A photograph from the “Elihu Thomson’s Inventive Life” exhibition stands on display at the Swampscott Town Hall. (Alena Kuzub)
Lifestyle, News

Swampscott offers look into the life of one of its own

SWAMPSCOTT — An exhibition on display at the Town Hall entitled “Elihu Thomson’s Inventive Life” gives a glimpse into the inventor’s career and life in the Olmsted District about a century ago.

“Elihu Thomson’s Inventive Life” is the first exhibition in a series of public displays that the Swampscott Historical Commission is planning to create out of its archives. Jonathan Leamon, secretary of the Historical Commission, and Nancy Lusignan Schultz, vice chair, have worked on the exhibition together.

“We have so much interesting stuff it is a shame to be filing it away so nobody can see it,” said Leamon, a retired human resources specialist and a member of the Explorers Lifelong Learning Institute of Salem State University.

The Historical Commission decided that it was fitting to display the exhibition in the former house of Thomson ― now Swampscott’s Town Hall.

“We believe that by sharing items from the Swampscott archives, we will provide our viewers with a better understanding of the importance of historic preservation,” said the Historical Commission in the opening statement for the exhibition.

Built in 1889, the Thomson estate not only housed the family of the inventor, electrical engineer and a co-founder of General Electric, but also provided him with a laboratory space above the adjacent carriage house where he worked on many of his almost 700 patented inventions until his death in 1937. The home was partially donated to the town by his heirs in 1944.

Everybody knows Thomas Edison, Leamon said, but Thomson and Edison were equally inventive. At the age of 11, Thomson invented a frictional electrical device out of a wine bottle. He designed an incandescent electric lamp; an electrical measuring meter; motorized, steam-powered and electric cars; and an electro-pneumatic pipe organ among other things.

Thomson and Edison became partners when Thomson-Houston Electric merged with Edison General Electric Company to form General Electric with a local plant in Lynn.

The exhibit showcases an eclectic collection of Thomson’s inventions, family and period artifacts, and even a poem that Elihu Thomson wrote at the age of 34, which his wife published after his death.

“What is remarkable to me is that it is written by an engineer,” said Leamon.

The objects included in the exhibition came from the Historical Commission’s archive, the Swampscott Historical Society and the Swampscott Public Library. Some things exhibited at the Town Hall were donated by Thomson’s great-granddaughter Dale Milne, who currently resides in New Hampshire.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 12-minute video, in which Sylvia Belkin, founder and former 30-year member of the Swampscott Historical Commission, and Leamon tell about Thomson’s home, his family, his career and legacy. The video contains a lot of the original Thomson’s family video footage.

“You would think that for a man of his intellect and stature he may have been very reserved but that wasn’t the case,” said Belkin in the video. “He was actively engaged with his son and his grandchildren.”

The videos show Thomson playing with the grandchildren in the large front yard and reading to them as well as his beautiful collection of blooming rose bushes on color film, which was still quite rare for that time. The clips also depict Monument Avenue and Humphrey Street as they appeared in the beginning of the 20th century.

The exhibition spreads around the first and the second floors of the Town Hall, and visitors can admire all the preserved architectural elements and wooden details of the house while they wander around.

The Historical Commission has dedicated the exhibition to Louis Gallo, their former chairman, who recently passed away and had envisioned a display at the Town Hall devoted to Thomson more than a quarter of a century ago.

“Elihu Thomson’s Inventive Life” can be viewed during normal business hours at the Town Hall until April. Next, the Historical Commission is preparing to put together an exhibition dedicated to the 170th anniversary of Swampscott in June.

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