Juvenile Series Books and the Profession of Engineering

The Rise and Fall of the Engineer in Juvenile Series Fiction, 1900-1980

David K. Vaughan
According to Samuel C. Florman, an authority on engineering education, “the years between 1850 and 1950 were indeed good years for engineering”; they constituted, he says, “The Golden Age of Engineering”:

Before 1850 there had been many fine engineers and many outstanding engineering works. But engineering itself had been rather a craft than a profession, relying more on common sense and time honored experience than on the application of scientific principles, and lacking those essentials of true professionalism professional schools and professional societies. (Florman 6)

In 1852 the American Society of Civil Engineers held its first meeting, and it was that professional meeting, Florman suggests, along with the improved collegiate engineering requirements, that marked the movement of engineering from a craft to a profession. Civil Engineering was one of the first of the engineering professions to form a society; as time passed and technological developments occurred, other societies formed those for mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, aeronautical engineers. By 1950, over twenty different kinds of engineering societies had been created.

But the youths of America did not attend engineering society meetings; they attended school. The youths of America began to learn something about engineering, but they were introduced to its ideas and practices through the juvenile series books of their day, beginning first with the Tom Swift series books of the 1910s and 20s and continuing up through the Rick Brant Electronic Adventure series books of the 1950s. Although the emphasis on technological developments as related to engineering prowess extended for more than 70 years, the heaviest emphasis on the adventure of engineering occurred in the first three decades of the century and faded after World War II.

The Tom Swift series was not really the first series to base its appeal on technological achievement and corresponding adventures. As scholars in the field like Edward LeBlanc and John Dizer have pointed out, the earliest American technological adventure stories (actually early science fiction stories) first appeared in the story papers and dime novels of the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. Street and Smith and other publishers of popular publications capitalized on stories of technological creations: as John Dizer says, “The youth of America devoured the stories of science and adventure. This was their introduction to science fiction” (Dizer 88). It was also their introduction to discussions of technology, engineering, and scientific principles.

These stories of technological adventure shared much of their plots and inventiveness with the works of French writer Jules Verne, who created stories in the 1860s and 70s describing balloons, submarines, airships, and projectiles to the moon. Verne was serious about the technological potential described in his stories. For him, technological structures like submarines and airships could be created by courageous individuals who understood scientific principles and who knew how to translate understanding into products and actions. He called these heroes engineers.

Verne was an avid supporter of the idea of the power and value of technological achievements; nearly every work he wrote from his first published work in 1861 until his death in 1905 was based upon the application of scientific principles or known technological processes. In one of his best and most carefully written novels, Mysterious Island, Verne presents the Union officer Cyrus Harding as the model of technological idealism.

A trained engineer familiar with manufacturing processes and scientific principles, Harding confidently inspires his band of five fellow escapees from the Confederate capitol of Richmond as they arrive by balloon on the deserted shores of an uninhabited island in the south Pacific. Supplied with Harding’s knowledge, his comrades’ willing assistance, and an abundance of natural resources in easy access, the small crew of survivors determines to create its own industrialized society on the island. Harding’s engineering background provides the key to success; Jack Pencroft, a sailor and spokesperson for the group, describes Harding as a wielder of magic:

The engineer was to them a microcosm, a compound of every science, a possessor of all human knowledge. It was better to be with Cyrus in a desert island than without him in the most flourishing town in the United States. With him they could want nothing; with him they would never despair. (Verne 55)

Harding tells his fellow colonists as they prepare to remake their desert island, “my friends, this [pointing] is iron mineral, this is pyrite, this is clay, this is lime, and this is coal. Nature gives us these things. It is our business to make a right use of them. Tomorrow we will commence operations” (Verne 82).

Mere survival as a goal is soon forgotten by this group of technologists; their goal is to create a self sufficient technological society. Jack Pencroft, speaking on behalf of the group, says, “if you like, Captain [Harding], we will make a little America of this island! We will build towns, we will establish railways, start telegraphs, and one fine day, when it is quite changed, quite put in order, and quite civilized, we will go and offer it to the government of the Union” (Verne 73). And in fact the settlers construct a telegraph, an hydraulic elevator, and a ship, among other technological achievements. They eventually meet the dying Captain Nemo, maker of the Nautilus submarine, the central vehicle of 20, 000 Leagues Under the Sea, who has watched over their efforts. Their visit to him as he lies on his death bed on the Nautilus is presented as a kind of religious pilgrimage to a god like figure whose power is the power of applied technology.

