Oh, That Watson
The many lives of the man who built Bell’s telephone
What do the telephone, MIT, fossilized snails, and a Shakespeare touring company have in common? Thomas Augustus Watson.
This is the Watson of first-telephone-call fame: the “Mr. Watson” Alexander Graham Bell said he wanted on the evening of March 10, 1876. When Watson ran to Bell’s aid, he was also running into history’s spotlight. Unfortunately, he ran right through it, vanishing from public memory.
In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising. Watson was not the type to sit still. At 14 he took his first job, as a clerk in a crockery store. He quickly moved on to bookkeeping, which was too boring, and then carpentry, which was too tiring. Eventually, he wound up at a Boston machine shop that made electrical equipment, where Bell found him.
Watson was in fact a gifted electrician who deserves credit for taking designs from Bell and making a working device. After devoting several years to the telephone, however, Watson was satisfied with his work and happy to move on. “After 1881,” he wrote in his 1926 autobiography, “neither Bell nor I played a noteworthy part in the great development of the telephone.”
Newly liberated from his responsibilities to—and aided by his royalties from—the telephone, the 27-year-old Watson wandered off to Europe and turned his mind to philosophy. He reflected later, “It seemed as if in my present life I had been reincarnated several times. School life, clerk life, machine-shop life, telephone life—each was like a separate existence as I looked back on it.”
His next reincarnation returned him to Massachusetts as a farmer. In 1883 he bought land in East Braintree and dived headlong into his new agrarian existence. It didn’t last: the manual labor exhausted him. He wanted more education and, he later wrote, “missed the machine shop.”
Watson was seduced by the idea of making a steam-powered ship engine and converted one of his farm buildings into a machine shop where, with hired help, he put his “finest work” into the task. He finished the engine in 1885 but was never quite able to get it to work. Now that he had a shop, however, he was unwilling to let it lie fallow. He began making boat engines, forming the Fore River Engine Company. Yet he still had a yen for geology.
In his mid-30s, he and his wife, Elizabeth Watson, enrolled in a geology class at the Lowell Institute. Upon graduating in 1892, they entered MIT as special students in geology and paleontology under William Otis Crosby. Watson’s letters of the period reveal him as a charming, intelligent fellow with a roving intelligence and genial nature. In April 1898 he described Josiah Royce’s The Religious Aspect of Philosophy as “the greatest book I have ever read,” adding that “it for the first time puts altruism on a scientific basis.”
In another letter, he was trying to help Crosby work out the geology of Pine Hill in Quincy, Massachusetts. Watson realized that his theory failed to account for a large amount of mud that should have been present but was not. Baffled, he wrote: “The only place I can think to locate the mud made by that long period of erosion … is in my head.”
The self-effacing Watson is praised nonetheless in Crosby’s Geology of the Boston Basin for his “ready and clear comprehension of the bearings of nearly every new fact.” He even helped discover a genus of gastropod (snails and slugs) that bears his name: Watsonella.
Even as he pursued geology, Watson was managing an ever-growing business, flexing his fabrication and bookkeeping skills in equal measure. By 1901, his company had moved to Quincy and diversified into shipbuilding, eventually producing six of the cruisers and battleships in President Theodore Roosevelt’s navy. But it ran into financial difficulties during its rapid expansion, so an admiral was brought in to serve as president in place of Watson, who became chairman of the board. In 1904 he resigned and left the business, which still exists.
Watson reincarnated himself again, joining Frank R. Benson’s company of Shakespearean players. It wasn’t his first time performing, really: he had sung songs into the receiver during telephone demonstrations with Bell. In 1912, he finished touring and returned to Massachusetts, where he organized amateur stage productions and gave lectures on a variety of topics until his death in 1934.
Watson was once asked why he pursued so many sciences. His response in his autobiography encapsulates the philosophy of a Renaissance man: “Each science is the study of a way in which the infinite energy expresses itself in the universe and every attainment one makes in such knowledge carries him a little deeper into the divine mystery. Surely, no other justification is needed for such studies!”