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TREETOPS was built out of my great-grandfather Tom Watson's dreams. Born grit poor in a Salem, Massachusetts livery stable, Watson got rich and famous in the 1870s, when he and his friend Alexander Graham Bell invented and developed the telephone. Watson was an inspired technician, a clever storyteller, a driven adventurer, and a man who lost a lot of money banking on the innate goodness of human nature. He spent the bulk of his Bell millions building a shipyard which employed most of eastern Massachusetts during the depression of the 1890s he joked that it would have been cheaper to pension off every ablebodied man in the state. His unorthodox management methods Watson liked to bid on huge navy battleships his Fore River shipyard wasn't equipped to build, figuring that if he won the bid he'd expand sent the shipyard's treasurer into a sanatorium with a nervous breakdown, but Watson managed to produce five of the cruisers and battleships in President Theodore Roosevelt's navy, and two of his ships went around the world with the proud Great White Fleet. When the shipyard's creditors finally foreclosed, Watson had saved enough to five on if he supplemented his income with writing and lectures, and to buy the fifty acres on a hillside in New Hampshire which is still the geographical center of his family.
Watson believed that the rich owed the poor. With his friend Edward Bellamy, the American writer and socialist, he founded the Nationalist political party He also panned for gold in Alaska, studied classical music, committed most of Shakespeare's plays to memory, and became a geologist who had a fossil Watsonella named after him. In his fifties, Watson joined Frank Benson's traveling company of Shakespearean players and toured the small towns of England. Fully costumed in armor or togas, he proclaimed his lines "Ave Brutus!" was one from the ramshackle stages at Bath, Birmingham, and Liverpool.
In my family, conventional success at formal education has always been taken as a sign of a dull, law-abiding nature. My father was expelled from school at seventeen and wrote his first story about it. My grandfather Milton Charles Winternitz graduated at fifteen. Watson quit school in Salem when he was fourteen. By the time his classmates were getting their degrees, he was chumming around with Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm and trying to decide how to invest his personal fortune. He believed in reincarnation of the soul after death, the curative powers of daydreaming, and taxing the rich and he
loved a good story. At Treetops he enthralled his grandchildren with tailor-made tall tales about a boy named Tom who invented a car that ran on milk-and that made ice cream, a boy named Bill who was taught to swim in the lake by a talking and a girl named Mary who discovered underground tunnels which enabled her to chat with the carrots and potatoes Watson's hose tops were growing in the vegetable garden. Watson's most skillful and enduring story is the one he made up about the first words spoken over the telephone wires, on the evening of March 10, 1876, in the attic rooms Bell rented in Boston.
According to Watson, writing in his 1926 autobiography, Exploring Life, the historic words were Alexander Graham Bell's shout for help after he knocked over a beaker of battery acid. Bell was always clumsy. "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" he called in pain, and Watson, standing in the next room, heard the words transmitted through the wire. Since then, this story of the birth of the telephone has been repeated in thousands of biographies, history textbooks, and educational films, and even in a movie, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, starring Don Ameche.
The fact that it didn't happen this way has not diminished the story's dramatic impact.
There was no accident, there was no spilled battery acid. "The first recorded message was commonplace," Watson complained in a letter soon after the event. "There was little of dramatic interest in the occasion," he wrote to another correspondent. There is no reference to the accident with acid in any log or letter of Bell's or in Watson's log for the day.
It wasn't until Watson sat down to remember this historic moment in his autobiography, fifty years after the fact, that the spilled acid was invented. Watson was an old man, and the past had become dim and malleable. Bell was dead and couldn't contradict him. Watson was living in retirement in a fisherman's cottage on the Florida beach, and his impulse to tell a good story finally became irresistible.