If Verne’s plot ideas and inventions made an impact on readers, his philosophy must also have had an impact, however indirectly obtained. The power associated with the engineer as a manipulator of natural resources was indeed significant. If not all Verne’s novels emphasized the power of the engineer to the extent described in Mysterious Island, it was nevertheless apparent that that the men who built submarines, airships, and went to the moon were not merely adventurous; they were also intelligent, technologically skilled men.

We can easily appreciate the sentiments of the President of the American Society of Civil Engineers who, at a meeting of the society in 1902, told the assembled engineers that “in the future, even more than in the present, will the secrets of power be in [the engineer’s] keeping, and more and more will he be a benefactor of men.” As Samuel Florman says, “To be an engineer in 1902 . . . was to be a participant in a great adventure, a leader in a great crusade. Technology, as everyone could see, was making miraculous advances” (Florman 4).

Edward Stratemeyer and the other publishers of juvenile fiction series at the turn of century clearly recognized the powerful appeal of technology and made use of it in the dime novel publications, especially in the Frank Reade, Junior series (Dizer 87 92). They then introduced the figure of the inventor adventurer into their hard bound series books, first under the Great Marvel and Dave Dashaway series, begun in 1906 and 1909 respectively, under the Stratemeyer house name of “Roy Rockwood.” The Great Marvel series consisted of science fiction adventures, while the Dave Dashaway series described flying adventures. In 1906 the Stratemeyer Motor Boys series began. This series capitalized on the appearance of the automobile, which had made the first successful coast to coast trip across the United States only three years earlier, in 1903.

But the primary series which explored some would say celebrated the inventor and technical expert as hero was the Tom Swift series, the first five volumes of which appeared in 1910. This series, also produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate under the house name of Victor Appleton, resulted in 38 volumes published from 1910 to 1938, amounting to a total sale of over 20 million books (Dizer 12). The Swift household originally consisted of Tom, his widowed father, Barton Swift, an industrious inventor, and their housekeeper, Mrs. Baggert. Tom has a “natural love for machinery, and it hurt him almost as much to see a piece of fine apparatus abused as it did to see an animal mistreated” (Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, 28). Tom and his father share an interest in mechanical contrivances and are continually working on new inventions.

Tom’s first adventures occur in the immediate vicinity of the Swift residence in Shopton, in western New York state, and reveal Tom’s ability to solve relatively small scale mechanical problems and local mysteries simultaneously. His initial mechanical improvements are limited to motorcycle and motorboat engines and power transmission mechanisms. But once he becomes involved in airships and airplanes, the scope of his adventures enlarges significantly, and he travels around the world to test his inventions, solve crimes, or assist his friends. As each year passes, Tom and his associates construct more sophisticated flying machines and other modes of transportation which enable them to undertake more challenging adventures. Usually their new flying machines and other transportation devices reflect the latest technological developments of the day.

Just as Tom’s inventions are linked to the latest technological developments, so are Tom’s adventures linked to the latest scientific or political events. When airships are employed in the exploration of polar areas, Tom and his friends head north (Tom Swift in the Caves of Ice, 1911). When America becomes involved in World War I, Tom turns his energies towards assisting the Allied cause (Tom Swift and his War Tank, 1918; Tom Swift and his Air Scout, 1919). Usually, Tom’s interest is captured by the possibilities resulting from scientific or technological advances. For instance, when the first moving pictures were developed, Tom Swift and his Wizard Camera; or, The Perils of Moving Picture Taking appeared (1912). Then, when sound was added to the movies, this title was published: Tom Swift and his Talking Pictures; or, The Greatest Invention on Record (1928). In general, the Tom Swift books reflect the latest scientific and technological developments, of which there were many in the early years of the series.

