Tommy Gun Thompson

Tommy Gun Thompson

Condensed from Pieces of the Past, Volume 2, pages 77-79 by Jim Reis and reprinted here with his permission.



John Taliaferro Thompson, the inventor of the machine gun was born December 31, 1860, the son of James and Maria Taliaferro Thompson, in the old Southgate house in Newport at 24 E. Third Street.  James was a lieutenant colonel in the Army, a graduate of West Point and was a professor of military science at Indiana State University.  He died in Newport on February 12, 1880 and was buried with his wife in Evergreen Cemetery.

John grew up in Indiana, attended Indiana University for one year in 1877 and then won an appointment to the military academy with the help of Senator John G Carlisle.  Thompson graduated No. 11 in his class in 1882.  Trained as an artilleryman, his military career included several tours of duty at the old Newport Military Barracks at the Licking and Ohio Rivers.  He also served as senior instructor of ordnance and gunnery at the military academy and was a corps chief ordnance officer during the Spanish American War.

His experience in Cuba during that war led to his efforts to manufacture a powerful, yet versatile weapon.  Right before he retired in November of 1914, Thompson was placed in charge of all Army arsenal personnel and plants.  Among his duties was the design and construction of rifles, automatic pistols, small arms ammunition and various accompanying types of equipment.  His retirement was short-lived.  He was called back to military duty when WWI broke out the same year.

Three years later, when the United States officially entered the war, Thompson was promoted to the temporary post of brigadier general in charge of weapons production.  By the fall of 1918 his operations were churning out 10,000 quality rifles per day at half the cost of a similar rifle produced by the British.  After the war, Thompson and his son, Marcellus, went to work for the Auto-Ordnance Corp.  Marcellus also had graduated from the military academy and had served in France during WWI.  Together they developed the Thompson machine gun in 1919.

An early account described the tommy gun as a "light, portable, automatic weapon, capable of delivering individual machine gun fire from the shoulder, simple and rugged in its construction, and remarkably free from hating and mechanical malfunctions." It eventually became standard military issue not only in the United States, but also in China, Russia, Mexico, Cuba and Central and South America.  That year Thompson was awarded the American Distinguished Service Medal for "exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous service" for his ordnance achievements.

In 1928 the British honored Thompson with a $15,000 prize for the best semi-automatic shoulder rifle.  Through a special act of Congress in 1930, Thompson was given the rank of brigadier general, retired.  Police in Newport, Covington, Erlanger, Ft. Thomas and Kenton County found the guns handy and were used up until 1985.

"Tommy Gun" John Taliaferro Thompson, the machine gun's inventor died in Great Neck on Long Island, NY June 21, 1940, and was buried on the grounds of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.  His wife, Juliet died in 1930 and Marcellus, the Thompson's only son died in 1939.  A historical marker, noting the Southgate House as Thompson's birthplace, was dedicated in Newport on January 5, 1970.


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