How tinkering led a teacher to become one of the greatest inventors of all time
Happy Friday from Bengaluru, India!
On most days, I find YouTube recommendations to be really annoying and completely missing the mark. Today, I was pleasantly surprised and went down one of the most fun rabbit holes in education I’ve been on in a long time.
Here’s a 3-minute mini-interview titled “Man Born in 1853 talks about childhood in the 1860s” that was filmed in 1932.
If you’ve watched it and did some research, you’ll immediately notice three things
The 1860s was really really long ago. Almost 160 years ago. Radar, Gramophones and Coca-Cola didn’t exist yet.
The “Man” is actually Elihu Thomson, a prolific inventor in the electrical engineering industry.
Elihu founded the Thomson-Houston Electric Company which went on to merge with the Edison Electric Company to become General Electric that we know today as GE.
Here’s a small excerpt about him
“With interests that ranged from the technical (electrical meters, high-pressure steam engines, dynamos, generators) to scientific (fused quartz optics, X-rays), Thomson acquired over 700 patents in his career, and in 1882, founded one of the early electrical corporations in the United States, the Thomson-Houston Company, which merged with the Edison Electric Company in 1892 to form the General Electric Company. The Thomson Papers are a massive and nearly comprehensive collection documenting the wide range of Thomson's scientific and technical interests from his electrical experiments, inventions, and patents, to his interests in astronomy, geology, and medicine, as well as his role in the development of two major corporations involved in electrification, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company and General Electric Company.” (Source - Lemelson Center)
A lot of this, however, started at a much younger age, with a keen interest in tinkering with electricity.
A timeline of events
Between the ages of 11 to 13, he was ready for high school but was too young to join. So he fought for the right to read books for those two years.
He got deeply engrossed in a book called “The Magician’s Own Book” which was published in 1857 by Dick & Fitzgerald. (Access it here)
The book was full of puzzles, tricks and experiments in physics and chemistry.
He kept working on these experiments, tinkering, building, learning and making all kinds of cool electrical machines.
His father initially didn’t take his experiments seriously and just dismissed his efforts.
To get his father to take him seriously, Elihu Thomson built a battery with 5 home-made electrical jars and asked him to get a mild shock.
After that, Elihu Thomson was allowed to continue to build, tinker and experiment.
He went on to become a professor of chemistry at the Central High School he attended in Philadelphia.
He worked with a former teacher from the same school, Edwin Houston to build an arc light generator.
Together they launched the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in the early 1880s.
They merged with the Edison Electric Company in 1892 to become General Electric.
So the next time your child shows a keen interest in something and want to tinker, see if you can pique their curiosity. Ask them questions, encourage them, challenge their notions and get them excited.
Chances are, you might just be raising a brilliant inventor who can transform the world as we know it.
Have a great weekend.