Today is “Grab Bag” day here at Entertainment Legends Revealed, where each week we feature a different area of the world of arts and entertainment (that is not featured on the other four days of the week, that is). Each week you will see grab bag legends from one of these following 25 “Grab Bag” categories (I might expand the list in the future, but for now, we’re sticking with these 25).
This is the second in a series of examinations of legends related to novels and their authors and whether they are true or false.
NOVEL LEGEND: The taser was invented based on a device in a Tom Swift novel (the taser was actually named AFTER the novel)
Edward Stratemeyer invented the Tom Swift series of novels in 1910, along with the pseudonym Victor Appleton (which would be used as the collective pen name of the series of authors who worked on the title) as the author of the book.
The original series of books ran from 1910 until 1941, and a subsequent revival of the series (starring Tom Swift’s son) took place from 1954 until 1971 (the book series has since been revived a number of times, but no revival was as influential as the first one).
Tom Swift was a self-taught genius who would often invent new devices that would help him resolve whatever the plot was of that particular novel (his inventions started off pretty straightforward and got more fantastical as time went on).
The series of novels was a major influence on a number of science-minded people (legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov cited the series as a major influence on his work).
One novel that was particularly influential was the tenth novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Electic Rifle, published in 1911.
In the novel, Tom and his friends go on an African safari, aided in great part by Tom’s invention of the titular device, a rifle that shoots electricity.
The book had a lasting affect on young Jack Stover (born 1920), and it stuck with him well into his adult years when he was working for NASA as a researcher (after years of working in the Aviation industry). Really, it is not too surprising, as the idea of a gun that shoots electricity is a pretty good one.
In 1969, Stover began working on the gun and he completed it in 1974. He named it directly after the source of his inspiration – Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle, or TSER.
The TSER was developed as a means to stun people through electricity, allowing people to avoid using bullets.
Stover formed a corporation named after his product, but after a little while, he tired of “TSER” as a name, so he added an “A” and it became TASER, and his company was Taser Systems, Inc. (the “A” was explained away by presuming it was Tom Swift’s middle initial, making it Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.
Stover’s originally TASER involved gun powder to fire the electric prongs that would be used to stun the intended subject, and that resulted in the TASER being categorized as a “firearm,” which meant that Stover mostly had to sell his TASERS strictly to law enforcement agencies.
That changed in the early 1990s when brothers Rick and Tim Smith approached Stover about re-designing the TASER to make it fire through compressed air cartridges rather than gunpowder.
That is the current way the TASER works (and upon its completion in 1994, it was, indeed, no longer categorized as a firearm).
The Smiths now run TASER International (Stover passed away in February 2009).
It’s amazing how the seemingly most random things can have great affects later on, a 1910 juvenile novel inspiring a weapon sixty years after the fact!
NOVEL LEGEND: Stephen King’s wife fished his work on the novel Carrie out of the trash and forced him to finish it.
STATUS: True Enough for a True
Another example of a matter of chance having a major effect on how a person’s life turned out was the case of Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie.
Carrie is best known for the film adaptation staring Sissy Spacek…
but it was also Stephen King’s first published novel…
It was his first published novel, but it was not his first finished novel, and in fact, it was almost never finished at all!
At the time he began working on Carrie, King was already a prolific short story writer, but he had no luck selling his first three finished novels. As a man searching for SOME sort of hook or inspiration, he decided to write a short story about a teenage girl after a woman chastised him for only writing about male leads. He decided to write about this troubled telekinetic teen to show that he COULD write a female lead.
However, after finishing a few pages, King soured on the story and threw it into the trash.
His wife, Tabitha (seen here with King at an event a few years back….)
fished the pages out of the garbage and told King he should give the work another try.
He agreed and soon he expanded the short story into a novel and soon that novel would be the first of his novels to sell, but certainly not the last!
I say “true enough” as the status because I often see takes on this story that involve much more grandiose versions of the story, like King finishing the NOVEL and throwing the NOVEL into the trash before his wife digs it out. One version of the story involves Tabitha fishing the finished novel out of the trash and submitting it without King’s approval or notice.
The real story, as I note above, is a good deal less provocative – she simply told him to give a short story (which he had only written a few pages, basically one scene) another try.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s quite cool of her, and it’s remarkable how it all ended up, but as cool of a story as it is, I think it’s worth noting that the “real” story is a good deal more subdued than some of the fantastical version of the story.
NOVEL LEGEND: The Brontë sisters were forbidden by the their father from eating meat.
The three Brontë sisters (not counting their two older sisters who died in their youth) were all novelists in the early 19th Century (here they are in a painting by their brother, Branwell)
The youngest, Anne, wrote a couple of novels, but her two sisters each wrote one of the most well-known and beloved novels of Western Literature.
The middle sister, Emily, wrote Wuthering Heights…
while the eldest, Charlotte, wrote Jane Eyre, which is one of the most popular novels of all-time (and was the most popular novel of the three sisters back then, as well).
Born over a stretch of four years between 1816 and 1820, all three sisters were dead by 1855, with the oldest of the three, Charlotte, living the longest (she died giving birth to her child at the age of 38 – both child and mother died).
What’s fascinating is that so much of the story of their life has been dictated by pretty much one biography, an 1857 biography of Charlotte, published two years after her death. Written by Elizabeth Gaskell, this bio formed the foundation for what the general public knew about the Brontës for over a century.
Which is fair enough, of course, except that Gaskell, as it turned out, was not a particularly faithful biographer!!
One of the more notable aspects of Charlotte’s life that Gaskell decided to ignore was the deep attraction that Charlotte had for Constantin Heger, the married man who ran the boarding school where both Charlotte and Emily taught (Charlotte taught English and Emily taught Music). Gaskell felt that such information would be too damaging to Charlotte’s reputation, especially since Charlotte’s father (and her husband, for that matter!) were still alive.
Really, though, it was Charlotte’s reputation that Gaskell was most concerned with, since she effectively invented stories about Patrick’s rearing of the girls (Patrick’s wife, Maria, the mother of the girls and Branwell, died in 1825) that do not reflect too well on Patrick.
But it appears as though Patrick was willing to go along with the stories (he helped Gaskell with the biography – Patrick actually ended up outliving ALL of his six children – and he was thirty-nine when Charlotte was born!) because it appears that this was what Charlotte wanted (her sisters predeceased her, so they were not as concerned with their “legacy”).
You see, the reaction to the novels of the sisters involved a good deal of public interest, but also a goodly amount of public backlash against the somewhat unsavory nature of the novels, which were fairly controversial at the time. So the way to come up with an “excuse” of sorts for their novels, the sisters formulated the myth that they were raised in an extremely strict home and that they were just simple country women who did not know enough to be chastised.
Gaskell ran with this approach, depicting the sisters home life as downright tragic. It was here that Gaskell introduced the notion that Patrick would not let the sisters eat meat – a notion that persisted for over a century, until modern scholars found references to the sisters writing in their journals about being served meat.
It’s truly fascinating to see how a myth was created about their lives.
Lucasta Miller unpacks almost all of these legends in her book about the sisters, The Brontë Myth…
It’s well worth a read.
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com
By the way, sorry to those following the blog on your RSS readers – when I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save draft,” I did not know that it would be permanent on your RSS feed. I’ll do my best in the future to avoid having such a mistake happen again.