Historical Marker #1706 in Newport commemorates Brig. Gen. John T. Thompson, inventor of the Thompson submachine gun.
Thompson was born in Newport on December 31, 1860. He grew up on various military posts where his father, Lieutenant Colonel James Thompson, served. John Thompson attended Indiana University and the United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1882. After a long and admirable military career, Thompson retired in 1914, having provided thirty-two years of service.
Before the First World War, automatic guns were often frowned upon by military authorities. It was assumed that soldiers would not properly aim at their targets, but would instead rely upon the rapid firing of the weapon. Thompson, however, was an early advocate of automatic weapons and worked toward improving several different small arms. He was particularly concerned with shortcomings of the rifles used during the war and thus sought to create a relatively light-weight weapon that could be carried easily. His goal was to create an effective rifle that could fire a significant amount of rounds very rapidly.
The invention of the Thompson submachine gun occurred just after World War I. The weapon became iconic not only for its later use in combat during World War II, but also as the gun of choice for some of the most notorious criminals in U.S. history. The Thompson submachine gun, or "Tommy gun" as it became known, was adopted by many organized crime gangs in large cities in the 1930s. Outgunned, police forces also began using the weapon. Hollywood dramatized the skirmishes between gangsters and police, immortalizing the Tommy gun and its creator.
John Thompson died in 1940 at age seventy-nine in Great Neck, Long Island, New York, of a heart attack. He was buried on the grounds of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.