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Thomas A. Watson

AKA Thomas Augustus Watson

Born: 18-Jan-1854
Birthplace: Salem, MA
Died: 13-Dec-1934
Location of death: St. Petersburg, FL
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, North Weymouth Cemetery, Weymouth, MA

Gender: Male
Religion: Muslim
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Engineer, Inventor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Assistant to Alexander Graham Bell

Thomas Watson dropped out of school at 14, and worked as a bookkeeper and carpenter before being hired in a Boston machine shop. There he helped build some rudimentary machines per the design of Alexander Graham Bell, trying to make a "harmonic telegraph" that could send several dot-and-dash messages at once over the same telegraph wire. Bell hired Watson, and the two men jointly discovered that tones from a vibrating transmitter reed could be carried electrically by wire and audibly recreated. On 10 March 1876 they laid wire between two rooms on different floors of a boarding house, and Watson was adjusting the machinery in the lower room when he unexpectedly heard Bell's voice transmitted metallically -- "Mr. Watson, come here -- I want you." The machine had mumbled before, but this was the first time it carried words that were heard distinctly. According to the story often told by Watson in his later years, Bell had accidentally spilled acid on his clothes and called out in frustration, but both men were surprised that Watson had heard him through the wires.

Seven months later, on 9 October 1876, Bell and Watson spoke via telephones two miles apart in Massachusetts, an extended conversation about technical matters, while reporters on both sides of the conversation took notes. The matching transcripts were published side-by-side in newspapers, reporting on the breakthrough of "audible speech by telegraph". Watson has been largely forgotten by history, but he, of course, had constructed and installed both machines for that historic conversation, and early accounts of the telephone's invention routinely noted that it was the collaborative work of Bell and Watson, with Watson credited as "manufacturer of the first telephone". As Bell traveled seeking additional funding, Watson constructed the first telephone switchboards, and oversaw all manufacturing for their Bell Telephone Company. After several years, Watson's share of their royalties made employment optional, and the two men went their separate ways.

Watson then married, enjoyed an extended honeymoon in Europe, and tried his hand at farming, before establishing the Fore River Ship & Engine Company. The company started by building small marine engines, and as business thrived it eventually constructed the US Navy's first two 400-ton torpedo ships -- early destroyers -- before being bought out by Bethlehem Steel in 1913. On 25 January 1915, Watson and Bell shared another famous phone call, from New York City to San Francisco, celebrating the completion of the first transcontinental phone line. By then more than 13,000,000 telephones were in use worldwide.

In his many leisure years, Watson studied geology and toured as a Shakespearean actor, then settled in Braintree, Massachusetts, where he spent his last decades. He founded the Braintree Electric Light Company, joined a sect loosely associated with the Sufi branch of Islam, and served as President of the Boston Browning Society, a group dedicated to the poetry of Robert Browning.

Father: Thomas Russell Watson (stableman)
Mother: Mary Phipps Watson
Wife: Elizabeth Eleanor Seaver Kimball Watson (b. 27-Aug-1857, m. 5-Sep-1882, d. 23-Apr-1948)
Daughter: Helen Watson Winternitz (physician)
Daughter: Esther Watson Tipple

    University: MS Geology, Union College (1919)
    University: PhD Engineering, Stevens Institute of Technology (1921)

    Fore River Ship and Engine Company Founder & President (1883-1903)
    American Bell Telephone Company Electronics Inspector (1880-83)
    Bell Telephone Company Manufacturing Superintendent (1877-80)
    Converted to Islam

Author of books:
Exploring Life (1926, memoir)

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