"I was astonished to hear Bell's voice coming from [the receiving telephone] distinctly saying, 'Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!"' Watson wrote in Exploring Life. "He had no receiving telephone at his end of the wire so I couldn't answer him, but as the tone of his voice indicated that he needed help, I rushed down the hall to his room and found he had upset the acid of a battery over his clothes. He forgot the accident in his joy over the success of the new transmitter when I told him how plainly I had heard his words, and his joy was increased when he went to the other end of the wire and heard how distinctly my voice came through."
Like all inspired storytellers, Watson altered the facts just slightly, drawing what should have happened out of what did happen. In remembering my father's stories about his lifedecades after Watson's I often noticed that this was exactly what he did. If a moment in his career was triumphant, like the moment when an editor bought his first novel, my father would fashion a triumphant moment out of the mundane available facts. A rowboat would become a yacht, a chance meeting at a cocktail party would become a Stanley-meets-Livingstone. encounter on a beach after a thrilling approach down the reach of Nantucket Harbor. Of course none of us expected accuracy from my father. He made his living by making up stories. So it was thrilling to discover that the so-called scientific side of my family had been doing the same thing all along, starting with Great-grandfather Watson.
Perhaps, as he wrote about the invention of the telephone, Watson remembered a previous incident with acid and spliced the two together. Maybe he had heard about someone else having an accident with spilled acid. Using the techniques of storytelling as skillfully as a novelist, he wrote such a compelling account of that evening in 1876 that the spilled battery acid has become part of American history.
By the time the Wit and Wisdom of Great Men is passed on, they are usually bearded, somber-looking stiffs. Their pale faces stare out at us lesser mortals from postage stamps, portraits, and official histories. Watson and Bell are no exception; even in the pictures of them as young men, they are unsmiling and sober-sided, clearly mindful of the important fate which destiny holds in store for them. But in 1874 when Watson, a stable boy turned electrical engineer, met Bell, a Scot who made a living tutoring deaf children with a system called Visible Speech, at Charles Williams' grimy machine shop on Court Street in Boston, they were not elder statesmen. They were a couple of kids with a few inspired ideas embarking on a mission impossible-the invention of a method for carrying a sound-shaped current through electrical wires Which would carry the human voice.
Williams' was one of a few crude machine shops in the country which manufactured electrical equipment-telegraph parts, fire alarms, electric call bells and other gadgets. In the gas-light age, electricity was a commodity reserved for the very rich or the very modem. The shop was on the third floor and attic of a dusty old building on Court Street. Belts and pulleys whirred overhead as the men worked with their hammers, chisels and lathes, stepping over piles of castings and steel rods to get to their benches against the greasy walls. Williams' shop was an informal center for local inventors, those kinky visionaries who needed to see their ideas transformed into wire, metal and cable often overnight. Thomas Edison had worked at Williams' shop, and Moses Farmer had invented the electric fire alarm there. But most of the drawings being worked on in the shop were for contraptions like corn-husk-fueled engines and exploding submarine mines.
Watson was twenty-one and Bell was twenty-seven when they met at Williams. Watson worked all day at the shop on their ideas and then the two of them stayed up most of the night tinkering and talking. When something went well they burst into a howling, stomping war dance that almost got them evicted from their cheap, boardinghouse rooms. "Watson! I believe we are on the verge of a great discovery!" Bell would intone before each experiment. They were always broke, and Bell's financial backers, Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Hubbard, urged him to give up the idea of the telephone and work on something more practical.
It was, the electricity generated by their friendship that kept Bell and Watson working against the odds. Watson was an elegant natural technician from a crude background. Bell was a thinker and a gentleman who could never make the machinery keep up with his ideas. Watson showed Bell how to make wire, metal, and wood into something that worked. Bell introduced Watson to classical music and gentlemanly manners; he taught him to stop swearing and to eat with a fork.
