Tom Swift and His Wireless Message

Full Color Dustjacketor, The Castaways of Earthquake Island

By Victor Appleton    Book #6 1911

Review by JP Karenko, May 2005

White Quad, Brown Quad, Duotone, and Full Color dustjacket images are 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.

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 Tom "adjusting" the motor of his new monoplane aeroplane, Butterfly. He gets a telegram from an airship builder in Philadelphia PA, one Hosmer Fenwick, and things immediately begin to go downhill for Our Hero.  From here on in, a healthy dose of WSoD (Willing Suspension of Disbelief) is needed.

The coincidences in this story were too much to bear--I gave in to The Urge. Sorry...

Just sit right back and you'll read a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from a small air port,
Aboard a big airship.

Tom Swift was a mighty sailin' man,
A Skipper brave and sure,
Three Venturers set sail that day
For a three day-long tour.

(A three day-long tour.) [ sound of thunder: crack! ]

The weather started getting rough,
The big airship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew,
The Whizzer would be lost.

(The Whizzer would be lost.)

The ship's aground on the shore of this
Uncharted Indies Isle
With Dameon, and Fenwick too,
A Millionaire (but) not his wife,
No Movie Star, a Professor and Mary's Mam,
Here on Earth-quake Isle!

There's more, but the groaning is getting to me, so I think I'll stop, for now, with apologies to Gilligan & Company... In a nutshell, I just covered the 1st three-quarters of the book's plot, except for a couple of run-ins with a certain red-haired nasty by the name of Andy Foger, and the usual repartee with the other standard characters in the series.  You'll have to read the rest of the story to see how Tom gets out of THIS one... ( The title is a giveaway, though.)

This book is available on line at


Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)


Duotone DustjacketTom 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.

Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. "Eradicates dirt." Lately, is working as a gardener, and seems to be getting into Bush-isms ( as in George W.) Calls Mr. Wakefield Damon, Mr. Wakeful Lemon. Heavy deep-south accent and Uncle Remus attitude. Is described as "aged, slow and shuffling." Caretaker of Boomerang, a cantankerous aged mule.

Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor, master machinist and holder of numerous patents.  In this episode, described as "aged" and "nervous" and slow moving.

Hosmer Fenwick Philadelphia inventor, working on an electric airship. Requests Tom's aid to make his overweight and underpowered machine fly.

Garrett Jackson Aged (65+ years old) "engineer" who seems more a handyman or machinist and watchman type than an engineer. Resides on Swift estate.

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. In this tome, we find out she can't cook, (Watch out, Tom! She may have other nasty secrets) but plies him with apple turnovers made by her servant, Bridget. (See below.)

Mr. & Mrs. Amos Nestor Mary's parents, off on a West Indies cruise, with a business associate. No descriptions given. Mrs. Nestor is a fine cook. Apparently has just neglected Mary's education.

Mr. George Hosbrook Business associate of the Nestors. Millionaire owner of Motor Yacht Resolute. No description given

Mrs. Duy Puyster NFN or description given, except "rich."

Miss Bridget -- NLN or description given. Irish cook/servant hired by Mary Nestor.

Miss Sarah Malloy No description given. Irish servant hired by local farm family.

     Acquaintance and apparent rival of Bridget, (above.)

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. Showoff. "Has money, and not much else." Lately has upped ante to breaking and entering at Swift shops. Severely vandalizes Butterfly as revenge for run-in with Tom.

Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. In this episode, he is found to be an old school chum of Mr. Fenwick and goes along for the ride in his new airship.

John Sharp-Professional balloonist and trapeze artist. Rescued by Tom when his hot-air balloon gets a bit too hot and burns. Deputy Sheriff as a sideline. Co-designer with Tom, of the Airship, Red Cloud. Tall, thin and dark' of complexion. "In residence" with the Swift family, has become sort of hands and feet for Tom's father. Passing mention in this volume.

Mrs. Baggert -- Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family since the time Tom's mother died. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages. Excitable, she seems to expect fatalities after any mishap involving Tom's inventions.

A Bevy of Bountiful Beauties Female friends of Mary Nestor who are hanging out with her while Mary's mom & dad are away. No names or descriptions given, except for one Mabel Jackson, who seems to be prescient. She somewhat ominously predicts the events detailed in the last half of the book. (I wonder if she does Lottery numbers?)

Mrs. Fenwick and Mrs. Damon  -- NFNs or descriptions given, except that the castaways haven't seen trouble like they'll get at home after they are rescued from the island.

Castaways of Earthquake Island 9 survivors of the wreck of the Resolute: Mr. & Mrs. Amos Nestor, Mary's parents. Captain Mentor, skipper. Jake Fordham, ship's mate.  Mr. George Hosbrook, Millionaire. Mr. Ralph Parker, Professor. (Any bells ringing, here, yet???) Mr. & Mrs. Floyd Anderson, and Mr. Barcoe Jenks, a nervous and mysterious character who being introduced here, and is a main character in the next book in the series, Tom Swift Among the Diamond Makers.

Captain Valasquez Master of steamship Cambaranian. NFN or description given.


Major Inventions

Tom Swift does again invent something major in this book. Well, maybe, "invent" is too strong a descriptor--The Butterfly is a monoplane 2-seat aeroplane, powered by a 4-cylinder radial engine. It has under-cambered wings, canvas and wire construction and controls via warping surfaces. Undercarriage is tricycle tires. It is "modeled" (nearly identically) on he Bleriot monoplane, and the "invented" part seems to be Tom's inveterate ability to "improve" things mechanical, usually by changing gear ratios. How it was improved is not detailed except for it being a 2-seater and an obvious tricycle landing gear. The original had room for only a pilot and only 2 wheels. (See picture.) It was therefore prone to nose-over on landing. The little plane plays only the part of a transportation prop in the story. It is already fully built and developed at the start of this tome. Tom is a fast worker, as this tale falls only shortly after the end of the previous episode, the Electric Runabout. I suppose it's because he has a reputation as a miracle worker to maintain, kind of like Star Trek's Mr. Scott.

