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    Review of TOM SWIFT AND HIS PHOTO TELEPHONE by Victor Appleton


    Grosset & Dunlap, 1914

    Telephones, not in common use during the first book in this series, are now so common that young inventor Tom Swift decides they need improvement. What could be better, he wonders, than a photo telephone--a phone that transmits an image of the speaker at the same time as it transmits his voice? The invention proves difficult, with many failures as Tom attempts ever-more powerful selenium plates. Also difficult is answering Tom's father's question--what use would a photo telephone be? As an aside, I asked, and was asked a similar question when I worked for Nortel and helped market a device that allowed video telephony. The product was a failure--nobody wanted to send video of themselves talking. Swift's suggestion that the video be used for authentication--allowing voice calls to be made with more confidence is interesting, but it doesn't seem to have turned out to be a big draw. (In contrast, using phones to send pictures of other things--i.e., snapshots--has been quite successful as has using phones to send pictures of documents, i.e., fax machines.

    While Tom (and his buddy Ned) struggle with invention, their friend, Wakefield Damon has his fortune stolen by a swindler and then vanishes. Tom intends to set out on a rescue--as soon as he finishes his invention. Unfortunately for poor Mr. Damon, the invention takes a long time and the poor man stays vanished for a considerable period.

    When Tom and Ned visit Mrs. Damon and learn that she is receiving ransom demands for the missing Mr. Damon, they resolve to put the photo phone into use to catch the thief.

    As with the other Tom Swift books I've read, a large part of the interest in the story is in seeing the attitudes toward people, crime, and technology. Swift is always certain of his moral correctness, no matter who takes the opposite view. Fortunately, he only comes in contact with people who agree with him or who are really bad men, so this doesn't cause problems. Swift's attitudes toward other races is paternalistic. He seems to like Eradicate (Rad) Sampson, an African-American associate, but he certainly doesn't treat him as anything like an equal. Similarly, Koku, the South American giant Swift 'took into his service' is treated as a physically powerful being whose mind is so weak, he has to be told everything he is to do.

    For me, TOM SWIFT AND HIS PHOTO TELEPHONE took a lazy tack in resolving the real issues of the story--the disappeance and ransom of Wakefield Damon. Tom's decision that his invention was more important than saving his friend seemed odd. And when he finally got around to searching for his friend, it took an incredible string of coincidence (the car broke down at the right spot. Just at the right time, Mr. Damon broke free. Just when the kidnappers were escaping, a friend flew by in his own airship.) I think a few actual clues and investigation could have made the story stronger. Oddly, Swift rejected the one clue they did find--the match of the suit button they found in the stolen airship with a button remaining on one of the badguy's suits.

    I keep the Tom Swift series on my Palm PDA--and read it for a few minutes at a time when I'm waiting in line, watching Karen birdwatch, or otherwise have just a few moments to read. The Swift stories work well for this--they're not complex reading, they move right along, and it doesn't take more than a moment to remember where you were even if you've put the story down for a couple of weeks. They aren't great literature, but they are sort of fun, as well as anthropologically interesting.

    Two Stars

    Reviewed 10/10/07

    What do you think? Too generous? Too stingy? Or did I miss the entire point? Send your comments to Give me the okay to use your name and I'll publish all the comments that fit (and don't use unprintable language).

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