2011 Design Engineer Hall of Fame: Chester Hjortur Thordarson

Chester Hjortur Thordarson (1867 - 1945) was an Icelandic-American inventor who eventually held nearly a hundred patents.

The patent tally may have been less than ten percent of Edison’s, but Thordarson was instrumental in the development of the modern energy transmission grid with his work on transformers.

A man of humble beginnings, Thordarson started in the industry by winding armatures for $4 a week. After two years spent winding, Thordarson’s next job took him to St. Louis for two years where he helped install electric motors in street cars.

In 1895, he founded Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company (TEMC) in Chicago, becoming the first producer of industrial and commercial transformers. In its early years, TEMC patented more than 30 inventions for transformer design and manufacturing. TEMC grew over time to a multi-million dollar factory, covering several blocks, and employing some 2,000 workers.

Thordarson's first opportunity of distinction came through his association with universities. An order came from Purdue University that requested building a half-million volt transformer to be exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Fair — it was slated to be used for experimental purposes at Purdue thereafter.

No one had ever built a transformer with such capacity and Thordarson pulled it off in just 28 days. For this feat, Thordarson was awarded a gold medal at the fair.

11 years later, he would again come home with a gold medal for his accomplishments in building a million volt transformer — only this one took a year and a half to design and develop. 

Side note: An avid reader, Thordarson amassed an enormous rare book collection that was bequeathed to the University of Wisconsin-Madison upon his death. The Thordarson collection was estimated to be worth one million dollars in 1945 and led to the establishment of the university’s Rare Books Department.

See the rest of the nominees here.