Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1177:
THOMAS WATSON

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1177.

Today, we meet the man on the other end of Bell's new telephone. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Alexander Graham Bell's famous first words on his telephone were, "Watson, come here, I want you!" Those words memorialized Watson's name, but his person is largely forgotten. So who was he?

Frederick Allen tells about Thomas Watson. He was born in 1854, the son of a livery stable owner in Salem. As a young man he tried bookkeeping and found it boring -- carpentry and found it exhausting. Then he found work in a Boston machine shop. While Bell was trying to build a new kind of telegraph, he found twenty-year-old Watson in that shop. Bell liked him and soon hired him as his assistant. Two years later, in 1876, Bell was able to summon Watson on their embryonic telephone.

Bell married a year later and went off on his honeymoon. He left Watson to keep developing the new device and to solve technical problems in the first commercial phones.

Watson stayed with Bell for seven years. As the business mushroomed, he grew wealthy and restless. So he left Bell to seek new adventures. He married and tried to settle into farming. He wasn't cut out for that, so next he formed his own machine shop. That business did very well.

In the 1890s he decided to alleviate unemployment in the Boston area by building naval vessels. It worked. The company's payroll grew to 4000 employees, and Watson grew restless again.

This time he turned to the study of voice (which Bell had encouraged.) Watson and his wife also took up the study of geology at MIT. By the time he had a fossil gastropod named after him, his company replaced him as its president. No matter: Watson the geologist went off to California and Alaska to look for gold mines.

In 1910, he threw his full energies into voice and elocution. He found work as an extra in an English Shakespeare company. About that he wrote, "Never before had I felt such a constant freshness, exhilaration, and capacity for work and study." Within months he was doing speaking roles at Stratford-upon-Avon. He eventually quit that to join other actors forming their own company. For two years he wrote dramatizations of novels for them to perform.

Back in Boston, Watson spent his last years doing theater, dramatic readings, and lectures on geology and the telephone.

No doubt he'd played a greater role in inventing the telephone than history grants him. But who cares! While others strangled on worries about priority and recognition, Watson was driven by a passionate love for doing and being. Success can be the great destroyer of lives. We need to be able to walk away from it. He knew that sowing is ultimately a lot more fun than reaping.

Thomas Watson's life was certainly risky and uneven. But view him from the right angle, and I think you'll find that he offers us an astonishing recipe for creative fulfillment.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Allen, F., Inventing a Life. American Inventions: A Chronicle of Achievements that Changed the World (Frederick Allen, ed.) New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995, p.49.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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