Blast from the past: 100 years of Tom Swift fun in new exhibit at UCSD


By Emily DeRuy


This June and July, The UCSD Arts Library will celebrate the Tom Swift Centennial with an exhibit of artwork, books and other treasures featuring the hero of juvenile literature.

For the last 100 years, the fictitious Swift, a young inventor and adventurer, has encouraged generations of children to explore the world around them through science and technology. The celebration will also include two live events presented as 1930s radio station dramas, with guests enhancing the appearance of an old-school live broadcast by acting the part of the studio audience.

Scott Paulson, the outreach coordinator at the UCSD Arts Library, organized the exhibit as a follow-up to last summer’s highly successful Nancy Drew event, which also featured live performances.

An award-winning soundscape artist who has been heard on radio, television and film, Paulson developed original performances for both exhibits.

“The Swift books parallel the Golden Age of Radio, so we couldn’t resist doing a radio drama,” he said on the phone from Paris, where he is performing at the Black France Film Festival. “It’s story time with a twist! We’ll even have themed refreshments!”

On June 14, the library will host a re-enactment of “Tom Swift and his Airship.” Published in 1910, the story sees Tom embark on a voyage in an airplane-dirigible balloon hybrid called The Red Cloud.

The other live event, on July 16, will be based on “Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X.” Written in 1961, the story centers around Tom Swift Jr. and his struggle to protect his Space Friends while at the same time fending off attempts by the Eastern Bloc nation of Brungaria to halt his efforts. This show will feature actors from San Diego’s Write Out Loud performance group.

Both the Nancy Drew and Tom Swift series were published by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which encouraged readers to pursue careers in science and technology.

Many of Tom’s fictional inventions have anticipated actual inventions. The Taser was dreamt up by an avid Tom Swift reader, and owes its name to the young inventor. “It stands for Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle,” Paulson said.

He is collaborating with renowned Tom Swift scholars to produce the exhibit. Last year, he invited James and Kim Keeline, who are spearheading a 100th Anniversary Tom Swift Convention, to the Nancy Drew show, knowing he would be planning a Tom Swift-themed exhibit the following summer.

“After seeing the Nancy Drew radio drama live performance with Scott’s masterful work with sound effects machines of various kinds, we knew we wanted to do something similar with Tom Swift stories for our convention,” said James Keeline, who has written more than 50 articles and presentations focusing on the fictitious inventor. The second live event at the Arts Library will kick-start the 100th anniversary celebrations organized by the Keelines.

Paulson will perform his two Tom Swift compositions at the Keeline’s convention, and James will speak at both live events at the Arts Library.

Both men were introduced to Swift through their fathers.

“My dad had a few books from the first series,” said James Keeline. “Over many years, I added to the collection, and today I have a complete collection of 105 different titles.”

Paulson’s father was also an avid Tom Swift reader as a young boy. “Swift was a big favorite of my now 83-year-old father, and this project is partially a tribute to him,” he said. “I’m so glad my father is around to see the exhibit and hear the two radio dramas that I’ve produced especially for this exhibit.”

If you go

UCSD Arts Library Tom Swift Centennial Exhibit

  • Where: West Wing of Geisel Library at UCSD
  • When: June 3–July 31
  • Cost: Free
  • Live events: Noon, June 14 “Tom Swift and his Airship”; 4 p.m. July 16 “Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X”
  • Contact:

100th Anniversary Tom Swift Convention

  • Where: Sheraton Mission Valley
  • When: July 16-18
  • Cost: $15-45
  • Includes: Tour of Balboa Park museums, presentations, historical displays, and visit to Arts Library exhibit for second live performance
  • Contact: