A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. An Invention 15 Years in the Making Puts the Doc Off Machine-Making for Good.


My next patent was for the MIGRAF, a copyrighted word coined from photo-micrograph. A copyrighted name has to mean nothing, but this one really means a machine to photograph microscopic objects. Its object was to bring germs, blood, etc., under two-eyed vision so as to point out definite microscopic features to students and beginners in any such line of work, and to make photographic records of same for preservation.

This apparatus was several years in construction. When completed, it consisted of an arc lamp, a rheostat, a microscope, and a viewing mirror. They had to be made small, compact, light-weight, for the apparatus had to be portable, and able to be attached to any 110 volt light circuit.

There must have been about 15 patents covering it. One of the many patent attorneys I employed was an old classmate in chemistry. For some reason, he held one of my patents for years in the patent office. He nearly drove me crazy with his delays for it seemed as if capital was on the point o f investment many times, but I had no real patent, and none was allowed while he had that one tied up. I finally had to take it away from him.

[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 are his escapades with a reporter take him to Carnegie’s house; here’s where he gets rooked by a crook of a partner; and here’s a piece I wrote for New York Press upon first reading the memoir.]

To get back to the Migraf, I had an awful time getting that machine constructed. I got it nearly completed by one mechanic after another. The first one failed in business when it was partly done. Another was a good workman, but erratic. I fitted him up with a lathe in his house so he could spend extra time on it. He ran off with another man’s wife and I had deuce of a time convincing his family that the partially completed job was mine to take away. Most of these men I paid in advance, or from day to day.

Finally I got a genius to work on it, an artist as well as a mechanic, But he would get woozy spells, and sometimes work all night, then not work for three months at a stretch. I had fitted up his flat with machinery so as to get my ideas just as I wanted them. One day he left the machine nearly completed and would budge no further. But the lines were as desired, and I considered it a beautiful, as well as a practical, machine.

I obtained a contract with a  manufacturer of mathematical instruments on Fulton St.. for the completion of the one and six more, but by this time I was running very short of cash. I didn’t know what to do.

But going past the Union League Club one hot July night, I spied in the window an old patient. I went in and told him my predicament, and made arrangements for the mechanic from the company where I had obtained the contract to see him with me the next day. There I demonstrated the machine as far as I had got it done, and he put up $100 and said he would finance it.

When the machine was not finished on contract time, it worried me. Pushing matters, the constructor said the bill was $500 or so, and the Union League Club man could not be seen either by more or by the contractor.

I managed to “steal” the nearly completed machine. There was an important part not finished, which I thought I could do myself at my house – this being my excuse for taking it, that I wanted to try it. The contractor chased me and threatened a sheriff to bring it back.


I could think of nothing else to do, and worried as could be, I walked into the office of the son of the Union League Club man, who I understood was now in business for himself in Wall St. He was glad to see me, said he was wondering the other day whether I had ever completed the machine I used to talk about when treating his  mother. At that time, I was using a rough one made of wood, which always reminded me of the country hunter who had a rickety gun and every time he shot a bird, the gun flew to pieces. So he would find the pieces and put it together again for another shot. So did I, with the machine he was referring to.

But setting this one up in his office tickled him so that he said, “I’ve plenty of money and am retiring from business. I’ll put $500 in to it.”

“Well,” I said, hesitatingly, “you father is already in it, but I can’t find him.”

“Oh,” he said, “he’s down at Oyster Bay. I’ll take care of Dad.”

I explained things to him, and he phoned to the factory nearby where the machine was constructed, saying to me, “Come on, Doctor, I’ve got to  watch a train but I’ll go over there with you.”

He did. When they told him the amount of the bill had reached $700, he was mad. He said, “You G– damn bitches. Here’s my card. Look me up in Bradstreet.” And, pulling out his checkbook, wrote out a check for the full amount.

Then, taking me by the arm, we walked quickly out, he damning them all the way out the door for not sticking to their contract.

This man afterward gave me $3,000 cash, without security at first, but called me up in a few days and asked me to see his lawyer, who induced me to assign three valuable patents to him as security.

The machine was then taken to another mechanic, and a contract made to make up a dozen. It was awfully slow work, and my understanding was that I should get these made up and marketed before any more money was advanced.

It was a nip and tuck away and night, and was especially hard on my nerves because the rheostat, perhaps the most ingenious part of the apparatus, was not compete. One mechanic I had working on that alone, with promises that were never fulfilled. So I finally had to work it out myself, taking time out from my business.


In the end, I got it made right by an Alsatian machine down on Gold St. He made them like little Tin Lizzies, so they have not worn out to this day, 20 years afterward.

