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During a distinguished career that spanned more than five decades, John Fairfield Thompson led Inco through a period of phenomenal growth and immense social, economic and technical change. As a young scientist, he explored the potential of nickel and helped discover new uses for nickel-based alloys. He contributed to the development of the now-classic stainless steel sink, used in homes and business around the world. As a mining executive, he launched a massive exploration effort to follow-up nickel showings in the Lynn Lake area of Manitoba. A major discovery in 1956 led to the development of the world’s first fully integrated mine, mill, smelting and refining complex. In 1961, Inco named the newly-established town and mine in Thompson’s honour.
Thompson was born in Maine and attended Columbia University, where he earned a B.Sc. degree in 1903 and a Ph.D. in 1906. He was then hired by Inco to start a research laboratory, where he examined possible uses for the company’s newly patented, nickel-copper Monel alloy. A few years later, as Manager of Inco’s first technical department, he helped boost annual consumption of the Monel alloy three-fold. Under his guidance, Inco began to produce wire, tubing and other products for industry.
In 1928, owing to a corporate development, Inco shifted its operations to Canada from the United States. As a senior executive, Thompson was instrumental in the company’s transformation into a nickel giant. During the war years (1939-1945), tonnage delivered by Inco to Allied countries equaled the entire production of the company since the formation of its predecessor in 1891.
Throughout all this, Thompson never lost sight of Inco’s efforts, dating back to the early 1930s, to design a kitchen sink that could compete with existing porcelain models. In 1948, he approved funding for a project to develop the stainless steel kitchen sink, which eventually became the largest single application of the alloy in the world.
Thompson became President of Inco in 1949 and Chairman in 1951. He supported a major program in northern Manitoba aimed at exploring nickel showings known since the 1920s. The program capitalized on the development of the airborne magnetometer, which had been adapted from its wartime use of locating enemy submarines. By the time a major discovery was confirmed in 1956, Inco had spent about $10 million over ten years. The orebodies covered an area nearly 100 miles long in a remote wilderness north of Winnipeg. The discovery coincided with Thompson’s 50 years of service, and both the mine and town were named in his honour. It is a fitting legacy for a man who helped Inco, and Canada, evolve into a world leader in the nickel industry.