The picture below is from

The main mechanical wonder in the first part of the story is the airship Whizzer. This is an overweight, underpowered gas bag/tri-plane la Red Cloud, but larger. The innovation is that it uses a hybrid power plant consisting of a gas engine driving a dynamo driving twin electric motors, that are geared. It is well appointed and luxurious, which is part of what makes it hard to get off the ground. Improvements Tom makes are: a better ( but unspecified ) lifting gas, the gearing of the electric motors, (the props would have to be redesigned, too, but no mention was made of that) and numerous other un-detailed tweaks and changes.

The wireless Tom builds, from materials salvaged from the wreckage of Whizzer, is a spark-gap type with a claimed range of 1000 miles. Considering that a 1/2kW station of the day had a range of 100 miles, this was a real accomplishment. Seeing this rig was constructed from baling wire and chewing gum (so to speak) it would need much more power than any airship-ready dynamo could provide. (See Errata).

Illustration from

Typical Dynamo Powered Spark-Gap Radio Transmitter



Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata

It's amazing how much society and technology have changed in 95 years. 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 gives me an appreciation as to how much society has changed, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our times? I believe Robert Heinlein put it best when he described our current era as "The Crazy Years."

Type II Brown Quad DustjacketAttitudes and Prejudices- Philadelphia is repeatedly called the Quaker City, rather than the more current City of Brotherly Love. Philly has had several varied nicknames over the years. Fresh eggs are transported in sawdust, and canned foods are now "available in variety."

Mary Nestor being unable to cook is a surprise. I suppose that if her parents were wealthy, she might be an ornamental, but at least the women I knew personally from those times, now long passed away, all had basic survival skills and knew how to cook, clean, sew and keep house. It's also surprising that a common farmer of that time could afford to hire a cook/servant. Hired hands of the day were generally only hired if the farmer had no sons, and then, paid in a share of the farm's output rather than cash money. Cash was scarce.

Errata- On p26 a farmer leaves his wife or (on) the seat of their wagon. On p46 Butterfly at 80mph is "faster than Red Cloud.." R/C runs at 90mph, at the beginning of Submarine Boat. On p86 someone is "pursuaded" rather than persuaded (The spell-checker is going nuts...)

Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy - The idea of taking an inefficient gas engine, connecting it to an inefficient electric dynamo through an inefficient mechanical coupling, and using the current generated to drive an inefficient geared electric motor, through hand carved propellers makes the power plant of the Whizzer a losing proposition. Period. Apparently the authors, desperate to get an electric powered aircraft into the story, never considered the cascade effect of all this heavy and inefficient machinery on the power-to-weight-ratio of a craft supposedly able to support itself on three small wings.  I'm not sure even a miracle-worker like Tom could get this lead sled off the ground.

The base speed of the Whizzer was noted as a blistering 20mph. Not bad, I suppose, for something with the frontal area of a large hay barn. The top speed of the ship in the storm was 150mph. This would have torn the wings off even a military airplane in 1910. The explosion that was the beginning of the end of Whizzer did not seem to result in a fire. This was very unusual, since the lifting gas was probably Tom's highly volatile brew (See Book #3) Oh, they "vol-planed" to a landing...The authors were quite enamored of this term, apparently not realizing that to vol-plane (To glide toward the earth with the engine cut off,) the engine(s) had to be stopped. ( They were still running until Tom shut them off.) Also, you needed planes to vol with. The gas bag was in tatters and 2 of the 3 wings were smashed and dangling, limply. A duck carrying a load of birdshot would vol better than this turkey. I suspect the force of their return to Earth was highly understated.

The wireless rig described in the story could be built, with the proper materials & tools. Whether those would be available in the airship remains, is unlikely. The many yards of insulated copper wire and iron cores needed for transformers would not be found in a scrap airship. Even the aerial (antenna) wires, which would have to be many, many  meters long, would be very hard if not impossible to splice adequately from stays and guy wires.

The 5 wire antenna would be, of necessity, directional, unless laid out in a star configuration. They'd need more than one dead palm tree to string cables from. Tom used the old Morse CQD (Come Quick, Danger) distress call rather than the newer SOS, to avoid confusion at the receiving end. This is legitimate. Titanic sent both calls out, while sinking, to cover all the bases.

Geography- Philadelphia, PA  is said to be 250 miles from Shopton, a 5 hour journey, by train. A quick route calculation shows Lake George, NY as being almost exactly 250 miles from Philly. This could place Shopton on Lake George (Carlopa) instead of Lake Champlain, as I had concluded, earlier. Further support for the idea is that if Carlopa were Champlain, Shopton (on the east lake shore, ) would be in Vermont. It is "located" in New York State.

West Indies Map

Earthquake Island is uncharted (aren't they all in these stories?) and is claimed to be volcanic with a rocky central spine. It is forested (it's been there a while) and has fresh water springs. The constant earth tremors are attributed to the foundations of the island being washed away by strong deep-ocean currents. In reality, the area is tectonically active and while earthquakes do occur, ocean currents washing the island away is highly unlikely. A more plausible disaster would be an eruption. Also, fresh water springs are far & few between that far from an aquifer. Rainwater runoff to a small stream is a more plausible source of fresh water.

JP Karenko 5/8/05

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