Tom Swift and his Television Detector
Or, Trailing the Secret Plotters
By Victor Appleton
Review by JP Karenko, March 2005
(Bottom picture of Grosset & Dunlap cover was sent to me by Mark Snyder. Thanks again, Mark!)
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
Summary: 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 Ned Newton working on "small, but complicated mechanism." Ultimately, we find it is a "pocket wireless sender" to be used to communicate via a cipher code if/when one of the chums is in trouble. He proposes to Tom that a means of seeing through brick walls would be invaluable in "finding criminals and anyone who might be kidnapped." Tom has other things on his mind, and pooh-poohs the idea.
It seems that a secret vault, located below his lab and protected by double-locks and alarms has been penetrated, and a small wooden box containing the formula for a deadly war gas has been stolen. Tom must recover the formula before it can be used to cause death & destruction at home and abroad.
It is learned that the formula was purloined by a nefarious foreigner who goes by the moniker "The Leopard." He leaves three muddy thumbprints as a calling card whenever he works his evil deeds, and seems to be able to come and go whenever he pleases, in spite of locks, alarms, and watchmen. He was even seen to appear to fly over a fifteen foot tall electrified fence.
I short, Ned's worst fears are realized when he is captured and held as ransom against Tom finishing his detector and using it to locate the Leopard and the stolen formula.
Along the way, Tom & Ned are accosted by not one, but two bearded (-they are always bearded...) spies and anarchists. They suffer hardships and solve technical mysteries that threaten the project's completion. Ned is able to contact Tom with his pocket wireless, and send the secret code.
Unfortunately, this volume is not available on-line.
Cast of Characters
(More or less, in order of appearance.)
Ned Newton-Chum & constant companion of Tom, currently Financial Manager of Swift Construction Company. In spite of this high office, he seems to have lots of time to go gallivanting on adventures with Tom.
Tom Swift-Intrepid Inventor, Hero, and wedded to love interest, the former Miss Mary Nestor.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat unsophisticated mental facilities. Antagonist and rival of Eradicate.
Mr. Korbis Alhazar-Inventor of an "instantaneous and deadly" poison gas "more dangerous than TNT." Passing mention only. Does not appear in the story.
Midnite Masked Marauder-One of many nefarious no-good-niks that seem to be able to roam the grounds of Swift Construction, in spite of guards, gates, alarms and electric fences.
Perkfield-NFN or description. Gate guard at SCC.
Eradicate, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro manservant given over to the ravages of advanced age (Rheumatism and failing eyesight, among others.) Constant antagonist of Koku. Described as " feeble, eccentric and tottering." Boomerang, Rad's mule, is mentioned for the first time in quite a while. It is noted that he had passed on, some years previously, and is remembered fondly..
Mrs. Mary (Nestor) Swift-Love interest and radiant bride of Tom. Plucky, courageous, intelligent but in this story, merely Suzy Homemaker. Cameo appearance, late in story.
Barton "Bart" Swift- Tom's aged and infirm father. In this episode, he only is mentioned in passing, and plays no part in the story. Now being attended full-time by Eradicate Sampson.
Martin-NLN or description. SCC go-fer.
The Bearded Baddie-Later determined to be Argad Metomsix, A.K.A. "The Leopard" or "Twisting Foot"-Evil agent of some unspecified foreign (Asian or European) power. Highly educated, master locksmith, mechanic, athlete and spy. Outstanding physical characteristic(s) are a large, strong build, a bushy black beard and apparent ability to fly without wings. (Actually, he is an Olympic-class pole vaulter.)
South Gate Sam-No description or real name given. Watchman at the south end of the SCC grounds. Tends a tomato patch that seems to distract him from spotting the comings and goings of The Leopard, above.
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 is apparently an avid, if unskilled fisherman. His wife is again out of town, and he is off the leash and running wild, once more.
Mr. Benson Banlot-A man of "ordinary build." Special Agent of the United States Secret Service, in charge of rooting out, capturing and deporting anarchists, terrorists and other undesirable foreign-based elements. Also willing & able to arrest local crooks, when the opportunity presents itself. Carries a blue and gold badge.
Mr. Alex Kalhofski-Evil agent of some unnamed foreign power. Quintessential anarchist type: Outstanding physical characteristic(s) are: Wild-eyed, skinny, and with bushy red hair & beard. Dedicated to bringing the government of the United States to ruin. Principal quarry of Benson Banlot.
Mrs Damon-NFN or description. Arrives home early and puts damper on Mr. D's fishing trip.
Jim Parkman-No description. Shopton fish monger. Makes arrangements with Mr. D for him to have a successful fishing trip by "catching" some prime trout at his shop.
Larsen & Dubfold-Swift Construction "muscle." A cut above common thugs, these fine folks speak proper English, are clean-cut, and use their bulk in the service of the good guys.
Miss Helen Morton-Love interest of Ned Newton. On "short list" to be married to Ned. Cameo appearance, late in story.
