A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. Of Patents, and a Problematic Partner.


The writer’s first patent was a storage battery, the idea being lead powder or shavings or filings inside of cylindrical sheets of lead. My father and his old-time patent lawyer, George Plympton, induced me to take out this patent after constructing the battery. It did not amount to anything, but the lawyer used an old argument, “A patent is property.” I learned afterward that all property can’t be turned into cash.

The next one I recollect was a bullet probe. The search for the missile in President Garfield suggested the idea. It consisted of two long needles insulated by vulcanized rubber, the two exposed and continuous ends being connected with two pieces of metal, one zinc, the other copper. These were placed in the mouth, one on either side of the tongue, and when metal was touched by the tip of the probe, the electric current produced was tasted by the tongue. Or a telephone could be used, and the click of the contact heard.

This invention was no sooner out than my afterward-friend Dr. Girdner invented the telephonic probe with the assistance of Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. This of course was far better than mine, though not so simple. But mine was buried beneath the noise, public and professional, naturally produced by such celebrities.

[Background: here’s the preface, forward, and notes from the editor of R.L.W.’s memoir; here’s his account of his upbringing through medical school;  here’s when he self-inoculated with tuberculosis and went off to Paris with a charlatan; here’s where he  treated typhoid, learned to dance, theorized, and sutured guinea pigs together; here’s where he contracts cholera and hooks his uncle up with testicular juice; here’s his misadventures in self-publishing while treating a slow-motion suicide-by-drinking; here’s where he hangs out with a magician and a vaudevillian; here’s where he recounts his singing career; here’s his ode to a Fulton Market butcher; here’s where he explains his profound love of music; here’s an account of a hard-partying man named Emrich; here his escapades with a reporter take him to Carnegie’s house; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

One of my first crude machines was built while I was on 37th St. but the rheostat was clumsy and heavy. I even made a camera here long enough to reach from the ground in the back yard to the first story, where my office was located. And thus, by means of a strong arc light, I made a photograph of a red blood cell which measured, when magnified, 3 inches across.

Here I became acquainted, in a boarding house, with a man by the name of Heinson, and we discussed an association for the introduction of my work. He was a natural-born executive, had formerly been the chief clerk in a physicians’ collecting agency, probably the largest ever organized in the city. They went to the doctors’ offices, kept their books, and collected fees. Thompson, the head of the agency, ran away, they say, with some hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the concern failed.

Heinson, myself, and others incorporated an association, for he claimed to be honest and certainly had first-class recommendations. He was to be paid so much a week, under a contract drawn in such a wise that neither of us could draw money without the other being present.

After the association was set up, he did nothing. I sent him on the road temporarily on another job till I could think what to do. When he came back, I took him to task, for a boarder in the house had told me some observations he had made of him.

“Heinson,” I said, “they tell me you are nothing but a loafer and crook. Now if you are all right, you will go with me to the Fifth Ave. safe deposit vaults, take out that contract, and burn it up.” For he had signed me up, foolishly I thought, for life.

He replied, “I’ll go. I’m not whether say.”

I now said, foolishly again, “Heinson, when I get the money, I will pay you for the rest of the year.” He went off.


Some year or two after, a detective from the Police Headquarters called at my office with a description and the name of the man. He said, “He is in the army at Fort Preble, Maine, and has sent some stolen goods to New York in your care. We intercepted the goods at Springfield, and want you to let us know when he arrives in town so we can catch him.”

I said,  I would and produced a letter I had received from him a day or so before. Talking it over with a friend that night, he advised me not to give Heinson away. So the next morning I phoned Police Headquarters and said if I didn’t have to, I would prefer not to notify them, and besides, I had no idea as to his coming anyway. They replied that they were only helping the Government out of courtesy, and that I didn’t have to notify them, but that they would have to watch me.

My office was then in an office building, and every time I went down the elevator I noticed a man would follow me. Heinson never came and after two or three weeks I was followed no more. In the meantime, someone had told me he was in Amherst, and I sent word to him to stay out of new York.

A long time after this, when I had collected some money, I thought I should keep my word even if he was a crook. So I put an ad under Personals in the New York Herald: “A man promised A. Adams Heinson some money years ago. Heinson should communicate with him.”

After two weeks a reply came from Philadelphia. I wrote and told him to meet me at the Waldorf a certain day at 11 o’clock, and asked him how much it was I owed him as a test for his memory. He replied very selfishly, saying it was much more than it was, and if I had been an honest man I would have paid it before.

I went to the hotel at the appointed time and saw him come through the opposite door. He walked up to me as if he were half afraid of the police.

I took his hand as he passed and said, “Heinson, you are a damned liar. You can go to hell,” and passed on.

I never saw him again, but some years later I was at the house of friend where I used to room. I had a new machine with me and was showing it. The phone rang and the brother of the friend whom I was visiting said it was his business partner in Mt. Vernon, who, by the way, had plenty of money, and perhaps I could get him interested in my machine.

He tried to explain over the phone what I had, and finally told me to come to the phone myself, for his partner said he knew someone years ago who was working on such an apparatus, but had forgotten his name.

I went, and as he talked it dawned on me that he was the chum of Heinson, and so he turned out to be. He said Heinson had died of tuberculosis in Philadelphia, and he was going over for the funeral, or to get the body, I forget which. I closed off because I knew this fellow and Heinson were in the same game. So I enlightened my friend’s brother and it turned out that the two soon broke up the partnership.


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