Innovative, historically important "Tommy" gun born in Cleveland

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, in one installment of a series of articles highlighting inventions, ideas and and innovations that originated in Northeast Ohio, recently published an article noting that the Thompson submachine gun finds its origins in Cleveland.

From the article:

Betsy Hanak, of Concord Township, said her father, Theodore Eickhoff, who helped design the first Thompson submachine gun in 1918, rarely talked about the weapon, either from modesty or his disdain for gangsters of the 1920s who popularized the "Tommy gun."

The notorious "Tommy Gun" of Roaring '20s gangster fame, also renowned as the Thompson submachine gun used by GIs on nearly every battlefield of World War II, was born nearly a century ago in a small workshop in Cleveland.

From its inception in 1918, the gun quickly developed a reputation for reliability and firepower, becoming a prominent symbol in the lore of both 20th century crime and warfare.

The weapon is most popularly known for its namesake and originator, Gen. John Thompson, who served during the Spanish-American War in the Army's Ordnance Department and helped develop the Springfield M1903 rifle and .45-caliber Colt AS M1911 pistol.

Prior to World War I, he got the idea for creating the equivalent of a lightweight, hand-held machine gun -- a "trench broom" as he called it, that could "sweep" enemy lines in a fusillade of bullets.

After retiring from the service, Thompson formed the Auto-Ordnance Co. in 1916 to produce his "automatic shoulder rifle," and tapped the talents of engineer Theodore Eickhoff, a Purdue University graduate from Indiana who had worked in the Army with Thompson on the .45-caliber pistol.

The article goes on to say that Eickhoff was sent to Cleveland to develop the gun because the Warner & Swasey Co., a manufacturer of instruments and machine tools, would produce parts for the weapon.

He was joined by designer/draftsman Oscar Payne in a small machine shop on Euclid Avenue, working out the details of creating a gun capable of firing 1,000 rounds per minute. It was the first weapon to be called a submachine gun.

They succeeded just in time to see the interest of their primary intended customer, the U.S. military, wane with the end of World War I.

"Then the Great Depression hit, so the military had no money, police departments had no money, and the only people who did have money in large quantities were those in the criminal element," said Tracie Hill, author of the book "Thompson: The American Legend," and originator of the American Thompson Association, a collector's group.

The gun was nicknamed the "chopper" or "Chicago piano" as it was wielded by some of the most colorful and dangerous Prohibition-era gangsters including John Dillinger, "Machine Gun" Kelly, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and "Baby Face" Nelson (who used a Thompson to murder two FBI agents).

Hill also noted, "the laws had not caught up with the technology," so even hardware stores in Chicago could sell or rent Tommy guns, no questions asked.

Eickhoff, the man who engineered the gun, was no fan of its sudden popularity among hoodlums, according to his daughter, Betsy Hanak, of Concord Township.

She recalled that her father rarely talked about the gun, but he did say "they were working on it for the sake of their country. They wanted the United States to have a good gun like this, especially during World War I.

"So they did it for patriotic purposes," she added. "And then the gangsters got hold of it . . . and he felt very bad about that, so that was one of the reasons he never talked about it."

The article notes that the advent of World War II proved to be a boon for Auto-Ordnance as orders for Thompsons poured in from the U.S. military and Allied forces overseas. Ultimately about 2 million Thompsons were manufactured, but the weapon's namesake died (in 1940) before he could see the success of his gun.

As for Eickhoff, Hanak told The Plain Dealer that while "he never said, 'Oh, that's my gun,' "I'm sure he must've been pleased that it was finally being used for what it was intended."

The article notes Eickhoff once autographed the opening pages of a book about the Thompson, writing: "The gun was developed as a patriotic service in time of war; and we accomplished our mission."

Click here to read the entire Plain Dealer article.

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