Edward Stratemeyer seems to have patterned the character and activities of Tom Swift after a number of scientists and inventors of the day, including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. Although no particular individual served as the exclusive model for Tom Swift, one individual in particular deserves special recognition: the aviation pioneer, Glenn Curtiss. As John Dizer has convincingly argued, Tom’s origin is too much like that of Curtiss to be coincidental.

Like Curtiss, Tom comes from central New York State; the lake near which Tom lives, Lake Carlopa, is very much like the lake near Curtiss’s home of Hammondsport, Lake Keuka. Even the pronunciation is similar. And like Curtiss, Tom built a motorcycle, a motorboat, a seaplane, an airship, and a house on wheels. The events described in the third volume in the series, Tom Swift and his Airship, closely resemble events that occurred in Hammondsport in the summer of 1907, when Curtiss helped Captain Thomas Baldwin develop a powered, controllable airship. The character of John Sharp is similar to that of Captain Baldwin. The work of Curtiss undoubtedly caught the eye of Edward Stratemeyer because Curtiss’ success story was exactly the kind of success story described in current series books adventures, particularly those of the Horatio Alger series, which were popular at the time (Dizer 36 42).

The idea of the engineer or scientist serving as a model for juvenile series books was really a new idea in the early 1900s. Previous series heroes were patterned after explorers, outdoorsmen, or military leaders. Once scientific and technological developments attracted public interest, younger readers especially were interested in reading series books which had at their center current technological achievements and activities. The development of electricity and the gasoline engine led to the creation of the motorcycle, the automobile, the power boat, the airship, and the aeroplane, and these machines made possible (at least theoretically if not practically) rapid travel to parts of the globe not seen before. And initially, at least, the excitement of travel in these conveyances was associated with the individuals responsible for their creation the scientists, the inventors, the engineers.

The engineer especially was associated with these inventions, for it was the engineer who was the fabricator of these devices, and it was the engineer who had the knowledge of materials and methods. Tom Swift is descended from Cyrus Harding, of Verne’s Mysterious Island, for Tom knows how to make the things he needs primarily through his familiarity with the tools of the machine shop, a tool maker’s workshop newly established in the late 1800s. In the first volume of the series, Tom is described as making the implements he needs in his machine shop:

It took Tom the remainder of that day, and part of the next, to arrange the gasolene and spark control of his machine to his satisfaction. He had to make two small levers and some connecting rods. This he did in his own particular machine shop, which was fitted up with a lathe and other apparatus. (Motorcycle 78)

In 1910, the idea of a young boy having his own machine shop and making metal implements in it would have been exceptional.

The engineering and technological impetus was clearly felt in juvenile series books published from 1905 up to World War II. The titles of most of these series reflect the results of technology rather than the use of it, as shown in the following series titles:
Braden’s The Auto Boys (5 volumes, from 1908 to 1913)
Marlow’s The Big Five Motorcycle Boys (7 vols, 1914 18)
Langworthy’s Bird Boys (5 vols, 1912 14)
Grayson’s Motor Power Series (10 vols, 1909)
Houston’s Boy Electricians (2 vols, 1907, 1912)
Bonner’s Boy Inventors (6 vols, 1912 15)
Weir’s Great American Industries Series (5 vols, 1911 17)
Mears’ Iron Boys (4 vols, 1912 13)
Crump’s Jack Straw Series (civ eng) (2 vols, 1914 15)
Young’s Motor Boys (22 vols, 1906 24)
Arundel’s Motor Boat Boys (7 vols, 1912 15)
Hancock’s Motor Boat Club (7 vols, 1909 12)
Lincoln’s Motorcycle Chums (6 vols, 1912 14)
Payson’s Motor Cycle Chums (6 vols, 1912 15)
West’s Motor Rangers (6 vols, 1911 14)
Lawton’s Ocean Wireless Boys (6 vols, 1914 17)
Breckenridge’s Radio Boys (10 vols, 1922 31)
Chapman’s Radio Boys (13 vols, 1922 30)
Verrill’s Radio Detectives (4 vols, 1922)
Theiss’ Radio Stories (5 vols, 1920 24)
Bond’s Scientific American Boy Series (4 vols, 1905 14)
Godfrey’s Young Captains of Industry (3 vols, 1910 12)

