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Thomson, Herbert (1870–1947)

by H. Downing

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Herbert Thomson (1870-1947), car manufacturer and engineer, was born on 13 July 1870 at Prahran, Melbourne, ninth child and seventh son of Henry Thomson, wheelwright and later contractor, and his wife Isabella, née Walker, both Scottish born. The Walkers, with their two eldest children, had arrived in Melbourne in April 1853. Herbert worked for his father as a boy and helped him to install coal-producing bores at Yallourn and Altona. At 19 Herbert constructed a steam-engine which was used in a launch on the Yarra River. After early training as an engineer, in 1897 he set up as a manufacturer of steam-engines and boilers near his father's business in High Street, Armadale. There he began making a steam car, one of the first self-propelled road vehicles in Australia. Operational by July 1899, the car had its initial public run at a suburban cricket ground; it was exhibited at Melbourne, Sydney and other agricultural shows, and demonstrations were given in Victoria and New South Wales.

Quiet and smooth-running, the 'six-seat Phaeton of fiddle-back ash and silky oak' had an engine with two cylinders in tandem. In April 1900 Thomson and his cousin Edward Holmes set out in it from Bathurst, New South Wales, for Melbourne. The trying journey of 493¼ miles (794 km) on difficult roads was completed in 56 hours and 36 minutes of driving time, at an average speed of 8.72 miles (14 km) per hour, which was attributed by Holmes to Thomson's intention 'to err on the side of safety'; on one section, however, they reached 15 miles (24 km) per hour and on another raced and won against a pair of horses over 12 miles (19 km).

Before that journey Thomson had patented his innovations in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, while Holmes set up a syndicate to manufacture cars. The Thomson Motor Car Co. Ltd, incorporated on 18 June 1900, bought Thomson's patent for one hundred and fifty £10 shares and produced approximately twelve improved vehicles: they had two parallel cylinders and a top speed of 25 miles (40 km) per hour. A Thomson car raced successfully against a Benz imported to Melbourne by Harley Tarrant. By 1902 Thomson's catalogue listed a variety of vehicles from seven different overseas manufacturers. The company moved from Flinders Lane to Thomson's works at 835 High Street, Armadale, but went out of business in 1912. By this time Thomson had produced a motor vehicle for the metropolitan fire brigade and some steam-engines for merry-go-rounds: the best-known, at St Kilda beach, was later purchased by the Commonwealth government and moved to Canberra.

Thomson became a consulting engineer. He died on 26 October 1947 at Richmond and was cremated. His native-born wife Mary Ethel, née Clague, whom he had married with Presbyterian forms at Malvern on 19 April 1905, survived him, as did their daughter. His 1899 car is in the Museum of Victoria and an early Thomson engine is in the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Coachbuilder and Saddler, 15 Sept 1899
  • Bulletin of the Business Archives Council of Australia, 1, no 6, 1959
  • Walkabout, 31, Feb 1965
  • Leader (Melbourne), 1 July 1899
  • Prahran Telegraph, 29 July 1899
  • Australasian, 28 Apr 1900
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Oct 1947
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 30 Oct 1947.

Citation details

H. Downing, 'Thomson, Herbert (1870–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-herbert-8795/text15423, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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