Many people might be surprised to learn that the word taser is an acronym. The (debatable) non-lethal weapon that causes temporary paralysis was invented in the 1970s by a man named Jack Cover (who worked for NASA at one point). Cover aimed to create a non-lethal weapon that could be used in situations in which firing a real gun would prove fatal, like in an airplane hijacking. The inspirations behind the invention were eclectic. First, he witnessed a hiker survive a run-in with an electric fence. And second, he recalled a fictional electric rifle used in his favorite science-fiction novel growing up. It’s this 1911 novel, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, that inspired the name TASER. And, this origin story of the Taser is darker than you may realize . . . and it has an eerie relevance in present day.
Tom Swift and his electric rifle
In the novel (one in a series by Victor Appleton), Tom Swift, a young inventor, develops an electric rifle that proves to be the money-maker and constant savior for a group of white American ivory hunters on an African elephant hunt. “Elephant shooting in Africa! My! With my new electric rifle . . . what a fellow couldn’t do in the dark continent!”
Early 20th-century novels, like this one, generally painted Africa as the place for wealthy white men to seek their fortunes, capitalizing on the exoticism and perils of “the dark continent,” and proving the supremacy of (white) Western civilization.
Racist undertones permeate the novel, despite encounters with “friendly blacks” peppered throughout. The new electric rifle is first used on a scarecrow that Swift’s “colored” servant Rad (full name Eradicate Sampson) stuffs for the test. Rad calls Swift “Massa Tom” and speaks in a dialect that clearly sets him apart: “Yo-all ain’t gwine t’hab no duel, am yo?”
Unsurprisingly, once Swift and his hunting party venture into the “dark continent,” the descriptions of the native Africans are even more discriminatory: from “friendly black men of a simple nature” to “black savages” and “red apes.”
Past meets present?
In the novel, Tom Swift’s electric rifle is an instrument of power and control to achieve seemingly conflicting ends; sometimes it’s aimed at the “red pygmies,” sometimes it saves a helpless village from stampeding elephants (and the villagers are “so thankful for what the white men had done for them”).
Today’s Taser is equally loaded with significance and contention: The device is meant to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the community, but it’s not without controversy. With the media paying more attention to racial bias in policing practices across the United States, reports that police use-of-force is disproportionately deployed against minorities are causing a stir. One such report indicates that “black people are three times more likely to have a Taser used against them by police than white people.” And, this is only worsened by the fact that at least 60 deaths have been attributed to the Taser, when it is supposed to be a non-lethal device.
In describing the Taser’s origins as a fictional weapon wielded by white men, Jamiles Lartey, a journalist for The Guardian, draws an unsettling connection between the “predominantly white police officers walking into predominantly black communities” and the novel’s civilizing whites who are intent on appearing as “saviors” in the wilds of the “dark continent.”
Of course, the racist origins of the word Taser do not make the device a “racist” or “racialized” weapon. But, researchers are increasingly examining the contexts of the Taser’s use now in policing and how race plays a role.