Tom Swift and his Big Tunnel
Or, The Hidden City of the Andes
By Victor Appleton
Review by JP Karenko, March 2005
Full-color image from the collection of James D. Keeline
White Quad and Duotone images 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 book opens with Tom working on "solving a puzzling question that had arisen in one of his inventions." His giant manservant Koku, announces a visitor--one Mr. Job Titus of Titus Brothers Construction Company, who is here to purchase some of Tom's Giant Cannon powder to use in a tunnel construction project in Peru.
Titus Bros. has contracted to drive a railroad tunnel through an Andes mountain peak, and has hit a deposit of "hard, dense rock, like Obsidian." If the tunnel cannot be completed on time Blakeson & Grinder, a rival company, will get the contract and reap the reward, while the Titus Brothers will be ruined.
Tom develops a blasting powder, based on his Giant Cannon propellant, and in the company of Titus and Mr. Damon (who, coincidently has a business interest in the same area of Peru) depart for South America, via rail and steamship.
Along the way, Tom & Ned are accosted by bearded (--they are always bearded...) spies, assaulted with a bomb, suffer hardships, solve mysteries, save a baby's life and help break a native labor strike that threatens the project's completion. A subterranean lost city is found. It becomes a stop on the rail line and ultimately, a tourist attraction.
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Tom Swift-Intrepid Inventor, Hero, and now, betrothed love interest of Miss Mary Nestor.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited mental facilities. Antagonist and rival of Eradicate.
Eradicate Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant given over to the ravages of advanced age (Rheumatism and failing eyesight.) Constant antagonist of Koku. In this episode it is confirmed that he is an ex-Civil War Era slave. His faithful mule Boomerang is not mentioned in this episode.
Ned Newton-Chum & constant companion of Tom, currently employed at a Shopton bank. Lately has a 'better position' at the bank and has less time to go adventuring with Tom. Passing mention in this tale. (Considering how much work he misses, I wonder why he keeps getting promoted?)
Mr. Job Titus-Principal Contact of Titus Brothers Construction Company.
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer and traveling companion of Tom & Ned, whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. In this tome, he "resides in a nearby (unnamed) town," and is introduced by falling off a runaway horse, on his way to visit Tom.
Isaac Waddington, A.K.A. SeŇor Pinto-Evil agent of Blakeson & Grinder (B&G), a rival tunnel construction firm, dedicated to bringing the Titus Brothers and their project to ruin. Late in the story, he contracts a fever that ultimately will kill him. He repents of his crimes and is forgiven by Tom & Mr. Titus, while on his deathbed.
Miss Mary Nestor-Love interest of Tom. Plucky, courageous, intelligent and apparently engaged to Our Hero, although no direct mention is made except a reference to "son-in-law," in a scathing letter from her father, mid-story.
Barton Swift--Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor master machinist and holder of numerous patents. Mr. Swift, has failed in his health of late, and seems to no longer be interested in inventing or adventure. Has turned into a doomsayer, and seems to spend all his time trying to dissuade Tom from his life of inventing. Walk-on part in this tale.
Mr. & Mrs. Amos Nestor ń Mary's parents. No descriptions given. Mrs. Nestor is said to be a fine cook. Her first name and description are never mentioned. Amos is apparently excitable and jumps to conclusions about Tom, in spite of having been saved by him in both the Wireless Message and Wizard Camera adventures.
Mrs. Baggert-Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family for 15+ 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.
Professor Swyington Bumper-Semi-bumbling Archeologist/Explorer on a life-long quest to find the lost city of Pelone, hidden in the Peruvian Andes. Saves Tom and Mr. Titus by disarming a bomb meant to injure them on the steamship Bellaconda. Quintessential mad-scientist type: bald, skinny, short and nose-in-book. Very scatterbrained and easily distracted.
Bellaconda Steward-No name or description. Cares for ill Sr. Pinto.
Walter Titus-No description. Remaining Principal of Titus Bros., Construction Co.
Serato-No last name or description except "tall." Peruvian Indian straw boss. Nominally in charge of labor gangs, secretly working for B&G as saboteur and agent provocateur.
Tim Sullivan-No description given. Irish construction foreman at the tunnel site, possessed of a nearly unintelligible brogue.
Company Doctors-Employed by Titus Brothers. No descriptions or names given.
Peruvian Village Chieftan-No name or description. Walk-on part.
Indian Child-No name or description. Saved from mad dog by Tom using Electric Rifle.
Jack-NLN or description. Englishman, runs dynamo providing electricity for camp.
Senor Belasdo-Peruvian bureaucrat. May be in cahoots with B&G. Withholds government payments to Titus Bros. on a whim. Probably looking for a bribe....
Lamos-NLN. Peruvian Indian giant. Not as tall as Koku, but wider in the shoulders. Rival and antagonist of Koku, in the employ of Serato and B&G as agent provocateur and saboteur.
Indian family, Father's name not given-Father is a laborer, mother (Masni) provides important aid, late in story. Baby (Vashni) is saved from a Condor attack by Tom, using his Electric Rifle.Indian laborers-Generally treated with disdain & contempt. Described as lazy, beggars, easily frightened and as "black imps."
Tom Swift didn't really invent anything new in this book. He did leverage one of the things he invented in the past (Giant Cannon propellant), as a starting point for developing two blasting powder variations, one "slow" and one "fast," to be used in tunneling. The intriguing scientific concept here, is that when breaking up hard, dense rock like Flint or Obsidian, a "slow explosion is needed to shatter the material ." See Errata.
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 the early 1900's.
