Elihu Thomson


Elihu Thomson
Elihu thomson ca1880.png
Born(1853-03-29)March 29, 1853
DiedMarch 13, 1937(1937-03-13) (aged 83)
NationalityBritish, American
Scientific career
FieldsElectrical engineering
Elihu Thomson signature.jpg

Elihu Thomson (March 29, 1853 – March 13, 1937) was an English-born American engineer and inventor who was instrumental in the founding of major electrical companies in the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

Early life

He was born in Manchester (England) on March 29, 1853, but his family moved to Philadelphia (United States) in 1858.[2] Thomson attended Central High School in Philadelphia and graduated in 1870. Thomson took a teaching position at Central, and in 1876, at the age of twenty-three, held the Chair of Chemistry. In 1880, he left Central to pursue research in the emerging field of electrical engineering.[1]

Electrical innovations

With Edwin J. Houston, a former teacher and later colleague of Thomson's at Central High School, Thomson founded the Thomson-Houston Electric Company. Notable inventions created by Thomson during this period include an arc-lighting system, an automatically regulated three-coil dynamo, a magnetic lightning arrester, and a local power transformer.[3] In 1892 the Thomson-Houston Electric Company merged with the Edison General Electric Company to become the General Electric Company.[4]

The historian Thomas P. Hughes writes that Thomson "displayed methodological characteristics in the workshop and the laboratory as [an] inventor and in the business world as [an] entrepreneur. He also chose to solve problems in the rapidly expanding field of electric light and power."[5] Thomson's name is further commemorated by the British Thomson-Houston Company (BTH), and the French companies Thomson SA (now Technicolor SA) and Alstom (formerly Alsthom).

Thomson was notable both for his emphasis on models and for the singular focus with which he pursued his research, with Thomson referring to his workshop as a "model room" rather than a laboratory. Between 1880 and 1885, Thomson averaged twenty-one patent applications annually, doubling that average between 1885 and 1890.

Upon the merger of Thomson-Houston Electric Company (his namesake company) to form General Electric in 1892, Thomson chose to keep his laboratory at Lynn, Massachusetts near Boston away from GE's New York headquarters to ensure his control over his research.[5] At the Lynn GE plant, he worked with Edwin Rice (later President of GE in 1913) and Sanford Moss (developer of the turbocharger) and Charles Steinmetz (who was located at GE headquarters in Schenectady, New York). After being asked to become a director of GE, Thomson rejected the offer preferring continued research to management.


Thomson was the first recipient of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers AIEE (now Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)) Edison Medal, bestowed upon him in 1909 "For meritorious achievement in electrical science, engineering and arts as exemplified in his contributions thereto during the past thirty years."; Thomson was also president of the organization from 1889–90.[6] Near the end of his life, Thomson's second wife Clarissa Hovey Thomson is reported to have said that she had to carry a basket with her to carry all of Thomson's awards and honors.[4]

In 1889 he was decorated by the French Government for his electrical inventions, being made Chevalier et Officier de la Légion d'honneur.[1] He received the honorary degree of A.M. from Yale (1890). Tufts College in 1892 gave him the degree of Ph.D., and in 1899 he received a D.Sc. from Harvard.[1]

Later life

He was a founding member, as well as the second president, of the International Electrotechnical Commission.

He served as acting president of MIT from 1920–1923.[7] Thomson, overcoming his distaste for management, accepted this role during a critical period for the university when it could not otherwise find a president.[3]

Thomson died at his estate in Swampscott, Massachusetts. The Elihu Thomson House in Swampscott was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1976 and serves as Swampscott's town hall.


Thomson held more than 700 patents. Thomson used his patents to bolster his company, Thomson-Houston Company, later General Electric.

  • U.S. Patent 261,790 Electric-Arc Lamp
  • U.S. Patent 283,437 Electric Lamp
  • U.S. Patent 297,200 Electric-Arc Lamp
  • U.S. Patent 302,963 Regulator For Dynamo-Electric Machines
  • U.S. Patent 335,159 System Of Electric Distribution
  • U.S. Patent 350,956 Automatic Compensator For Magnets
  • U.S. Patent 367,469 System Of Electric Distribution
  • U.S. Patent 360,122 System Of Electric Distribution
  • U.S. Patent 403,707 Process Of Electric Soldering
  • U.S. Patent 451,345 Method Of Electric Welding
  • U.S. Patent 461,144 Electric-Arc Lamp
  • U.S. Patent 461,856 Mode Of Making Tools
  • U.S. Patent 478,145 Electric-Arc Lamp
  • U.S. Patent 488,585 Electric-Arc Lamp
  • U.S. Patent 500,629 Electric Switch
  • U.S. Patent 508,647 Electric-Lighting System
  • U.S. Patent 501,114 Lightning-Arrester
  • U.S. Patent 502,788 Regulator For Electric Generators
  • U.S. Patent 518,291 Mode Of Cooling Electric Motors
  • U.S. Patent 735,621 Electrostatic Motor
  • U.S. Patent 1,078,225 Electrical Welding Of Sheet Metal

Personal life

He married Mary Louise Peck (born: 1 June 1856 in New Britain, Hartford County, Connecticut) on 1 May 1884.


  • Stuart Thomson b: 13 August 1886
  • Roland Davis Thomson b: 17 June 1888
  • Malcolm Thomson b.: 30 August 1891
  • Donald Thurston Thomson b.: 10 April 1893[8]

His second wife was Clarissa Hovey Thomson.[4]


  1. ^ a b c d "Elihu Thomson - Engineering and Technology History Wiki". www.ieeeghn.org. Retrieved 13 April 2018.
  2. ^ James Sheire (1975-07-30). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: Elihu Thomson House / Elihu Thomson Administration Building" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-06-22. Cite journal requires |journal= (help) and Accompanying one photo, exterior, from 1975 (301 KB)
  3. ^ a b "Elihu Thomson Eightieth Birthday Celebration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology" (The Technology Press: 29 March 1933)
  4. ^ a b c Fitti, Charles J., "Elihu Thomson", APS Library Bulletin, Winter 2001.
  5. ^ a b Hughes, Thomas "American Genesis" (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  6. ^ "Presidents of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE)". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 8 August 2011.
  7. ^ Elihu Thomson Papers, American Philosophical Society
  8. ^ "Camp Family Database". Wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com. Retrieved 21 February 2019.


  • Carlson, W. Bernard. Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Haney, John L. The Elihu Thomson Collection American Philosophical Society Yearbook 1944.
  • Hughes, Thomas "American Genesis" (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  • Thomson, Elihu. Address by Elihu Thomson on Physics in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science 48th Meeting August, 1899.
  • Woodbury, David O. Elihu Thomson, Beloved Scientist (Boston: Museum of Science, 1944)

External links

  • Wikisource logo Works written by or about Elihu Thomson at Wikisource
  • Elihu Thomson Papers
  • Elihu Thomson in Open Library