Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout (Or, The Speediest Car on the Road)


Tom Swift - boy inventor

Tom Swift – boy inventor (photo © Ted Dillard)


Tom gets waylaid by highwaymen (photo © Ted Dillard)

Long story short, we were rummaging around the bookshelves over the holiday and were re-acquainted with the venerable Tom Swift series.  If you say you remember that from your childhood, you’re not talking about when they were new – the books were published in 1910.  More likely, like us, you remember then from your grandfather’s bookshelf, possibly treasured volumes from when he was a child.

In any case, these stories of a Mr. Tom Swift, teenage inventor, (explorer and adventurer, as well), with his well-appointed shop and his ever-supportive father, not to mention rivals, spies and thieves, afford a unique glimpse into what was considered ordinary, as well as extraordinary life of the times.  Enter, the electric automobile.

Responding to a competition to design, build and race an electric car in an endurance contest put on by The Touring Club of America:

“Then how are you going to take part in the prize contest? Besides, electric cars, as far as I know, aren’t specially speedy.” (Tom’s father)

“I know it, and one reason why this club has arranged the contest is to improve the quality of electric automobiles. I’m going to build an electric runabout, dad…”

Sound familiar?  No, not the part about the boy arguing with his father, the part about electric cars and speed?  Efforts to improve the technology of EVs?  There’s more that will ring a familiar bell to any EV enthusiast throughout the book:

“Where is your new battery, Tom?” (Mr. Damon)

“Out in my shop, running yet if it hasn’t been frightened by the airship smash,” replied the lad, somewhat proudly. “It’s an oxide of nickel battery, with steel and oxide of iron negative electrodes.”

“What solution do you use, Tom?” asked Mr. Swift. “I didn’t get that far in questioning you before the crash came,” he added.

“Well I have, in the experimental battery, a solution of potassium hydrate,” replied the lad, “but I think I’m going to change it, and add some lithium hydrate to it. I think that will make it stronger.”

Lithium-potassium batteries?  Nickle Oxide?  What?  May we remind you, this is a children’s book, and it was written by a children’s author in 1910?   How about this passage?


“That’s true, but it’s because they didn’t have the right kind of a battery.” (photo © Ted Dillard)

…kind of puts the history of the electric car into perspective, doesn’t it?  We always consider anything but a lead-acid battery to be a product of at least the late years of the 20th century, if not the 21st.  Hardly did we consider nickel, lithium and potassium being compounds being tossed around as far back as the turn of the last century.  …as well as make us wonder where we’d be today if inventors like our boy Tom had kept pushing the envelope of battery chemistry back in 1910.  Rather than how it went.

You can enjoy the full text of this book on the Project Gutenburg site:  Title: Tom Swift and his Electric Runabout or, The Speediest Car on the Road – Author: Victor Appleton, or, as we did, leaf through the yellowed pages of the original volume – not a lot of money, found on auction sites, and well worth curling up with on a cold winter evening.  …to think about what was, in EV history, and what could have been.

We won’t spoil it by telling you if he won the race.  But yes.  He gets the girl.

Category: General

16 responses to "Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout (Or, The Speediest Car on the Road)"
  1. mhpr262 says:

    Oh, if Mr Appleton could have the chance to test drive a P85D, if only for five minutes … I wonder what people will be driving in 2114?

    1. Anon says:

      No one drives in 2114. The Central AI takes care of all that… 😉

      1. Jouni Valkonen says:

        Like we here in the discussion board already today, in 2114 people can also travel controlling their avatar anywhere in the world. Therefore people can travel anywhere on Earth with speed of light.

        And with predictive algorithms, people can even control their avatar in real time in other locations such as in Mars, where there normally is significant delays due to distance.

        1. Anon says:

          A Quantum Entangled Communication Network fixes the real time issue…

          1. Priusmaniac says:

            We are not quiet there yet, that is why there are some interesting advantages for the Moon too. The other one being a real possibility of fourth night cash generating holidays.

  2. Anon says:

    Love the illustration of his runabout! No grill, and it has lots of character…

    Lithium being mentioned in connection to EVs, back in 1910, seems rather prescient.

  3. Leptoquark says:

    We are in the process of recapitulating many aspects of early electric cars. The only thing that is really new is battery chemistry, safety and speed. Almost everything else in the EV ecosystem was around in the early 1900’s.

    Check out

    1. Anon says:

      Great link! Very well researched. The photos of the ‘ol “knob and tube” wiring, bring back memories…

      Funny, GE still makes EVSE’s… 😉

    2. Ted Dillard says:

      Tom had charging (and battery swapping) figured out too:
      “And I’m going to have it fixed so I can take current from any trolley line, as well as from a regular charging station. My battery will be capable of being recharged very quickly, or, in case of need, I can take out the old cells and put in new ones.”

  4. GRA says:

    Edison added lithium hydroxide to his NiFe battery (which is basically what the battery described in the book is), as it improved the perforamnce. He neither knew or cared why that was. He developed the battery for EVs, and after an initial false start (where he had to recall all the batteries in use and went back into the lab for another couple of years), he re-released them in around 1909 IIRR. Unfortunately, while the NiFe battery had a somewhat higher specific energy than the Lead-acid cells it was competing against (the Exide ‘Ironclad’ L-A was introduced as competition), the NiFe batteries were more expensive, performed poorly in low temperatures, and although very long-lived and tolerant of abuse, gassed a lot under charge, requiring frequent replenishment of electrolyte.

    They were an improvement over the preceding generation of L-A, but not enough to make BEVs successful. They got a lot of use in railroad cabooses, though. I got to play around with a set once that someone was planning top use off-grid, that were at least 20 years old and still going strong. See for some details, and Edison’s problems developing the battery are also described in Seth Fletcher’s book “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, electric Cars and the New Lithium Economy”. “

    1. Ted Dillard says:

      GREAT information, thanks!

  5. Jesse Gurr says:

    “Narrowly he watched his electric power. Slowly he saw it dropping. Would he have enough left to finish out the race? He feared not. The hours were passing. Still there was a hundred miles yet to go twenty circuits of the track.”

    The race was 500 miles long. He did 400 miles on one charge. Too bad this isn’t real because that would have been a game changer if a car could go 400 miles on one charge in race conditions.

    1. Jesse Gurr says:

      I also like this part:
      “The car was now moving rapidly, and there was a smoothness and lightness to its progress that was absent from a gasolene auto. There was no vibration from the motor.”

      Notice how gasoline is spelled? Ah, the good ‘ol days. Pretty good book, for 1910.

  6. GRA says:

    For those interested in just what goes into one of these batteries, here’s a modern hobbyist’s recipe:

  7. Gadge says:

    Anyone know why Tom’s Runabout is a right-hand drive?