Attitudes and Prejudices- Language usage has become more modern, without the many "quaint" words of wisdom as was wont in the past. The authors did discover the word "piazza," however, and used it 5 times in 2 pages to describe the front porch on the Swift homestead. Domestic attitudes are typical, with Rad and Koku, being denigrated with the usual racial stereotypes and derogatory descriptions. Rad is now referred to as a "dear old chump" and Koku is described as "good-natured, but somewhat stupid." On the other hand, the xenophobia that was exhibited in the previous volume toward anyone who was "foreign," as well as any mention of "the European Conflict "(WW1) have vanished. The local Peruvian Indian natives are back at the bottom of the food chain, being called lazy, black imps, worthless and prone to disappearing after payday. Pay was $0.50USD a week for hard labor, hauling rock out of the tunnel.
Errata- Mr. Damon has been relegated to residing "in a nearby town." After four books in a row in Waterford, NY, the author has apparently forgotten where he lives! The current tally of his many moves between Waterford and Waterfield stands at 9-Waterfield, 3-not recorded, and 9-Waterford, for 19 volumes, to date. The numbers don't total, because two volumes have him residing in both places at the same time, and three (including this one) do not specify a town name.
Koku has shrunk from his previous height of "over 9 feet" to "almost 8 feet" tall, and his English is deteriorating. He now sounds like a Hollywood dime-store Indian, making such comments as "Master make heap good shot" when commenting on Tom's marksmanship.
Late in the story, Tim Sullivan, an Irish labor foreman with a near unintelligible brogue, seems to have no trouble communicating with the native help, previously requiring an interpreter. (Frankly, he could use one for his English...)
Typos were limited and mostly the wrong word (correctly spelled) getting past the typesetter. On p131 Tom rigs fires (wires). On p152 the woman Masni threw himself (herself) at Tom's feet. On p159 Koku sprank (sprang) up and p215 says Tom haved (saved) a baby. Two different editions ( 2nd ed. G&D Quad and orange cover G&D) have the same errors.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy-
Tom & Mr. D. get a stereotypical "bomb" thrown at them early in the story. The black powder fuse is extinguished by Professor Bumper by stepping on it. Personal experience with such things, (from a misspent youth) tells me that confining a black powder fuse makes it burn faster-MUCH faster. Cutting, dousing with water or pulling it out of the iron sphere would be the way to make the "infernal device" safe. (Aside: can you imagine trying to get an iron ball filled with explosives onboard a ship, nowadays?)
It's amazing how much technology has changed. Tunneling (for a railroad, no less!) was small-scale, without use of heavy machinery and dependent primarily on manual labor. Steam-shovels were mentioned in passing, but never seen to be used.
Something that bothers me about the South America setting is that Tom & Co., had to pack to the tunnel head on mule back. It would be logical to run the rail line up to the tunnel to send in supplies, equipment and labor. After all, the line was going to be necessary, anyway, once the tunnel was completed. ( Of course, that would have shortened the book by several chapters... There is an incredible amount of filler and repetition in these stories. )
Explosive charges were sized by SWAG and set off without regard for any but rudimentary safety precautions. Koku almost gets sent into orbit, when he wanders into the middle of a test shot of Tom's new explosive and parks his posterior on the rock with the test charge under it.
I'm having a teeny problem with Tom's "slow" vs. "fast" blasting powders. While I am not a mining engineer, I do know that a certain minimum propagation speed is needed to fracture even very hard rock. Modern mining engineers use a constellation of relatively small timed charges to create first, a void into which the blast can propagate, and then another series of delayed charges to break up the rock in a controlled manner. For those interested in details, this is discussed at length in the following document:
The techniques discussed are dependent on carefully sequenced detonations, using electrically fired, computer controlled initiators. Tom could only begin to approach this ability by using a separate charges of his "fast" and "slow" powders, not by simply adjusting the burn rate. The "big blast" in this tale would most likely simply have dropped the mountain on Pelone, making it "loster."
Speaking of, the lost city is uncovered after a massive detonation to break through some super-hard rock. It is speculated that the city was buried by earthquake, landslide or volcanic eruption. Typically those kind of events break, crush, carry away, bury or burn up the locale in question. Pelone was found with streets clean & clear and most buildings intact. The air was clean and buildings contained artifacts. If the city had been constructed by tunneling, as the original description implied, the scenario might have been more believable. As it was? Balderdash...
Geography- Pelone is said to be located between Rimac and Ancon about 250 miles east of Lima, Peru. Ancon is actually a coastal town about 15 miles north of the port of Callao (Lima's gateway to the Pacific.). Rimac is indeed in the location specified, (almost to Bolivia) but well out of the mountains. The author's research may have been spotty, or maybe the maps they had available weren't as accurate as what we have, today.The nearest rail head that connects to Lima west of Rimac is Cuzco. The dark line shown on the map indicates a possible route for the new rail line, but interestingly, transportation out of Rimac would be by water via a tributary of the Rio Madiera. There is no rail route shown into or even near Rimac from the Bolivian side, even today in 2005.
Lima to Rimac, Peru.
Map courtesy of Microsoft Map Point.
A Google search for the term "Pelone," turned up the following website:
It would seem that "pelone" is not a city in Peru, but Spanish slang meaning "hairless or bald," usually applied to the Indian tribes of northern Mexico and southern Texas that shaved their body hair. These tribes included, but were not limited to the Carrizone, Lipan Apache, and Jumano peoples.
Lamos is the son of Zeus, and a river god who is father to the "river-nymphs" also called the Hyades.
JP Karenko, 3/17/2005 Revised and expanded 8/21/05
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