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Thomson, Elihu, 1853-1937



  • Existence: 1853 March 29 - 1937 March 13


Elihu Thomson, 1853-1937, was an English-born, American inventor and engineer, who served as acting President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) twice–from March 1920 to July 1921 and from November 1921 to January 1923. Thomson is more widely known for his collaboration with Thomas Edison in forming the company, General Electric (GE).

Educated in science, Thomson became a professor at Philadelphia's Central High School just as he turned 18 years-old [1]. In 1880, he and fellow science professor Edwin Houston established a company together, Thomson-Houston, to sell arc lamp systems [2].

By 1890, Thomas Edison’s company, Edison General, and Thomson-Houston were the largest players in the American lighting industry [2]. In 1892, the two companies completed a merger, creating General Electric. At GE, Thomson helped establish a tradition of product improvement and scientific research that led to the creation of GE's first research laboratory in 1900 [2]. Across his career, Thomson was granted 696 U.S. patents on various types of inventions related to electricity, including arc lights, generators, electric welding machines, and x-ray tubes [2].

At MIT, Thomson was a lecturer in electrical engineering from 1894 to 1937, and was a Life Member of the Corporation from 1898 to 1937 [1]. Much of his tenure as MIT’s acting president, which overlaps the presidency of Ernest Fox Nichols (who was incapacitated by illness), was conducted from his home in Swampscott, Massachusetts [1].

Thomson was married to Mary Louise Peck in 1884, until her death in 1916. They shared four children together. After Pecker's passing, Thomson would marry again to Clarissa Hovey. Elihu Thomson died on March 13th, 1937 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.

1. "ELIHU THOMSON, 1853-1937" MIT Libraries (October 2004) 2. "Elihu Thomson: Advances in Electric Lighting" Lemelson-MIT (nd)


Found in 4 Collections and/or Records:

Dugald C. Jackson papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0005
Abstract The collection documents the career of Dugald C. Jackson, a member of the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1907 to 1935. Correspondence, reports, and other materials document Jackson's years as head of the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering, his innovations in the department and the undergraduate curriculum, the establishment of a cooperative education program (course 6-A), and his work on MIT committees. His work as a consulting engineer and inventor is...
Dates: 1878 - 1952

Elihu Thomson papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0402
Scope and Contents of the Collection

The papers of Elihu Thomson include a journal (1874) with reference to Thomson's early activities at the Franklin Institute; patent information (1876-1902) relating to his work with Edwin J. Houston; and papers relating to American Electric (1880), Thomson Houston Company (1883), Thomson Electric Welding Company (1888), and General Electric Company (1892).

Dates: 1874 - 1909

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the President records

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: AC-0013
Abstract The collection documents the administration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the responsibilities and activities of the Institute's presidents between 1897 and 1930. This was a period of enormous growth and development of the Institute, which was chartered in 1861 and graduated its first class of undergraduates in 1868. There is correspondence about the proposed merger with Harvard University in 1904 and a proposed alliance in 1911. The purchase of land, the planning...
Dates: 1883 - 1941; Majority of material found within 1897 - 1931

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the President, records of Karl Taylor Compton and James Rhyne Killian

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: AC-0004
Abstract The collection consists of records created while Karl Taylor Compton (president 1930-1948) and James Rhyne Killian (president 1948-1959) served in the position of president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It contains correspondence, reports, memoranda, and committee materials about the activities of the presidents and their staff, the definition and evolution of policies, and the administration of the Institute. Records document Compton's early efforts to strengthen the...
Dates: 1930 - 1959