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Herbert Thomson, Inventor & Engineer (1870-1947)

Herbert Thomson was a car manufacturer and engineer. Born in Prahran in 1870, he was the son of a wheelwright and contractor and as a boy helped his father install coal-producing bores at Yallourn and Altona. At 19 he built a steam engine which was used in a launch on the Yarra River. He trained as an engineer, and at the age of 27 set up as a manufacturer of steam engines and boilers in Armadale.

In mid 1899 news gradually crept out that a novel horseless carriage had been seen about the streets of Armadale in suburban Melbourne. The rumours were soon confirmed when a proud young engineer Herbert Thomson presented his 'steam phaeton' to fascinated crowds at several public events. Built over a period of three years in the workshop of his business, this remarkable invention represented not only the Victorian-designed motor car, but also a sophisticated piece of engineering with few overseas parallels. Powered by a two-cylinder engine, it was quiet and smooth-running, and could accommodate six passengers. Thomson hastily patented his phaeton.

In April 1900, Thomson and his cousin Edward Holmes loaded the steam car onto a steamship bound for Sydney, where it was again presented with much acclaim at the Royal Easter and Bathurst Agricultural Shows. Then in an inspired publicity spectacle, the pair drove the car almost 800 km from Bathurst back to Melbourne in a rough overland journey that can rightly claim to be the first interstate motor car journey in Australia. The drive took 56 hours and 36 minutes. On one leg of the journey they raced and won against a pair of horses over 12 miles.

In June 1900, the Thomson Motor Car Co. Ltd. was launched to manufacture and market steam vehicles built to Thomson's designs. In 1912, after some 12 further vehicles had been built, the initiative was finally abandoned as cheaper imported vehicles flooded local markets. Thomson, meanwhile, had built a motor vehicle for the fire brigade and several steam engines for merry-go-rounds. He subsequently became a consulting engineer.

Thomson died in Richmond in 1947. He was survived by his wife Mary Ethel, nee Clague, and their daughter.

References:
Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Matthew Churchward talk, 24 October 2003.

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