The late nineteenth century in Boston was a fertile time for dreams. The city had named itself the 'Athens of America." Longfellow was teaching at Harvard, and Oliver Wendell Holmes held forth at the law school. Electric trolleys and trains provided fast, clean transportation. The clear water of the harbor was crowded with yachts, packets, and the great schooners and sailing ships which carried on a rich trade with the Orient, taking raw cotton, tobacco, lumber, and wool, and returning with their holds packed with Huk-wa tea, coffee, and silks, jammed in with blue and white Canton china for ballast.
The Boston Common was transformed from a mucky cow pasture into a lush labyrinth of paths and trees with a bandstand. The festering waters of Back Bay had been filled in and the new land laid out in broad boulevards where Bostonians built spacious mansions designed by Richardson, Olmstead,
and White. Fannie Farmer was writing the book which would introduce recipes with precise measurements and make a science out of the art of cooking. Elias Howe had just invented the sewing machine. An English visitor named Charles Dickens was living at the elegant Tremont Hotel writing his book about
America, and Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays appeared regularly in one of the new magazines The Atlantic Monthly.
There were nine daily newspapers in Boston. The town buzzed with prosperity, from the Italianate palaces built by textile and railroad barons along Commonwealth Avenue to the thriving merchants' shops in Scollay Square where the "Old Howard" was still a respectable playhouse. In 1881 the Boston Symphony was established and George Henschel conducted the second symphony of his friend Johannes Brahms in the new Symphony Hall. Half the audience walked out, afterwards perversely referring to themselves as Boston Brahmins.
The men and women who had hacked this glorious city out of the savage American wilderness in a little more than a hundred years saw no limits to progress in the future. Anything seemed possible. AD problems could be solved by human ingenuity and industry. The men who would solve many of themthe inventors were raffish prophets whose strange ideas might sound crazy, but occasionally yielded great fame and an instant fortune. They were the rock stars of the nineteenth century.
Even the metaphysical world was not immune to the advancing frontiers of human understanding. The age of inventors was also the age of spiritualists. Séances were common entertainment. Watson and his neighbors sat around a table while their friend George Phillips reached underneath with chalk and a slate and had his hand "taken" by spirits. A New Hampshire healer named Mrs. Mary Baker Glover, soon to marry Asa Eddy, announced that she had conquered disease through faith, and thousands of people crowded into her Christian Science classes. Madame Blavatsky had just founded Theosophy, a popular combination of eastern religions, and over in Cambridge the writer William James promised his Yoga teacher that he would try fasting and deep breathing.
Watson saw his friends "seized" by the spirits of the dead, jerking their arms and legs convulsively and rolling their eyes. However, the greatest spiritual influence of his childhood was his parents' enrolling him in the local Baptist Church and Sunday School it turned him against organized religion for life.
The greatest discoveries often happen by accident. It's as if these things are waiting to reveal themselves waiting until someone is smart enough to notice what in retrospect seems obvious. The telephone was no exception. On a steamy afternoon in 1875, when the air was like glue and Watson's fingers, stuck to every surface he touched, he impatiently screwed vibrating reed so tightly that it made an electrical down a vibrating connection. Listening in the next room, Bell heard, not the sound of the reed, but the sound of his assistant plucking the reed. Because he had spent years studying electricity and the nature of sound, Bell knew the meaning of that tiny ping. A sound-shaped current had been carried through the wires. Bell and Watson spent the evening sketching what they thought would be the first working telephone. Watson memorized the
sketch on the midnight train home to Salem. At dawn he was on his way back to Boston and his workbench at Williams' shop.
At the end of that day, when the last worker at the shop had gone home, Bell ran upstairs to the attic while Watson attached the telephone to the wires.
"Hoy!" Bell shouted into the mouthpiece. "Hoy! Watson." (All his life Bell insisted that "Hoy" or "Ahoy' was the proper salutation for beginning a telephone conversation. He was appalled by the public insistence on using the pallid "Hello.") Watson could hear Bell's voice, but it sounded like an engine
turning over. He couldn't make out the words. During the next weeks, Watson desperately tried to improve the primitive mechanism.
