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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.

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