Leopard's Whelps-Three of the most stereotypical "thugs" ever captured on paper. They are unnamed and proof that ( at least in the gangster world, ) muscle times intellect equals a constant. Given over to the frequent use of the word "youse." This makes one surmise they may hail from either one of the Five Boroughs or possibly "Joisey." The only thing that would have made their stereotype complete is snap-brim hats, striped shirts and black Lone Ranger-style masks. Think "Beagle Boys" from Scrooge McDuck Comics. I'd call them "Curly, Larry and Moe" for all their effectiveness as henchmen.
Tom Swift almost had to be cajoled and begged by Ned to invent something major in this book. The Television Detector s a device that leverages parts of the Photo Telephone and Talking Pictures machines. It will allow remote viewing through brick or other solid walls at a distance. The device uses a variable focusing device similar to the one on the Electric Rifle and has a range of up to several miles. A Radium tube and a secret projector are used to illuminate objects viewed through prisms on a special double-anode high vacuum Cathode Ray Tube. The Radium illuminator allows viewing in total darkness in full color at an included angle of 45 degrees in front of the device. No sound reception is possible in this model, but Our Intrepid Inventor has some ideas for future improvements.
The pocket wireless sender, an AC/DC radio transceiver is about the size of a large cigarette case. It has a 10 mile range, uses "short wave" technology and plays a key role in the rescue of Ned from his kidnappers.
The Newton Secret Code allows Tom & Ned to converse in private via Morse dots & dashes, using the pocket wireless sender. Code is needed, since anyone with a similar device could "listen in." It is a very complex and inefficient code with many nonsense filler/null characters used.
Finally, there is the "Human Assimilator of Congealed Delights." I'll leave that one up to the imagination of the reader.
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- Some clews (although that term is no longer used) that were detected as to the author of this tale: This tale reeks with significant foreboding, (bordering on clairvoyance,) to prepare for events that make the plot come out. Ned makes no less than 6 references to the following: "Maybe we really ought to finish that secret code and build a TV Detector just in case somebody gets kidnapped and we need it to rescue them." (Then, he gets kidnapped-D'oh!)
Emphasis is no longer on finances and money troubles, as in the previous few tales. This is an ordinary cops & robbers / spy story. The attitude shift goes along with the statement that "there is a great unrest in parts of Europe." It's 1932, and a certain Austrian paperhanger with a toothbrush moustache is now in charge of a thoroughly aroused and angry Germany.
Some techno-things are actually described correctly. (See Fact vs. Fantasy, below,) but the author's engineering knowledge is iffy. There is a large amount of padding in the story that boosts the page count. Language is wholly modern & slang. No older English was used except "Jigger" (used eight times) and Ned swearing by "Jinx" rather than Tom's "Jove." The language used definitely points at Harriet Stratemeyer's touch, but the story line seems 'way too rough for her to have penned it. Kidnapping, knockout drugs, guns and bombs play significant parts in the plot. This, along with an intimate familiarity with several previous tales (Airline Express and Talking Pictures) make me think of this author as "Navy Nick." I'll hang responsibility for it and the other two stories mentioned above, on him.
Firearms have been utilized in other stories, but usually only for intimidation value during break-ins. No one gets shot, except critters and, possibly rampaging natives. In this tale, Tom keeps an automatic in his desk. It's also the second story that I have read which includes an actual firefight, and the first with an actual gunshot injury & fatality during the climactic capture of the bad guys. (pp, 210-211) Normally, any violence in these stories is limited to Koku busting a few heads, or Tom getting knocked out or drugged. I guess G-Men aren't as finicky about warning shots as Tom is.
Finally, if any one of the average bad-guys in these stories had any familiarity with a safety razor, they would know that being clean-shaven was a perfect disguise. Beards (and being "foreign") seem to be the characteristic distinguishing marks of the nemeses in these stories.
Errata-There is a running gag throughout this series. Mr. Damon's home keeps flip-flopping between Waterfield and Waterford, NY. Sometimes it is in neither, and several times in both places, at once. This is partly due to the enforced poor communication amongst the many ghostwriters at G&D that contributed to this series.
There are now 4 distinct categories. For the 1st time in a while, in this tome, Mr. D's home flips to Waterfield.
The tally for 36 volumes, to date is:
Waterfield-17, Both places-2, Waterford-10, and Neither place-7.
Typos and malapropisms were nonexistent. Nothing jumped out at me.
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy- It's amazing how far around the circle technology has come in 90 years. In July of 2004, it was announced that a wall-penetrating wide-band radar remote viewing device was being developed for the military and law enforcement use. A prototype device called the RADAR Flashlight, developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), can detect a human's presence through doors and walls up to 8 inches thick.
Visit http://unisci.com/stories/20012/0416015.htm for more information. (This link was OK as of 11/2005)
Another announcement (Jan 2005) revealed a device more along the lines of a real-world Tom Swift, invention. An excerpt is below.
