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The Word “Taser” Comes From a Young Adult Sci-Fi Novel

Massively popular at the time, the Tom Swift books have not aged very well

An electronic weapon from Taser International (Rick D'Elia/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The idea of an electric handheld weapon might not sound very futuristic today, and indeed, Tasers are increasingly popular among law enforcement. But about a century ago, the concept only existed on the pages of a science fiction novel about a boy inventor named Tom Swift. It would be decades before the real-life version of the weapon, first described in 1911 in Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, would be developed by a NASA physicist who found inspiration in the pages of the science fiction novel.

Jack Cover, the Taser's inventor, originally saw a need for such weapons in the 1960s, when airplane hijackings forced air marshals to carry firearms on planes. As Elaine Woo reports in The Los Angeles Times, Cover wanted to create a weapon that would help marshals take down would-be hijackers without potentially damaging or even crashing the plane. Such a weapon would resemble Tom's Swift's fantastical, bullet-free gun. 

At first, Cover’s invention used gunpowder to launch darts that could deliver an electric charge to a target up to 15 feet away - not exactly the explosives-free solution he was seeking. It wasn’t until he teamed up with brothers Tom and Rick Smith to come up with a compressed air-powered version that the device started to get popular. The Smiths' company, Taser International, has since sold more than 750,000 Tasers, reports Kashmir Hill for Forbes. Though the safety and use of the weapons has faced criticism in recent years, CEO Rick Smith tells Hill that Tasers have saved about 100,000 lives by offering a bullet-free defense.

The tidy telling of this story often concludes with a message about the power of science fiction and creativity to inspire real-life innovation, but that simplistic version obscures an uncomfortable fact, writes Jamiles Lartey for The Guardian: the Tom Swift novel is rife with racism. For example, Lartey writes:

Africa, in the context of the book, exists only as a frontier of underexploited resources ripe for the wealth accumulation of white men daring enough to attempt. “Elephant shooting in Africa! My! With my new electric rifle ... what a fellow couldn’t do in the dark continent!”

The people Swift and his companion encounter during their quest, Latery continues, are described "at various points as 'hideous in their savagery, wearing only the loin cloth, and with their kinky hair stuck full of sticks,' and as 'wild, savage and ferocious ... like little red apes.'" 

So while the device itself isn't racist, and neither was the reason Cover chose the name, there is value in acknowledging and confronting the prejudice hidden in names, Lartey writes​. As Erin Blakemore reported last month for SmartNews, in the case of Georgetown University renaming buildings that reflected the school's ties to the slave trade, such associations could bring about signficant changes. 

Editor’s note, December 4, 2015: After we published the article, Steve Tuttle, the vice president of strategic communications at TASER, submitted the following as an official response. We are including it here, verbatim: 

This is an inappropriate and desperate passive-aggressive relationship based on a story in The Guardian that parallels a contrived racist etymology to a registered trademark and word that should instead evoke the goal of all civil people – the dream of having a Phaser-like device of the future specifically designed to replace beatings by batons and acid sprayed into eyes – to stun only as a response-to-resistance.

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