Several series of books were devoted to engineering; one of these, H. Irving Hancock’s Young Engineer series, consisted of five volumes published from 1912 to 1920. This series depicts two young engineers as they travel around the American southwest participating in a variety of engineering projects including laying railroad tracks and building dams. According to the author, “while still in high school . . . [these two] became seized with a strong desire for careers as civil engineers,” and with “vastly more courage than training” they “went forth into the world to stand or fall as engineers” (Young Engineers in Mexico, 17). Emphasizing similar plot lines and motivation were other series written by Hancock, including the West Point and Annapolis series, in which military youths received an engineering education and put it to use in their travels.

In the late 1920s, series books generally began to turn away from engineering and invention stories in preference to mystery and adventure stories; the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew books are the best known examples of this trend. In the 1930s more sophisticated modes of travel came into use in the series books; aviation series books especially proliferated. Over 200 of these books alone were published from 1927 (the year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic) until 1935 (the year before the Spanish Civil War). But the youths who operated these flying machines were not generally involved in their construction. While they might know something about their operation and repair, they were not, like Tom Swift, responsible for their design or creation. Essentially, as the time had passed for inventors like Edison, Bell, Ford, and the Wright brothers to produce revolutionary devices from the resources of their machine shops, so had the time passed for series books describing these activities.

After World War II concluded, there was a concerted attempt to reestablish or return to the prewar ways of life, and juvenile series fiction was a good example of this urge. Two new series that started after the war initially found enthusiastic readers: Bruce Campbell’s Ken Holt series and John Blaine’s Rick Brant series. Ken Holt was a journalist by profession, and used his journalism interest as a means of becoming involved in adventures. But John Blaine’s Rick Campbell series was definitely established on a technological basis, and each volume in the series was advertised as another “Rick Brant electronic adventure.”

Like the Tom Swift series forty years earlier, the Rick Brant series involved the activities and adventures of scientists and inventors. Like Tom Swift’s father, Rick Brant’s father is technologically oriented. But where both Tom Swift and his father, Barton Swift, are self taught, Rick Brant’s father has been to school:

[Rick] hurried into the big front room that Hartson Brant used as an office. It was filled with books written in several languages, all of them on scientific subjects. One wall was covered with framed degrees stating that Hartson William Brant was an engineer, a Master of Arts, a member of numerous scientific societies, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Atomic Scientists. (The Rocket’s Shadow 2).

Like Tom Swift, Rick Brant participates in numerous adventures involving the use and fabrication of technologically advanced devices, in plot developments that take him to the farthest corners of the globe. While Rick Brant is knowledgeable about scientific developments and uses the latest electronic detection equipment, he does not design or fabricate these items; he is dependent instead on his father’s scientific organization for supplying the hardware. And after the first volume in the series, Rick’s father is no longer referred to as an engineer, but as a scientist.

The technological developments associated with World War II were the major factors in the decline in the perceived value of technology, and social commentators began to suggest, not for the first time, but in greater numbers, that technological achievement was not a panacea, and could not prevent personal and national unhappiness. Samuel Florman sets the date of the “beginning of the downfall of the engineer” at January 31, 1950, the date that President Truman announced that work would begin on the development of the hydrogen bomb (Florman 12). Certainly by 1960 the engineering profession fell into increasing disfavor after it was attacked in Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, in which Packard argued that engineers had been participating in the planned obsolescence of consumer products (Florman 13).

It is interesting to note that as our suspicion of technology has grown, our interest in series books has declined. And while some of this decline is certainly due to the rising impact of television and other electronic media on leisure time activities, it seems somehow that adventure in technology and adventure in juvenile reading are related, and that as the profession of engineering has come under attack, so has our interest in technology based juvenile series books. Perhaps what we have seen is the passing of the talented inventor who could, in the confines of a machine shop, construct a technological device not previously seen. Those days constituted a brief span of time, from about 1890 to 1915. In those days the engineer was truly “a leader in a great crusade,” an idealistic and innocent type in the Tom Swift mold.




Samuel Florman, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering.

John Dizer, Tom Swift and Company.