Hurtubise says invention sees through walls-BayToday.ca exclusive
By Phil Novak BayToday.ca Sunday, January 16, 2005
Troy Hurtubise has done the seemingly impossible with his newest invention and defied all known rules of physics, he says. The Angel Light-Hurtubise claims the concept came to him in a recurring dream-can reportedly see through walls, as if there was no barrier at all. An unpleasant side effect of this viewing device is that the energy used to make it work is injurious and/or fatal to living organisms. I guess that means the girls' locker rooms at the local high schools are safe for the moment-or perhaps very unsafe...
Visit http://www.baytoday.ca/content/news/details.asp?c=6657 for more information.
(This link was OK as of 11/2005)
Wilkipedia, "the free on-line encyclopedia," takes issue with the claims above, at the following site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Hurtubise
They do not lend credence to the claims made by Hurtubise regarding this device, as excerpted, here:
The Angel Light is tubular in shape, several feet long, and is constructed in three units. The "centrifuge" unit, contains logic devices, black, white, red and fluorescent light sources, as well as seven industrial lasers. It is unknown whether the centrifuge unit includes an actual centrifuge. The "deflector grid" unit is made up of a circular piece of optical glass, a microwave unit, and plasma combined with carbon dioxide. The third, unnamed unit contains eight plasma light rods, CO2 charges, industrial magnets, 108 mirrors, eight ionization cells, industrial lights, and a variety of other electronics.
Hurtubise is allegedly receiving undocumented and secret assistance, both financial and technical, from unnamed workers at MIT, the French government, and the somehow-anonymous former head of Saudi counter-intelligence to construct and explore the device's properties. Through these channels, he claims to have acquired a sample of the stealth radar-resistant panelling used on the U.S. Comanche helicopter.
Much of the details of Hurtubise's claims seem either incorrect or exaggerated, and because of this, it is worth noting that none of the spectacular capabilities of the Angel Light have ever been photographed, even though Hurtubise has allowed media members to photograph the device itself, and the light it emits while operating.
Although Hurtubise's prior technologies have been demonstrated to have genuine value, both financially and scientifically, his extraordinary claims about the capabilities of this device (particularly medical claims) have prompted skeptics to label Hurtubise a charlatan. Although Hurtubise has publically offered a cash reward for proof that his device doesn't work, he has not been so forthcoming with basic evidence that it actually does work.
There is currently (20 September 2005) no indication that Hurtubise is lying, however Hurtubise's claims are so unusual that it is not unreasonable for skepticism to follow such claims.
With the exception of God Light, Mr. Hurtubise's other inventions are treated more charitably. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy_Hurtubise for details.
The "Pocket Wireless" is the FRS radio or cell phone that we take for granted today. That it had a 10 mile range in a package little larger than a "cigarette case" was stupendous engineering for the time. All this without the yards-long antennas required by radios of the day, and no transistors or integrated circuits, to boot. With a tube amplifier that little box must have been the forerunner of "Hot Pockets" if allowed to stay in Ned's slacks while operating.
The dry cell(s) that powered it had to be "Pink Bunny Specials," too.
( Pretentious note to future readers: The pink rabbit is the trademark of a company that sells especially long-lasting chemical/electrical conversion devices.) Powering tube radios with batteries was indeed done at the time, but the batteries (both "A" and "B" varieties) were much bigger than what could be carried in a pocket. It's also interesting that the set made no noise. The pop/crack/sizzle and clang of the typical spark gap radio (which prompted Tom to invent a "silent" one in the next book) seemed absent. If it were the usual noisy spark-gap type, Ned would have been busted the first time he tried to use it.
It is quite apparent that the dangerous nature of Radium was unknown to the author(s) of this story at the time it was written. Marie Curie, the ground-breaking physicist who pioneered advances in radiology would not succumb to Radium-induced Leukemia until the summer following this story's first printing. In a real world, Tom and Ned would be quickly poisoned by contact with this dangerous element, especially in the absence of even the rudimentary safety precautions used during handling and use in that day. While getting a visible image on a Selenium plate would have been possible, "living color" as was described, would have taken much more equipment. The Selenium image would be green monotone, like today's night vision devices.
Geography-"Crystal Cave" is said to be located about 5 miles from Shopton. There is a commercial show cave near Pottersville, NY, the Natural Stone Bridge & Caves. NSB is about 25 minutes from Lake George, off route I-87 and may be what the author used as a template. The Geodes found there in abundance surely would qualify as "crystal," and it's in the right neighborhood.
See http://www.stonebridgeandcaves.com/Ns_direc.html for more info.
There is a city of Chester near Shopton, noted in Diamond Makers, and a Chesterport in House on Wheels. Interestingly, in the New York of our universe, there is a Chestertown, just down the road a ways from Crystal/Natural Stone Bridge Caves.
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