The Migraf was light, would fold up like a fan, and could be carried in the vest pocket. This was one of the patents assigned. I would step down 110 or 115 volt circuits so as to get 5 to 10 amperes through it, and from 500 to 800 candle power in the arc light.

I had previously worked a year getting that arc light so it would not sputter, and would remain steady for long enough to get a good view of the object, and a photo.

Old Bob Willis, a thorough mechanic and a friend, I allowed to work on the shutter of this apparatus a whole year, and then found one on the market that could do the trick. But there was a patent on it over which the Eastman Company had control, and they would not sell, or allow them to be sold for use, except on their own cameras – although I had already bought six of them.

Since I had some patients in Rochester, I went out there and took my little moving picture camera – the first small one ever constructed up to that time, I think, 4X5X6 inches  – to George Eastman.

I had no trouble seeing him, just called him up on the phone and he said come over. He looked it all over carefully. I called it a micromotoscope, and said that it would go well in their toy department. I had patents on it, and it could be used either for the microscope or otherwise.

Just then, Mr. Lovejoy, one of his top men, passing through the room, stopped and took a look. He just shook his head, and that was the end of that. But the Migraf, which Mr. Eastman came afterward to my hotel and looked over, he said was the most valuable instrument of the two.

After getting six of the Migrafs complete, the company making them failed in business. But as I had paid for each as they came out, I was not so much affected. Then I had to get them on the market.

After letting several of my friends try it as agents, I concluded that it could only be done by myself, and decided to get orders from the Government at Washington. So thither I went. Left my business and stuck to Washington for three months.

One hour after getting there, I had one set up in the Department of Agriculture. Dr. Wiley saw it and wanted one, and the workers all appeared to be interested.

One I had gold-plated, and that was given to the financier, who tried to dispose of it to his doctor, as well as amusing his family in the country with it. They talked of it to everybody, But I made no sales there.

In Washington, I made photos for the Carnegie Institute of mica, plants, and thin stones, as well as some for the Government pathological and bacteriological laboratories – and even then some doubted if it would take photographs or not. I then got a hold of the government photographer, a Mr. Williams. He made photographs for me with the Migraf and told me I could refer anyone to him as to its capabilities.

But I could not land a sale, could not get a single order in black and white, though they said they wanted them.

One day on the street car, I sat next to a man who, seeing my box, asked me what I was handling. I told him, and he said “Have you any competition?” I said no, and explained the situation to him when I found he was the salesman for the Burroughs adding machine company. As he left he said, “If I can be of any service, let me know. I sell adding machines d\sometimes where they don’t have any use for them, don’t even want them.”

After a few more days of failure to sell the government people, friends with whom I had taken rooms advised me to go and see this man, as I was not a good talker.

I went to the house where he said he lived with his mother, and a curious thing happened here, which made his mother interested. When I came to the house, there was a front yard with a big tree in it. Their pet cat was at the top of the tree, mewing to get down. I climbed the tree and brought down the cat. And the mother let me in the house, where I waited for the son to get out of bed, for I got there bright and early.

I forgot his name, but recollect that he was one of our Hebrew friends, and must have been a very capable man, for the company had a big office in Washington. I offered him $20 a day if he would go with me and do the talking. I would demonstrate, and he would do the selling, with commission.

Well, to make a long story short, he sold none. He said he did not know the reason.

I tried the offer of cash, as my Washington friends had urged, to a man in one department. It seemed ab out to work, but with the money in one hand, while with the other I tried to get in to sign the contract, I saw that while he would take the money, the contract would be doubtful. So I concluded that it was more costly to find the right way to use graft than to play the game straight.

I left Washington a poor man again. And my financier was getting anxious about me, for I didn’t even write him.

When I got back to New York, one day I walked into the Brewers’ Academy at 23rd St. and Ninth Ave. and showed the Migraf to the man in the office. He said, “Take it out to the chemist. I think he wants one.”

He did, said it was just what he was looking for. So we made a picture on the spot. I went back to the office and said the chemist said it was all right. “Good,” he said. “Leave it here, and I’ll send you a check tomorrow.” He did, $300. And thus I landed my first sale myself. I know they used the machine for years.

Dr. James Moore, a doctor in New York in my own line, one day said, “Go and try Mr. Skogard. He lives in the old Clark house on 22nd St. and was a patient of mine.”

Moore told me that Mr. Clark of the Singer sewing machine company was very musical, and had fitted up a musical apartment in his Dakota Flats on West 72nd. St.; that he found a man by the name of Miner as bass, Bourne, another singer, Skogard another, and himself. They formed a musical combination to use the musical apartment any time they felt like it. He had put each one of them in a way of easily and surely making it. Everybody has heard of Commodore Bourne, who was at the time a librarian and amateur singer. Skogard he gave money enough to live on the rest of this life, some say a million.

