Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about novels and novelists and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the novel urban legends featured so far.
NOVEL URBAN 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 Cover (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.
So what did Cover do with the idea?
In 1969, Cover 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.
Cover’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 Cover mostly had to sell his TASERS strictly to law enforcement agencies.
That changed in the early 1990s when brothers Rick and Tim Smith approached Cover about re-designing the TASER to make it fire through compressed air cartridges rather than gunpowder.
The three of them then founded a new corporation, Taser International (the “A” was explained away by presuming it was Tom Swift’s middle initial, making it Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.
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 (Cover 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!
The legend is…
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