Imagine if I told you that more than a century ago a teenage inventor created an electric car that could travel hundreds of miles on a single charge, recharge fully in just a few minutes, and have a top speed of 100 mph or more. You’d probably say that was science fiction. You’d be correct, too, because that is the plot of Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout; Or, The Speediest Car on the Road, published in 1910.
Tom Swift was the creation of author and publisher Edward Stratemeyer, first appearing in a 1903 book, Shorthand Tom the Reporter: Or, the Exploits of a Bright Boy. Seven years later, Stratemeyer would reintroduce Tom as a boy inventor, the son of a successful inventor in his own right, in a series of books featuring Tom’s technical inventions. It was the age of invention, and self-taught industrialists like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were role models for many boys. The first half of the 20th century also saw the rise in popularity of serialized youth fiction, particularly series like the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and of course, Tom Swift. The original Tom Swift series has been reprinted, expanded, and updated; and just this summer, Simon & Schuster debuted the sixth Tom Swift series, Tom Swift Inventors’ Academy with The Drone Pursuit.
The first Tom Swift tome was Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle, followed by books featuring his motor boat, airship, submarine, and then, the subject at hand, the electric car.
While Tom’s electric car was a bit fantastical for 1910, if he made it today, it would be close to state of the art. It could travel 300 to 400 miles on a single charge, go at least 100 miles per hour, and recharge in 25 minutes.
In the book, Tom builds the car to compete in a 500-mile race sponsored by an organization hoping to improve electric cars. While Tom’s runabout is science fiction, the book otherwise presents a fairly accurate view of what motoring was like in 1910. Neither electric cars nor those powered by gasoline or steam were particularly reliable, so tools and spare parts were essential traveling items. Stripped gears and flat tires were commonplace. Electric cars, in particular, had challenges like long charging times, short ranges, and low power.
As for the technical details of Tom’s EV, Stratemeyer seems to have been at least aware of then-current (no pun intended) battery technology. An allusion is made to “a New Jersey man” who invents a new kind of storage battery. That’s likely a reference to Thomas Edison, who had developed a new nickel-iron storage battery that Henry Ford actually experimented with in an electric Model T.
Stratemeyer may have had some passing familiarity with the Edison batteries, but Tom’s particular battery chemistry simply wouldn’t work. Tom’s initial battery is described as “an oxide of nickel battery, with steel and oxide of iron negative electrodes,” with an electrolyte solution of potassium hydrate. While such a battery wouldn’t generate current, it’s interesting that Tom improves the batteries’ performance by adding “lithium hydrate” to the electrolyte, since lithium is a critical element in the making of today’s EV batteries.
One very real aspect of electric cars is touched upon—that of electrical safety. When modern hybrids and EVs first hit the market, first responders and other emergency personnel had to be trained in how to de-energize electric cars in case of wrecks. In the book, Tom is almost fatally electrocuted when a rival sabotages his car’s wiring.
The car itself is a four seater: two seats for the driver and a passenger (required by the race organizers) and two removable seats behind for passengers. A “mid-engine” design, the electric motor is mounted under the middle of the car, along with one set of batteries. Additional battery packs are mounted under the rear seat and in the front “trunk” of the runabout. The batteries are also swappable, in case there isn’t enough time for recharging. The front end is pointed, to cut the wind better, with a large, centrally mounted headlight. Tom decides to paint his oddly shaped car an eye-catching purple.
Instrumentation changes during the book as Tom develops and tests his car, but as raced, the EV has a fairly complete set of gauges, a speedometer, an ammeter to tell how much current is being used, and a battery charge indicator.
Tom decides to give his EV a two-speed transmission, something some modern EV makers implement to better take advantage of electric motors’ power at high rpm. The car even has an anti-theft device in the form of a removable connector that disables the runabout.
Tom also designs some kind of new fast charger to go with his fast-charging batteries.
Speaking of recharging, one of the rules of the race is that the cars have to be driven to the competition. On the way there, because of a plot twist, Tom and his companion run out of power far from a recharging station. Fortunately, there’s an electric trolley line nearby, so Tom rigs up some cables and contacts to recharge the batteries from the electric railroad’s third rail, promising to pay the trolley company for the power he uses.
That part isn’t fiction, by the way. In the early days of electric cars, some drivers would carry wooden poles with which they could hoist contacts and cables to “borrow” electricity from the streetcar wires.
One role that science fiction plays is to postulate the possible, which has often inspired scientists and inventors to bring fiction to reality. Written at a time when most motorcars, no matter how they were powered, could barely make a 50-mile trip without a serious breakdown, it’s fascinating how accurately Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout predicted the performance of modern electric cars.