By January of 1876, both men knew that others were at work on a similar invention. For secrecy, Bell rented two rooms on Exeter Place, a few blocks from Williams' shop, furnishing me room as a bedroom and the other as a laboratory. The two friends were on a roll. Watson would work at his bench in the shop all day and then carry his newest machine over to Exeter Place for a night of experimentation and modification. Sometimes he got a few hours of sleep at Bells before going back to work.
Bell's patent application for the telephone was filed by Gardiner Hubbard in Washington, D.C., that February 14, just a few hours ahead of a similar patent filed by Elisha Gray, a Western Electric Company inventor who had not yet been able to get his wires to transmit sound. Bell was a lucid writer. His first patent described the machine he and Watson were working on so well that it withstood the hundreds of lawsuits brought against the Bell company over the next decade by other inventors who wanted to claim a share of the telephone's enormous profits.
Then on the evening of March 10, Watson carried another transmitter from Williams' shop over to the attic on Exeter Place. This time he had refined the vibrating drumhead which received the sound of the voice and had built the first speaking tube mouthpiece. Heart pounding, he attached the wires. "Watson"' Bell proclaimed, as usual. "I believe we are on the verge of a great discovery!" This time they were. Watson hadn't even settled down to listen when Bell's voice came clearly through the wires. So history was made, and fifty years later Watson transformed history into legend.
All the men in my family have benefited from having a short attention span. Watson was easily bored. By 1881, five years after the first words were spoken through the telephone wires, he wrote Gardiner Hubbard asking for a leave from his job at Bell at that point a company worth more than $25 million. The list of subjects he wanted to study included rocks, music, and languages. "Such a prospective feast," he wrote, "made the telephone business seem like the rind of yesterday's fruit." In June 1881 he took off for a year in Europe on
Line's Batavia, bound for Liverpool and points south.
Europe disappointed Watson. In spite of a grand reception in British and European high society, he was homesick for New England and lonely traveling by himself. When he got home, the family story goes, he confided his feelings to his friend Bell over dinner at Kimballs Inn in Cohasset just southeast of
"It's about time you got married," Bell said, as they tucked into Kimballs shore dinner huge portions of steamers, fresh oysters, and lobster trapped off the Cohasset ledges. Peter Kimball, the inn's proprietor, was also an inventor of sorts in his own kitchen he had discovered that a potato, sliced paperthin and fried in deep fat, made a delicious, crunchy side dish. Heaps of these chips, hot from the pan, were served with his seafood. Kimball's was a family place. Mrs. Kimball was the chef, and the children worked in the dining room, while Peter Kimball circulated from table to table making sure his guests were happy and well fed.
"Perhaps you're right," Watson said, on their second bottle of wine. But, he complained, he didn't know any available young unmarried women.
In the years since Watson and Bell had worked together at Exeter Place, Bell had fallen in love with Gardiner Hubbard's deaf daughter, Mabel. After a rocky courtship the Hubbards approved of Bell as a teacher but not as a suitor the two had married and were very happy. Anyway, Watson gallantly wound up, there would never be another woman as sweet or as beautiful as Mabel Hubbard Bell.
Well," said Bell in a burst of practicality, as their plates were efficiently cleared and more steaming food was placed in front of them. "How about this nice young waitress?"
So it was that Tom Watson married the innkeeper Peter Kimball's daughter Elizabeth in the summer of 1882, and settled on a farm on the Fore River in East Braintree near Cohasset. Tom and Elizabeth Watson had two sons and two daughters, whom she raised while her husband pursued his various enthusiasms politics, shipbuilding, music, geology, the theater. Her two sons died of childhood illnesses: one of consumption and one of diabetes. It was the Watsons' daughter Helen, her father's favorite, who would break with tradition by going to college and medical school and start the dynasty that had always been her father's dream.
Copyright © 1991 by Susan Cheever