Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Elihu Thompson

The inventor and businessman Elihu Thompson (1853–1937) stands as a hero of capitalism for the hundreds of inventions that make all of our lives better. Thompson's prolific career included over 690 patents—only three people claim more. Alongside Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, he stands as one of the important pioneers of electricity.

Thompson invented the electric arc welder, the 3-coil dynamo (which helped create the first electric lighting system), and the electrostatic motor. His inventions also improved the automobile muffler, the X-ray, the lightning rod, and the refracting telescope. After studying the Caisson disease that plagued workers on the Brooklyn Bridge's underwater supports, he suggested that a mixture of oxygen and helium be used to avoid the "bends" that came from rapid decompression, a "discovery" for which every scuba enthusiast can be thankful. He also was the first to suggest using lead shielding to protect people from x-ray burns.

One of his earliest and most humble inventions also stands as one of the most important for human life and flourishing. Thompson invented the electric induction watt-meter, which measures the use of electricity by customers of power generating companies. Without this simple invention, it would have been impossible for power companies to distribute and sell the electricity that we all use today. Although improvements have been made, the basic concept behind the device still owes its genesis to Elihu Thompson.

Thompson's company, the Thompson-Houston Electric Company, eventually merged with the Edison General Electric Company to become today's General Electric company. Thompson went on to win the first Edison Medal from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1909 and served as president of MIT from 1920-23.

Wikipedia profile
Biography page
American Philosophical Society biography and profile


Cyril Morong said...

Great blog. I love it.

Candace Allen and Dwight Lee Allen wrote a 1996 Journal of Private Enterprise article called “The Entrepreneur as Hero.” It won the best paper award. Perhaps the main point of their article was:

“Just as the society that doesn't venerate winners of races will produce fewer champion runners than the society that does, the society that does not honor entrepreneurial accomplishment will find fewer people of ability engaged in wealth creation than the society that does.”

Speedmaster said...

Fun blog, glad I found it! ;-)