David Nightingale: Elihu Thomson (3/29/1853 - 1937)

Dec 10, 2017

Elihu Thompson, circa 1880
Credit Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

From time to time, in the history of science, especially when reading about giants like Edison, one comes across the name Elihu Thomson, and, if one passes through Swampscott, MA, there's a brick Georgian Revival national historic building that was his home for 40 years.

Who was he?

He was born in 1853, and was 5 by the time he arrived in Philadelphia. His parents were of English and Scottish background, and the father found work in a sugar machinery company. They lived near the rail yards in Philadelphia, and according to the prolific science writer David O.Woodbury, his talented mother was energetic about her brood of a dozen children. In fact the lively Mrs. Thomson once waited up all night for a predicted meteor shower, and, when the shower began, ran inside the house to wake the children to watch. [Ibid p.14]. Once, when teaching Elihu's older brother the alphabet she said "soon it will be your turn". But Elihu replied "I know it now, forwards and backwards." (He had taught himself the whole thing while looking on at his older brother's lessons) [ref.1, p.5].

Thomson, who died in 1937, was no one-trick-pony. It's impossible to describe everything he invented in a short essay, but by the time of his death he had over 690 patents, and had been co-opted, despite his distaste for administration, as acting president of MIT between 1920-24.

He never went to college per se, and he was known for his many inventions concerning arc lights, regulators, 3-coil dynamos, electric welding, wattmeters, alternating currents and more, mostly in the then-new field of electricity. Today we take electricity for granted of course, but when Elihu was a boy, during the time of the Civil War, little was known. Lighting was usually by gas lamps, and there was no practical telephone until the mid-1870s.

During Civil War years school gang fights were often serious. Once, 10 year old 'Lihu -- his friends called him that -- dashed home with lime having been sprayed into his eyes. His mother ran her tongue over the burning eyeballs and licked the lime away, saving his sight and reading to him while he lay recovering.

Academically ready for Philadelphia's Central High School by 11 he was not allowed to enter, by their rules, before the age of 13, and so he spent time studying and experimenting at home, where his mother encouraged him in the use of their attic for a lab. He built a wine-bottle electrostatic generator at the age of 12 [photo, ibid, p.50], and experimented with lenses and a camera. Astronomy, biology, magnetism, heat, machinery were all to be learned about, particularly by experiment. When he graduated from the High School at 17 he was offered the position of teacher of Chemistry and Physics, and before long he and his former teacher, Edwin Houston, were working in the evenings inventing devices, especially in electricity. Thomson wrote: "not infrequently I would leave home after breakfast and not eat or drink anything until I got home again at eleven in the evening... I've always believed in long hours. It's the only way to get things done." [Ibid, p.49].

Rich investors soon sought him out to exploit his inventions. It is interesting to look up photographs of his arc-lamp feed-mechanism, 2 and 3 coil dynamos, lighting transformers, a welding transformer -- and many others.

His work ultimately left him with the Franklin Medal, the Faraday Medal, the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, the Edison Medal from the IEEE, the Rumford Medal, the 1889 Great Prize from the Paris Exposition (he was then 36) -- and in fact there are too many from all over the world to list here. [Ibid,p.351]

With his first wife he had four sons, and they often camped and hiked in the Adirondacks and Catskills. After 32 years of happy marriage his wife died, which was during WW1. At 70 he married again, and began to travel, dying at the age of 83.

Elihu, a contemporary of Edison, was born into a place and time of great scientific discovery, to parents who encouraged his ambitions, and we owe much to this rather unheralded scientist/inventor.               


1.  "Beloved Scientist; Elihu Thomson, A Guiding Spirit of the Electrical Age", by David O.Woodbury; McGraw-Hill Book Company, NY, (1944).

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at NewPaltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.