Amzie Moore Papers, 1941-1970

Biography/History

Chester Hjörtur Thordarson has been compared to Thomas A. Edison as a genius in electrical inventiveness, but he is important in Wisconsin history for two other reasons as well: his ownership of and construction on Rock Island at the tip of Door County, and his collection of rare books of science and literature which now form the basis of the Rare Book collection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Memorial Library.

Thordarson was born in Iceland in 1867, the fifth of six living children. In 1873 the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Milwaukee, where Thordarson's father soon died. Shortly thereafter they moved to Dane County, then to Shawano County, and, when Chester was 13, to the Red River Valley in North Dakota. Thordarson received little formal education and finished the fourth through the seventh grades in two years after he moved to Chicago at the age of 18 to live with his sister. Between the ages of 20 and 27, Thordarson worked in several electric companies in Chicago and one year for a streetcar company in St. Louis. In 1895 at the age of 27 and with seventy-five dollars in savings, he founded the Thordarson Electric Manufacturing Company in Chicago.

Thordarson, who invented the electrical transformer in 1904, continued to work as an inventor (acquiring 115 patents) and manufacturer of electrical apparatus. Among his customers were universities for whom he built laboratory equipment for student experiments or research work. His first major distinction came when he built a million-volt, 25-cycle transformer for Purdue University to be exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and later to be used for experimental work at the university. This transformer earned Thordarson a gold medal at the Fair. He built another million-volt trans-former for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco in 1915 and earned his second gold medal. Thordarson's other electrical inventions include patents on long-distance radio transmitting apparatus, ignition coils for automobiles, large- and small- capacity transformers, and early pollution control equipment.

Thordarson did not limit himself to the exploration of electricity. Early in life he began to collect books. His collection of rare books of literature and Icelandic, scientific, and reference works eventually became one of the world's finest privately-owned libraries. For a number of years, the library was housed in handmade oak and glass cabinets of Icelandic design in Thordarson's factory in Chicago and later on Rock Island. In 1946, the year after Thordarson's death, the University of Wisconsin purchased his 11,000-book library and established a Rare Book Department to house the collection.

In 1910 Thordarson bought Rock Island in order to enjoy “...wild plant and animal life in undisturbed wilderness,...” (Letter from Chester H. Thordarson to Mayor William Thompson of Chicago, December 5, 1924 (box 3, folder 5)). The first buildings, erected between 1911 and 1914 on the eastern side of the island, were of log. In the 1920s he built extensive log houses and bunkhouses on the southern shore of the island, including one for his close friend, Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson of Chicago. (This cabin has since been razed.) From the late 1920s through the early 1930s Thordarson had a series of stone buildings constructed on the island in Icelandic style, including the impressive boathouse. Most of these buildings still stand. Thordarson spent extensive amounts of time on Rock Island, entertaining important visitors including many Chicago politicians and industrialists as well as many of his factory workers. After his death, the island was acquired by the State of Wisconsin for a state park.

In 1894, Thordarson married Juliana Fridriksdottir (1854-1955), who had immigrated to America in 1879 or 1880 where she took the name Gilson. In Milwaukee she studied to be a seamstress, then moved to Chicago where she established a successful sewing shop. They had two children: Dewey (died 1968) and Trygve (died 1957); one of whom became an electrical engineer; the other an accountant. Dewey married Helga Lindall; they had no children. Trygve and his wife Louise (Lucy) had one child, Julia Ann.

In 1929, the University of Wisconsin gave Thordarson an honorary master's degree. He later was awarded an honorary doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Iceland.

Note

Sources:

Clark, Neil M., “The Flare of the Northern Lights Started Thordarson on His Quest,” American Magazine, December 1926, p. 37
Hill, Dennis A., “Chester H. Thordarson - A Biographical Chronology,” Rare Book Department, University of Wisconsin Memorial Library, 1976
Hagedorn, Ralph, “Bibliotheca Thordarsoniana; The Sequel,” The Bibliographical Society of America, 1950
Neu, John, “The Acquisition of the Thordarson Collection,” University of Wisconsin Library News, Volume XI, No. 3 (March 1966)

Interviews with:

Mrs. Helga Thordarson Charest, Sister Bay, Wisconsin, September 1978
Tom Jessen, Park Ranger on Rock Island, August 1978
Conan Eaton, Washington Island, Wisconsin, August 1978
Mrs. Julia Jacobson (Thordarson's niece), Sun City, Florida, August-September 1978
Conan Eaton, Rock Island, 1979