Chapter 11: In Which Liam Discovers He Has Relatives He Actually Admires

I’m writing my first book – almost finished, see you in June – and was unfolding from my head stories of inventors; I remembered that I had one in my family – an uncle, a great uncle. No, a great-great uncle, I thought.

And I knew he was the father of Helen Watson, who married Milton Winternitz. Which made him my great-great-… Uncle? Wait. Hold. Pause. How can my uncle have been my great grandmother’s father? Said the blind man to the chair…

“What?” I said to myself in a loud voice, which must have put a funny look on my face. “He was my…great-great grandfather?”

I rushed back to the apartment. I looked it up on the web. I called my mother, and yes, of course, and so on. Jeez Loueez I said. How did I bloody miss that all my life?

But, I swear, I bloody wholly did. I just totally missed it. For reasons explained below.

So, here goes.

“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.” [Link]

Yeah, and he sunk the money into a ship-building yard, which… and I remember this from my childhood also “sunk.” And I took it literally – seeing the masts dip beneath the black water. No, it was just the money.

“Watson, Come here!” No, those words were never said until after the discovery, when Watson wrote it – invented it as a more exciting event than it was. Susan Cheever, who is a great grand-daughter of Watson (and I guess is a 2nd cousin or twice aunt, or…?), is a writer, and says that Watson invented that story, because the real story of getting the first words across the ‘harmonic telegraph’ was too boring for his taste. Funny.

“Their collaboration, described by Susan Cheever, Watson’s great- granddaughter, comes to a climax with the celebrated if historically dubious moment when Bell, having burned himself with battery acid, hollers over their new device, ”Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!” or something like that, and Watson comes running. Ms. Cheever says of Great-Grandpa Watson’s autobiography, ”I think it’s great that he didn’t just invent the telephone, he invented the story of the telephone.” [Link]

He was a story-teller, he employed “most of Eastern Mass” (writes Susan Cheever in her memoir) in building a shipyard, which he eventually lost, or the money to and from (so, right, this is one reason I never knew this story – he didn’t hang onto money, and so I never had any of it.. and didn’t have to protect it, and so on); he was a spiritualist, maybe a deist, flirted heavily with Sufism (Sufi Islam) in his 70s; brought Mehr Baba to America; maybe became disenchanted with him, but who knows. [Baba]

He built a place in New Hampshire I’ve never been to. “Treetops”, described by Susan C. as being run like a “workcamp” with the kids picking vegetables and killing the chicken for dinner. The vegetable part sounds fine to me.

He was a character, apparently, not so ego driven. He apparently built most of the telephones and set up the lines that got the thing started:

“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. ” [Link]

Which is wild.

He went on to study Shakespeare, performed in little theaters around England…Even in Liverpool.

Which is a wild, wild thing.

Is that why I’ve always understood this to be true?


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