Wednesday 11 July 2012


File:TomSwiftMotorcycleSmallCropped.jpgLaser is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Taser is an acronym too, but has nothing to do with laser. It's named after a novel.

The taser was invented by a NASA scientist called Jack Cover who worked on it between 1969 and 1974. He had been inspired by a series of children's books about a hero called Tom Swift. Tom Swift is an adventuring sort of chap who goes around having adventures, sometimes in darkest, deepest Africa and sometimes on the Moon. There have been over a hundred Tom Swift books published since 1910 and they still seem to be going strong, there was even a Tom Swift board game once. However, the one that interests us is the tenth in the series which was published in 1911: Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle. In this one Tom Swift goes elephant hunting when he discovers that some of his friends have been taken hostage by a tribe of red pygmies. Luckily for the hero (but unluckily for the red pygmies) Tom has with him his brand new invention: a rifle that uses electricity rather than bullets. It can therefore be set to different ranges and different levels of lethality, so he can stun elephants, kill pygmies etc.

It was this invention that Jack Cover was attempting to imitate, and he even decided to call it Tom Swift's Electric Rifle, or TSER. However, as that didn't make a catchy acronym he decided to add a gratuitous initial and make it Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle, or TASER.



  1. Wow, that's fantastic!

  2. I have never heard of Tom Swift! (I am in my 60s!)

  3. Excellent! I had heard of Tom Swift - the children in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' play games based on Tom Swift stories, though not the one with the electric rifle.

  4. The Antipodean11 July 2012 at 23:49


  5. Judging from the book cover, brave Tom should be less worried about the pygmies than about the short-arse behind him, about to shoot him in the back. Lord, how I love the artwork on these ripping yarns. Clearly, no expense was encountered.
    Thanks for the story.

  6. There used to be a spate of "Tom Swiftisms"-
    "I've efinished the beans" said Tom, breezily.
    "I've not done all the shopping" said Tom, listlessly
    You get the idea.

    Victor Appleton also solved language problems.
    "Onward", Tom cried, in fluent Portugese

  7. The reference to Tom Swift is correct. I worked with Jack Cover when we started AIR TASER, Inc. now called TASER International, Inc. Jack also helped us on our first designs of the AIR TASER model 34000 which was a non-firearm version of an improved TASER electronic control device we made in 1994. Jack was a unique man and had a prolific life (see his obituary in the New Times at:

  8. Wow, thank you for the comment. I've never read a Tom Swift, but I may remedy that soon.

  9. Unbelievable!


  10. The first 25 Tom Swift books are public domain and can be found in several places, including Project Gutenberg.

    However, one is hard pressed to find more than a couple examples of the sentence structure in the "Tom Swifty" jokes that became so popular starting in 1963 in a craze that swept the nation. Instead of the joke structure of a quote followed by "said Tom" and an adverb, the books followed a common style of the period and avoided the overuse of "said" for every bit of dialogue. Instead each quote used another "verb of speech" such as replied, cried, murmured, etc. These expressed the emotion of the speaker and were not used for comedic effect, of course.

    Regarding the TASER, the invention's name did come from Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (Grosset & Dunlap, 1910). Apparently the first acronym TSER wasn't catchy enough so a middle initial of "A" was given to Tom that never appears in the books. It does evoke "Thomas Alva Edison" though so seems plausible to many who see it but don't know the books.

    For the actual workings of the device, the TASER is less like the "wireless bullets of electricity" in Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle than the underwater rifles in a now-obscure book called Under the Ocean to the South Pole (Cupples & Leon, 1907) by "Roy Rockwood". Both this and most of the Tom Swift books were ghostwritten by Howard R. Garis for Edward Stratemeyer and his Stratemeyer Syndicate.

    The rifles in Under the Ocean to the South pole shoot out barbed darts with trailing wires which conduct the stunning or lethal current. This is exactly the way the TASER works. For certain generations these books, from competing publishers, would be widely read into the 1930s so if Jack Cover saw Tom Swift he well could have seen the Great Marvel series.

    Of course both incarnations of electric arms owe an inspiration to the underwater electric guns in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870, 1873). They used small glass Leyden jars which discharged in the target.

    For more details on this, see this paper I wrote in 1999 or so:

    James Keeline

  11. Could you please explain more about underwater electric Guns