Elihu Thomson Biography (1853-1937)

electrical engineer

Scarcely known today, Elihu Thomson was arguably the most important early contributor to the development of electricity as a power and light source. An outstanding scientist as well as a brilliant engineer, Thomson applied his insights in theoretical science to practical devices in a way that few others have.

Thomson was born in Manchester, England, on March 29, 1853, and his family moved to Philadelphia five years later. The son of an engineer and machinist, Thomson was tinkering and inventing before he had even reached his teens. Keenly interested in electricity, Thomson constructed a crude electrostatic device from a wine bottle at the age of eleven, as well as experimented with telegraphy, electromagnets, and other electrical devices.

Shortly after graduating from Central High School, Thomson became a faculty member there, and began working with another teacher, Edwin J. Houston. Appointed professor of chemistry and mechanics in 1876, Thomson spent his time lecturing on electricity at the Franklin Institute, building lenses and optical devices,and constructing new electrical motors. It was around this time that Thomson made what was almost certainly the earliest demonstration of the existence and behavior of radio waves. Just a few years before, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) had established a theory that finally showed the relationship of electricity to magnetism. One of the predictions of Maxwell's theory was that the oscillation of an electric charge would produce an electromagnetic pulse, composed of long waves, that traveled out from its source. Thomson generated such waves, passing them through brick walls and floors, ten years beforeHeinrich Hertz's (1857-1894) independent discovery of radio waves would leadto the invention of the radio receiver. Apparently not seeing the potentialof his radio experiments (the kind of blunder he seldom made), the prolific Thomson moved on, more interested in projects to make electrical power generation and lighting practical.

Toward this end, Thomson collaborated with Houston on an improved arc lighting system. Thomson constructed a number of devices, and with the help of financial backers, Thomson and Houston opened a factory in 1879. Their successfularc lighting predated Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb and launched Thomson on a commercial career. Resigning his position as professor, Thomson began to devote all of his time to his new enterprise.

Before long, Thomson expanded their lighting company, known as Thomson-Houston Electric, into the manufacture of incandescent lights, motors, dynamos, andeven electric trains. In 1892 the Thomson-Houston Electric Company merged with the Edison General Electric Company to become General Electric, becoming the largest manufacturer of electrical devices in the world. Thomson stayed with the company as an engineer and consultant for the rest of his life, whilepouring out invention after invention. By the time he died in 1937 he had accumulated a remarkable 700 patents.

Thomson's impressive list of inventions includes the watt-hour meter (used tomeasure electricity consumption), the first method of welding metals with electricity, a high-frequency generator, a type of objective lens for a refracting telescope, a constant-current transformer, an electrically-operated pipeorgan, a cream separator, a type of lighting rod, and an alternating currentrepulsion motor which helped introduce the use of AC as a source of power.

After x-rays were discovered in 1895, Thomson worked on improving the designof x-ray devices, devising a means of producing stereoscopic x-ray photographs. He is even credited with first suggesting that, in order to avoid suffering the bends, divers working at great depths (or workers deep in caissons) should use a helium-oxygen air supply rather than one of nitrogen-oxygen.

User Contributions:

Good question. But, to start with, renizcoge that twhatever we do,it will be agradual transition. Electric cars will be on the market before the end of the decade but only a few thousand a year at first and then build up volume over time. So there's time to build new power generating plants.But there are other options than just large (traditional technology) power plants. To take one example, solar power (I'll use this because its the one I know best but here are others: wind, tidal, geothermal,etc).In California, more power is already needed and soon. But solar power can supply (estimates) up to 30% of the demand and even more of the peakdemand (that occurs when its hot and sunny when solar is at its most efficient). That's a BIG chunk of the power requirements. And it has the advantage that it can be buildt quickly installing solar panels takes days, not years and as market demand builds (its already rising rapidly) the scale of new power generation rises with it. Point is, we get the power starting more or less immediately.The real key is going to be developing an infrastructure that "caters" to electric cars the way our oil/gas/service station industry caters to gasoline powered cars now. And that will take time but again, it will be years before we have enough electric cars to matter, so in a sense its a "self-correcting" problem. Someof this infrastructure is already under development. Here's one model of how some of that infrastructure might work in practice (and, for the sake of arguement, assume its all solar power, weather permitting):You've left your car plugged in to recharge sunday afternoon after the family got pack from church. So, Monday morning, its at full charge. But bad news the traffic is a mess, so by the time you get to work, you're down to half charge. No problem. The owner of the parking deck (enterprising soul) has installed sollar arrays on the roof and plug-ins (with meters to tote up the fees) for customers. You park plug in your car and its recharged long before you get off work. And the rest of the week works pretty much the same. It's not a 100% solar system but 80% of your power at home and from your car comes from solar panels and while paying for those home solar panels was a push a few years before, they've long since returned the investment in lower energy costs. Between that ant the savings on transportation (even the electricity you buy from the parking concession is cheaper than gas used to be) you pay half for energy you did in 2007.Granted, this may take 20 years but that or something similar is the way things are headed. Almost makes you feel sorry for the oil companies. Almost!

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