Massachusetts

Two Famous Phrases, One Shipyard

The Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass., has a connection to two famous phrases.

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

kilroy was here

The second: “Kilroy was here.”

One Famous Phrase

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.

Thomas_A._Watson_

Thomas Watson

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

Watson then 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.

uss-lexington

The launch of Lady Lex from the Fore River Shipyard

Kilroy and His Famous Phrase

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. GIs began scrawling the famous 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.

On Dec. 23, 1946, the Associated Press reported the elusive Kilroy had been found.

According to the AP, the American Transit Association held a contest to establish the identity of the real Kilroy. A James J. Kilroy, of Halifax, Mass., satisfied the ATA that he was the real  deal. He said he worked at the Bethlehem Steel Company’s Fore River Shipyard, inspecting battleship parts during the war. To satisfy his bosses that he was on the job, he wrote “Kilroy was here” after he’d inspected work.

A Streetcar?

The Association then awarded a streetcar to Kilroy for winning the contest. The Kilroys, who had nine children ages six months to 15, intended
to attach the streetcar to their dwelling to make room for their brood, the AP said.

He died in Boston on Nov. 24, 1962, at the age of 60. The New York Times added a further revelation in his obituary the next day. “He said he … grew tired of being asked to descend into tanks he had already inspected,” the Times reported. “Thereafter, he related, every time he inspected a tank he would chalk on the lid, ‘Kilroy was here’.”

The “Kilroy was here” doodle is engraved in the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.


This story was updated in 2022.

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