Two Famous Phrases, One Shipyard

The Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass., is connected to two famous phrases in American history.

“Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you,” was the first.

kilroy was here

The second: “Kilroy was here.”

Mr. Watson, of course, was Thomas A. Watson, who helped Alexander Graham Bell invent the telephone.  Watson was born in Salem, Mass., in 1854. A talented young electrical mechanic, Bell hired him to build experimental devices for transmitting voice.

On March 10, 1876, Bell and Watson were working in a boardinghouse attic at 109 Court St. in Boston. Bell uttered the famous phrase into a device that included a liquid transmitter. Watson, in the next room, clearly heard him.

There is some controversy about what Bell actually said. In his lab notes he wrote: “Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you.” Fifty-four years later, Watson recalled Bell said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.”

There is also some controversy over who really should get credit for inventing the telephone. The device resulted from work by many individuals. But Bell and Watson developed the first commercially viable telephone.


Watson had loaned money to Bell during their telephone experiments. Bell paid him back – and recognized his contribution to the invention – with a 10 percent share in the company that would become the Bell Telephone Company.

Watson took the money and bought a farm in Braintree, Mass., where he began working on marine engines. That led to the creation of the Fore River Engine Company, which became the Fore River Shipyard.  Watson later moved the yard to Quincy, after an initial order for a 50 horsepower engine led to orders from the U.S. Navy for battleships.


James J. Kilroy was an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard during World War II. He said he used the famous phrase, “Kilroy was here,” to mark rivets he had inspected as ships were being built. Later, sailors would find the phrase in places like sealed hull spaces. That no graffiti artist could have reached those spaces contributed to the mythical quality of the phrase. GI’s began scrawling the phrase along with a doodle of a man peering over a wall (or the side of a ship). They were especially fond of leaving “Kilroy was here” doodles in newly captured areas or landings.

James J. Kilroy became a Boston City Councilman and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.  The “Kilroy was here” doodle is engraved in the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.

This story was updated in 2020.



  1. Molly Landrigan

    January 19, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Remember the Kilroy was here t-shirts? We all wore them!

  2. Susan L Field

    January 19, 2014 at 11:40 am

    I worked on a construction job there once. Cool history!

  3. Dana McPhee

    January 19, 2014 at 11:41 am

    I never knew the connection between Watson and the Fore River Shipyard…Bell first worked on the telephone in a makeshift lab in the house where he boarded to teach the owners deaf daughter, on Essex Street in Salem, MA. He later gave the first public demonstration of a ‘long distance’ call from around the corner, at the Lyceum Building on Church Street in Salem to the Boston Globe…(an aside – Fore River Shipyard expanded during WWII and covered up the site of the world’s largest trilobite fossils; source – Father Sheehan, Geology Professor, Boston College, lecture, book “MA Mineral and Fossil Localities”)

  4. Kathy Caslin

    January 19, 2014 at 11:52 am

    Thomas Watson is buried in the Weymouth, North St cemetery about 2 minutes from the shipyard.

  5. Tomsbridge Warhawk

    January 19, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    My dad use to draw this for me. 🙂

  6. Bobo Leach

    January 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    I remember Kilroy peeking over the pages of MAD magazine 😉

  7. Linda Brayton

    January 19, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    How cool is this to learn where Kilroy was born!

  8. Stephen Arsenault

    January 19, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    Very interesting

  9. Pingback: The Heroic Rescue of the Pendleton Crew, 1952 - New England Historical Society

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