Country of origin: England
Year came to U.S.: 1858
Education: Central High School in Philadelphia
Business: General Electric
(formerly the American Electric Company, 1880)
Headquarters: Boston, MA
2020 revenue: $79.6 billion
Worldwide employment: 184,000
Ranked 38 in the 2021 Fortune 500
Elihu Thomson was a multifaceted scientist, inventor and engineer who held nearly 700 patents.
He was one of the first to recognize the importance of industrial research. According to his biographer, the idea of an industrial laboratory dedicated to pure science research began in his office.
With only a high-school education, Elihu Thomson became a scientist, inventor, engineer and entrepreneur who was instrumental to the establishment of General Electric. He is considered one of the founders of the American electrical manufacturing industry and was among the first to recognize the importance of industrial research.
Elihu Thomson was born in Manchester, England, in 1853. His father’s work as a mill mechanic stirred an interest in Thomson in mechanical and chemical processes. After his father lost his job, the family immigrated to the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. At Philadelphia’s Central High School Thomson excelled in the sciences and, upon graduating, was offered a teaching position at the school in 1870 and became the chair of chemistry at age 23.
Between 1870 and 1880 Thomson started experimenting with electricity with fellow teacher Edwin J. Houston. In 1880, the arc lighting system Thomson designed attracted financial investments and led to the founding of the American Electric Company in New Britain, CT. A Massachusetts investment group bought controlling interest in the company, moved it to Lynn, MA, and renamed it the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in 1883. Thomson moved with it, and his research continued to spawn new products, expanding the company’s product line and fueling its growth.
In 1892, the General Electric Company (GE) was formed from the merger of Thomson-Houston Electric Company and the Edison General Electric Company, which was founded by Thomas Edison. The company’s continued emphasis on research was inspired by its founders, and the General Electric research laboratory was modeled on Thomson’s example. In 2015, Fortune named GE the ninth Most Admired Company in the world.
As a scientist, Thomson conducted groundbreaking research on the nature of electricity. As an inventor, he was awarded nearly 700 patents on generators, railways, electric welding, transformers, meters, steam engines, lamps and other machines. As an engineer, he applied his knowledge of electricity to systems such as X-ray tubes, ship propulsion, refrigeration, arc lighting, electric traction and arc welding. Many of his inventions are still in use today.
Thomson received many awards for his work including the Elliott Cresson, Edison and Faraday medals, and he was awarded honorary doctorates by universities including Harvard and Yale. He also served as acting president of MIT from 1920 to 1923.
Updated July 2021