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Inventing A Life

Spring 1987 | Volume 2 |  Issue 3

Thomas A. Watson is remembered mostly as the man who answered the first telephone call. He is known to a few as the actual coinventor of the phone—he worked out the basic idea with Alexander Graham Bell and added major improvements including the bell and the switch hook. But he retired from telephones at twenty-seven and then embarked on a life—or series of lives—so rich and varied that his exploits with Bell might be considered mere preamble. His autobiography, Exploring Life , could have been called Inventing Life .

He was born in 1854 at his father’s livery stable, in Salem, Massachusetts. At sixteen he enrolled in a course in bookkeeping and discovered that it bored him. Then he tried carpentry; it exhausted him. After that he found work at a machine shop in Boston.

This was the shop of Charles Williams, manufacturer of small electrical apparatus, and into this shop in the spring of 1874 walked Alexander Bell, a young professor at Boston University. Bell wanted to create a “harmonic telegraph” that would carry several signals at once. Before long Bell and Watson became a team.

In March 1876 Bell spoke the first intelligible telephoned sentence—the immortal “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!” Commercial telephone service followed faster than anyone expected, beginning in 1877, and that August Bell went off on honeymoon to England, leaving Watson in charge of both improving the invention and handling all the technical problems that arose with phones everywhere.

In 1881, as the telephone business mushroomed, Watson quit. As he later wrote, “The same desire for a larger life and new experiences that had improved my fortunes by sending me … into the machine shop, was stronger than ever.”

Made wealthy by the telephone, he took a long vacation in Europe. Then, after marrying, he decided to become a farmer—“with the cocksureness of youth fresh from a successful achievement in another line.” He was not cut out for it. Two years later he had given up agriculture and begun a machine shoo in a suburb of Boston.

He started building engines for small ships and within several years had a flourishing business with thirty employees. In the mid-nineties he decided to radically expand the business, mainly to alleviate the high unemployment in eastern Massachusetts. He started bidding on and winning contracts to build naval destroyers.

Meanwhile, he took up the serious study of the voice, an interest Bell had encouraged. He also, with his wife, took a three-year course in geology and paleontology at MIT. Watson now became a respected enough geologist to have a genus of fossil gastropod named after him.

By 1901 he was running the largest shipyard in the nation. But shipbuilding was a precarious business. In 1903 he was replaced as president of the company he had founded, which now had four thousand employees.

Nearly bankrupted, he again started over. He went into partnership with a geology professor at MIT to evaluate mines and ore prospects. The two traveled to Alaska and California, but they never found any promising mines.

In 1910, his study of the voice “having superseded all my other occupations,” Watson read about the work of Frank R. Benson’s Company of Shakespearean Players, in England, and decided to see if he could join. Benson welcomed him. Watson spent that fall living in theatrical digs and playing in crowd scenes. He later wrote that “never before had I felt such a constant freshness, exhilaration and capacity for work and study.” The next spring he capped his stage career with speaking parts at Stratford-upon-Avon in celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday.

At the end of the season, Watson joined some of the players forming their own company and hit the road again. He wrote plays for them, including adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist , and Nicholas Nickleby .

He returned home to Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1912 and settled into a life of giving public readings, producing amateur stage productions, serving as president of the Boston Browning Society, and lecturing, sometimes about geology but most often about the invention of the telephone.

Watson lived until 1934. In his autobiography he wrote, “If I should speak of the purpose that has unified the manifold activities of my life, I would say that it is to be found in the fact that I have been wending my way eagerly to school all my life and am still at it.” He was propelled in all his pursuits, he might have added, by the wide-ranging questing spirit of a true inventor.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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