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The American Experience

People & Events

Thomas A. Watson

As Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes, Thomas A. Watson was to Alexander Graham Bell: the jovial but indispensable sidekick. Though he could have easily claimed credit as co-inventor of the telephone, Watson was simply too good-natured to bother with such things. And too busy wondering what might come up next.

Born in 1854 in his father's livery stable in Salem, Massachusetts, Watson took his first job at the age of 16, but he quickly discovered that bookkeeping bored him. Next he tried carpentry, and found it tiring. Then he got a job at Charles Williams, a machine shop in Boston.

Certainly, this position had nothing in it to predict fame. It was only because Alexander Graham Bell, then a professor at Boston University, came calling in 1874 that anyone remembers the young machinist at all. Yet Watson was a capable performer when it came to it: during the demonstrations of the telephone, he gamely belted hymns and popular airs into the receiver, despite his vague ability to hold a tune.

Like Bell, Watson had no desire to work in the telephone business once the device was a reality. "The same desire for a larger life and new experiences," he later wrote in his autobiography, "was stronger than ever." And so, at the age of 27, he struck out on his own with money to spare from his royalties.

The first order of business was a long vacation in Europe, then marriage. With characteristic abruptness, he decided to become a farmer. Two years later he realized that farming was not for him and set up his own machine shop in Boston. After building engines for small ships for a while, this line began to flourish. Soon he had 30 employees working for him. Deciding to expand the business, partly to offset unemployment in Massachusetts, he began taking bids for building naval destroyers.

By 1901 Watson was running the largest shipyard in America. Fate dealt him another whimsical hand, however, and two years later his own company had replaced him with a president of its own choosing.

Watson had taken a three-year course in geology and paleontology with his wife while running his shipbuilding outfit, and so was able to recover by teaming up with a geology professor from MIT to evaluate ore deposits. Though he never found anything promising in the way of mines, Watson proved to be capable enough to have a genus of fossil gastropod named after him.

Throughout all this time, however, Watson had been cultivating another, more passionate interest. Bell had encouraged him to study voice (perhaps because of those questionable performances on the telephone), and by 1910 the subject all but consumed him. A book about Frank R. Berenson's Company of Shakespeare Players inspired him to seek the company out. Joining the company, he was as if reborn and quickly progressed from bit parts to speaking roles. Finally, he formed a new group with some of the players and began writing plays himself, with a leaning toward adaptations of Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist.

In 1912 Watson ended his touring years and returned to Braintree, Massachusetts, where lived until his death in 1934. In 1915 he emerged from the shadows to re-enact the invention of the telephone at the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco. Otherwise, he served as president of the Boston Browning Society, organized amateur stage productions, and lectured on many subjects, with a specialty, naturally, in the telephone. It was during one of his lectures that he first told the world that Bell had spilled acid on the fateful day when the telephone was invented. An embellishment to cover for a faulty memory perhaps. But then, what can you expect from a born actor?

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written by David Lindsay, author of "Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors"