Advances in Electric Lighting

Elihu Thomson was born in England on March 29, 1853. He would later become one of the most prolific inventors in U.S. history and would join Thomas Edison to form one of the most pervasive companies in the world, General Electric.

Thomson grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and even in high school, he was keenly aware of the possibilities electricity held for the future. As a teenager he wrote, “There is scarcely a day passing on which some new use for electricity is not discovered. It seems destined to become at some future time the means of obtaining light, heat, and mechanical force.

Educated in science, Thomson became a science professor at Philadelphia's Central High School. In 1880, he and fellow science professor Edwin Houston established a company together, Thomson-Houston, to sell arc lamp systems. The two became quite successful and diversified into other electrical markets. In 1886 they purchased the Sawyer & Man Electric Co. and began making incandescent lamps under the Sawyer-Man patents.

In 1889, a few years after German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz made public his first work with invisible electro-magnetic waves, Thomson proposed their use for signaling through fog or even through solid bodies that would shut off light waves. At the time, fellow inventor Thomas Edison was advocating the use of direct current technology. However, Thomson’s theories were better received. His experiments with alternating current eventually led to the adoption of alternating current technology as the U.S. standard.

By 1890, Edison’s company, Edison General, and Thomson-Houston were two of the three biggest players in the American lighting industry. (Westinghouse Electric Co. was the third). In 1892, financier John Pierpont Morgan engineered a merger between the Edison interests and Thomson-Houston. The resulting company was named General Electric.

At GE, Thomson was considered a “scientific sage,” and he helped establish a tradition of regular product improvement and scientific research that led to the creation of GE's first research laboratory in 1900. Before the turn of the century, he also developed equipment for GE the production of x-rays, and demonstrated the use of x-ray pictures for diagnosing bone fractures and finding foreign objects in the body.

In a career that spanned five decades, 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. He also contributed to the invention of the high-frequency dynamo and the transformer. His creation of the recording wattmeter, a practical method of measuring the amount of electricity used by a home or business, brought him additional fame and fortune. Toward the end of his life he shared his knowledge and experience with students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an electrical engineering professor there and served as acting president of the university from 1920 to 1922. He died in 1937.