat Dock on Lake Carlopa

Harrison Boylan-Skinny, pale and condescending. Bag-man for Shallock Peters, above.

Minnie & Grace-NLN's or descriptions given. Young women in canoe swamped by Peters, when he goes roaring around Lake Carlopa in his powerful red motor-boat.

Mr. Ralston-- NFN or description. Takes the abovementioned ladies home after their dunking.

The Happy Harry Gang-Burke, Morse, Appleson and Featherton. May be doing dirty work for Peters, as a lot of chloroform gets used. (Featherton's specialty.) Not conclusively proved, though.

After-hours Airship Absconders-Gang of 8 that filch Tom's biplane, the Eagle, not once, but twice.

Mrs. Damon NFN or description given, except "motherly." This, in spite of a major role in this tale. She plays the distraught housewife when her husband is kidnapped.

Mr. Blackson-NFN or description given. Neighbor of Damon family. Passing mention.

The Mysterious Voice-Gruff & raspy voice on phone. Turns out to be Peters with a bad cold. < Harrumpf! >

Mr. Larsen-- NFN or description given. Private Investigator hired by Tom.

The Helpful Telephone Manager-- NFN or description given. Sets Tom up with access to equipment and facilities so the bad-guys can be tracked.



Major Inventions:  

The Kilo is a large, luxurious motor-boat. It is not known if Tom "invented" it. The Firefly is yet another "speedy" two-seater aircraft. This one has one of the newfangled (presumably electric) self-starters for the motor.  The Eagle is a 6-seat biplane, presumably of the non-dirigible variety, since a gas-bag is never mentioned and it seems to need landing and takeoff room. It needs a Lojack, as it gets stolen twice in the story.

Rad crosses some wires while trying to play a trick on Koku, and "invents" the Photo Telephone. He gets a kilovolt-level shock for his pains, a chewing out from Tom about disturbing his workbench and no credit whatsoever for making the breakthrough. Tom exclaims "MY experiment is a success!"

The Photo Telephone is based on a standard telephone but uses 3 wires, rather than the usual two, and has charged Selenium plates hooked up through an audio amplifier to both transmit and receive images. (See Errata.) The unit must operate under a powerful (tungsten) light to work, and a permanent recording of both picture and voice can be made at the receiving end. The picture is "fixed" via a kilovolt charge, and the plate must be developed by a wet chemical process similar to that used on photographic emulsions.


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 the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted. Take cell phones that record video, for example. Society's attitudes have also changed, greatly. 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: Tom's eyes "have sticks in them" when he stares at the phone screen too long. The authors discovered the semicolon key on the typewriter. It is used 5 times during dialogue in a single chapter, and then promptly forgotten, again. (Smacks to me of "management" intervention at G&D. Some editor/managers are driven to "improve" things that do not need their expert "help.") "Giving the Palm" is used to signify a reward for success in the story.

 Tom is now more than willing to arrest and/or sue his nemeses in court. Previously, "thrashing" was the punishment of choice. Police have also now apparently  become more effective. Conversely, many people already cannot afford to hire lawyers, because it is too expensive to do so.

 Tom once again grabs credit for others' work. Rad "invents" the Photo Telephone, while trying to trick Koku. Previously, Koku "invented " the Giant Searchlight, under similar circumstances. Rad gets an electrical burn during the trick, and Tom promises medical attention, which never happens. Also, after Mr. D disappears, in spite of a stated concern for his welfare, finishing up the invention takes precedence over finding Tom's missing friend, who may be in danger. (Our All-American Hero has a few tarnished spots in his shining armor, it appears...)

Coin operated pay phones in public places are now in common use.

Tom lands his (large) airplane on a city street in Waterford. Doing so, "draws a crowd of men, women and children." (Ya think???)

Tom uses his hunting/trapping experience to logically set a trap for the bad guys-i.e. "Set your trap where you know the game will pass by, and then hide it well."


Errata- Mr. Damon has been left residing in Waterford, NY, for three books in a row! The current score of his many moves between there and Waterfield stands at 9-Waterfield, 2-not recorded, and 8-Waterford, for 17 volumes, to date.  The numbers don't total, because two volumes have him residing in both places at the same time. No, he does not maintain two domiciles...Different authors just can't coordinate their notes.

Tola, Koku's brother, is said to be in a museum, (stuffed and mounted???) rather than at the circus, where we last heard of him. Ned is working at the bank again, but fears he may "lose his place," as he spends so much time gallivanting with Tom.

Typos and malapropisms were once again very limited. On p14, Tom bets (gets) busy, earlier, a "grewsome" clue is found. Photographic plates need to "develope" with a trailing "e." Clue and gasoline are now pretty consistently the American spellings.

The drawings on both the book's paper dust jacket and the frontispiece both show Tom looking at Ned in the PhotoPhone in a big open shop. In the story, both are in closed "booth" structures under bright lights, in order to get the devices to send a good picture.


Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy-

Light waves are described by the author as "a delicate form of motion." He is familiar with how a Selenium plate can be used as a viewing device, but is apparently unaware that one needs to pass something like x-rays through the plate to create the visible image. No mention of any optics was made for the phone, something that would be necessary, to at least focus an image on the plate. I'm pretty sure that this was the principle that was used in the fluoroscopes found in "better" shoe stores during the 50's. You could get an inside scoop as to what the bones in your feet looked like while you were wearing your new Buster Browns. The misty green image could be seen both by the shoe purchaser and the "trained professional" that was doing the selling.

They came oh-so-close to describing how Selenium crystals have a semi-conducting property. The transistor could have been realized 30 years sooner than it was in reality.

Speaking of reality...

Here's an alternate one from 2001 A Space Odyssey, showing a "real" Photo Telephone.

Image 1968 Turner Communications & MGM Home Entertainment Companies.

Geography- Waterford, NY,  is now all grown up. It has "many shops and factories." It previously was described as a "resort town on the shore of Lake Carlopa."

 JP Karenko 7/20/05

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