Elmer Thompson: The Inventor

February 10 – April 7, 2019

Growing up on a farm in rural North Dakota, Elmer O. Thompson (1891-1984) developed his creative impulses with photography, educating himself in matters of staging, lighting, and processing. Mr. Thompson quickly became an expert in the use of his 5 x 7 camera. His early photos show the development of a talent that would lead him first to the State Normal and Industrial School in Ellendale, where he served as the official school photographer. He went on to earn an electrical engineering degree at the University of California, served in the Signal Corps in Paris in WWI, and then moved to the center of technological innovation in New York City.

Mr. Thompson earned the first six of his ultimate thirty patents at the AT&T Headquarters at 195 Broadway. From there he moved to RCA Victor, then spent several decades at Philco, where he earned two dozen more patents, including the first wireless radio remote control (Philco’s “Mystery Control”) and a phonograph that transferred the signal from record to the amplifier by means of an optical sensor (the “Beam of Light” system).

Mr. Thompson’s progress—from the prairies of North Dakota to the technological heartland of the early radio and television age—illustrates the marriage of artistic vision with technological innovation. This exhibition illustrates that career with large framed prints of his photographs, many of which were taken in and around Ellendale and near his home in Cavalier County. These include individual portraits, landscapes, buildings, and staged trick photographs.

A special reception and an illustrated presentation by historian Dr. Ken Smith will be held Sunday, February 10 at 4 pm at the Museum. Paul Gronhovd, owner of Mr. Thompson’s glass plate collection and a photographer himself, printed the images for the show. On Sunday he will also discuss the process of recovering and presenting fine historical photos.

Installation Images

Elmer O. Thompson Photographer, Fred Thompson Holding a Kitten, circa 1910.
Digital print from glass plate negative.
Printed by Paul Gronhovd.

Elmer and his 5 x 7 view camera.
Picture taken at State Normal and Industrial School at Ellendale.