Museum exhibit highlights the life of a North Dakota-born innovator
Farmhand. Photographer. Musician. Teacher. Serviceman. Engineer. Inventor.
The extraordinary life of a boy who was born and raised on a farm near Nekoma, N.D., is on display in a photography exhibit, "Elmer O. Thompson: The Inventor," at the North Dakota Museum of Art.
The series of 34 photographs depicts moments from Thompson's life, capturing scenes that range from a cluster of kids posing at a blackboard in a one-room schoolhouse to Thompson and a collaborator experimenting with radio equipment atop a New York City skyscraper.
"I never met him, but I feel like I know him through his pictures," said Paul Gronhovd, the Grand Forks photographer who produced the black-and-white prints from 5-by-7-inch and smaller glass plate negatives, some of which date to the early 1900s.
Gronhovd worked with Ken Smith, a historian in Ellendale, N.D., to create the exhibit that includes antique cameras and a 12-minute video outlining Thompson's life and achievements.
"I think it's a good story overall," said Gronhovd, who used digital technology to enlarge and recreate Thompson's images from the glass plates, which "are remarkably stable."
The story "is an arc that's going from rural life to the technology of the time, and his work with big names in radio," he said.
The most captivating image in the exhibit may be a self-portrait of Thompson, as a boy, dressed in a corduroy suit and bowler cap, both hands holding a kitten face forward, as the pair gaze straight into the camera.
"(Museum director) Laurel Reuter has commented that there's a tenderness to the photos," Gronhovd said. "I would agree with that."
The images also reveal Thompson's interest in architecture, he said, "and he carried that all the way through his life."
His technical skill is evident in pictures of buildings, which almost always include people, Gronhovd said. Including people in photos of buildings "was a theme he kept repeating."
And his understanding of lighting is clear from an urban industrial scene where side-light from a bank of large windows illuminates a row of workers in an otherwise dark room.
Among many photos, Thompson's sense of humor comes through, Gronhovd said, pointing to a photo in which a steam engine is lined up so the smoke from a power plant tower in the background appears to be emerging from the exhaust pipe of the steam engine.
The photos that are "the most fun are his early ones," taken when Thompson was a child, Gronhovd said. "That was his creative outlet."
The quality is impressive, given that Thompson was self-taught, developing his skills in staging, lighting and processing, he said.
But photography was one of many roles that ignited Thompson's imagination at the center of technological innovation in New York City and in other venues.
As an inventor, he acquired 30 patents in his own name and collaborated on several others, making many contributions to advancing technology while working for companies such as AT&T, Philco and RCA Victor.
While at AT&T, he acquired his first six patents on long-distance signalling. At Philco, he earned patents for the first wireless radio remote control, known as the "Mystery Control," and a phonograph that transferred the signal from record to amplifier by means of an optical sensor, called the "Beam of Light" system.
Thompson's interest in technology can be traced to his North Dakota upbringing. Born in 1890, he grew up on a farm in Osnabrock Township in south-central Cavalier County where he attended a one-room schoolhouse.
He went on to attend the State Normal and Industrial School at Ellendale, N.D., where he became the school's staff photographer.
Thompson's accomplishments attest to the quality of education he received at the school, where there "was a good balance between arts and sciences," Gronhovd said.
"Ellendale was really important to his development—it had good facilities and high standards." The school produced "all kinds of teachers who went all over the country," he said.
After graduation, Thompson taught for one year in Washington state and later enlisted in the military during World War I. He worked in the Signal Corps.
After the war, he was among those soldiers who did not immediately return home from Europe, Gronhovd said.
He made the most of his time there, turning his attention to activities like making a banjo from a German artillery shell and bullets, and forming a five-member band that played in Paris nightclubs.
The NDMOA exhibit includes photos of the unusual instrument, which is housed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
As a soldier in postwar Paris, Thompson took courses at the Sorbonne, where he took classes from teachers including Marie Curie, who taught chemistry, and Gustave Eiffel, who taught French language and is the man for whom the Eiffel Tower is named.
After returning to the U.S. and completing his electrical engineering degree at the University of California-Berkeley, Thompson went on to become a pioneer in the advancement of radio technology, working for companies such as AT&T, Sylvania, RCA Victor and Philco, the largest radio manufacturer of its time.
He retired from Philco in 1959 and died in 1983.
"He never became famous during his lifetime," Gronhovd said, "but he connected with famous names of the day."
Working with Thompson's collection of photographic glass plates "is something I've been interested in for many years," said Gronhovd, who describes the exhibit as "a story about someone from the Plains who did well in technology 100 years ago."
Thompson "got his first big camera in 1909 and by '20, he was in New York City," he said.
For Gronhovd, the story also has personal relevance.
He received the plates through a family connection. His uncle rented farm land from Thompson's father, T.O. Thompson. For many years, Elmer Thompson stored the glass plates in the family's farmhouse, and later retrieved them.
Gronhovd's father, Gordon Gronhovd, who was interested in the historical aspects of these plates, traveled to Florida in 1980 to record an oral interview with Thompson, then 90 years old. Parts of that interview can be heard in the video at the museum.
At that time, Thompson gave Gordon a set of glass plates. In 2000, the only remaining Thompson relative, a stepdaughter, gave him another 300 plates. After Gordon's death, the plates passed to his son.
The exhibit at the North Dakota Museum of Art exhibit, Reuter said, is the culmination of Paul Gronhovd's work in recovering and presenting the historical photos, and illustrates the marriage of artistic vision with technological innovation.
If you go:
What: "Elmer O. Thompson: The Inventor" exhibit
Where: North Dakota Museum of Art, 261 Centennial Drive, UND campus
When: Through March 10; museum hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m.; museum and cafe are open Presidents Day
For more information, contact the museum at (701) 777-4195 or visit: www.ndmoa.com