Anyway, I went to see him. He had not been married long, I judged, and received me all right. He thought favorably of the migrate and told me to go to the Norwegian Hospital and present it to them from him.

I went there, but they wouldn’t take it. I went to the Xray department, and they said they didn’t know whether it would work or not, even after I showed them. Finally, I was told that if Dr. Powell of the Hoagland Laboratory said it was all right, they would take it.

So I found Dr. Powell, who looked at it and said, “What have I got to do with it?” I told him it was a present to the Norwegian Hospital, but they didn’t now whether it would work or not. He replied, “Of course it will work.”

So I asked him to write “O.K.” on the back of my card and sign it, which he did. Then I took the machine back to the doctor in charge of the hospital, and he gave me a note to Mr. Skogard, who gave me the money a few days later.

The gold-plated machine my backer had me afterward present to the Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeeplsie.

The Mayo Brothers in Rochester, Minn., were interested when I showed  it to them, and their pathologist, Dr. Wilson, bought a special rheostat which he considered the most ingenious thing about it.

In Pittsburgh at the Penn Laboratory, a German was consulted by the Elizabeth Magee Hospital authorities to see if it would work before they considered purchase. I remember well his reply: “Any damn fool knows it will work. Any box with a hole and a lens will take a picture.” They didn’t get one, even then.

At the Rockefeller Institute, Mr. Jerome rang a bell for three different experts to come down to the office and view it. Each said it was all right, and Mr. Jerome asked me to leave my card and he would let me know. But he never did.

Many others I tried, but I was broke and had to get back to business. My backer was discouraged, would put up no more, and began to hound me for the return of his money.

The patents being tied up, I was never able to do anything more with the Migraf. I remember one night showing it at the County Medical Society meeting, but I had operated it and got off the platform so quickly that I was told afterward no one had a chance to see an interesting apparatus. I suppose I unconciously did, because I would have to explain my personal views on certain things which I could not do there.

I have two machines today, and they are in fairly good order – and in constant use by me. The Migraf has not been copied entirely, although the patents on it have expired.

It had long  been my desire to make a demonstration of mycrozymas in the blood stream by moving pictures. The apparatus used, which is the one I showed George Eastman, though a later and better machine, I claim to be the first to make application of for small objects.

Since this microzyma measures less than a twenty-five thousandth of an inch in diameter, a high powered lens is required. I had made them, but not satisfactorily for a clean demonstration. And I wanted to construct an attachment for the apparatus so that a continual focus could be kept while the picture was being made. (I hold patents for such an attachment.)

My dentist sent me to a skillful man, Mr. Carter, and I showed him what I wanted: a sliding telescopic apparatus, one end of which could be attached over any moving picture machine, and the other provided with a pair of spectacles which were to be set in vulcanized rubber fitted to my face and eyes so that no light would leak in.

Mr. Carter said he could do it, and we made an arrangement, I paying him something on account. It required a skillful workman, and he was that. But the next appointment I had with him he did not keep. I afterward learned he was on a spree. Then I was laid up with pneumonia for two months. When I went to see him again, we had some words, and he remarked if I had got drunk I would not have had pneumonia.

He started again on the job. I went to see him one night at the office he had hired outside his day-place, since it was a special job and he didn’t want his boss to receive any part of the price he was to get, to find if the apparatus fitted my face and eyes. If this worked, it would do away with any dark back to stick one’s head into, and have many other advantages.

It was a good job, well and skillfully done, and was all complete but one small thing. And was it absolutely light-tight, was my query to him. I wanted to try it on. He couldn’t see that, so after some argument I fond that he wanted the rest of his money before I could take it away, or even try it on.

I was upset, told him we would call it off, and he could keep the thing. He didn’t know what I wanted it for, and I didn’t tell him. But when he seemed willing to give back my deposit if I left the apparatus, I decided to take a chance on his finishing the job, and pay him the balance of the price contracted for.

Still not knowing what it was for, he said it was worth much more, but I paid him the balance and felt good. He said he would send it up complete in a few days, and add something else which I had not contracted for, but which would be an advantage, without extra expense.

Well, I’ve never seen the man or the fixture since. He went on another drunk.

So no more machines for me, but back to business again. Here are the ideas, let someone else do it. My work has always been done with direct light, not reflected light. So I was gradually  forced to settle down to the use of my apparatus, all of which were finished, practical machines, in my private practice only, and let the world whirl around. I moved into a new neighborhood, after working on these machines fifteen years or more.

12 thoughts on “A Story of His Life By a Man Who Has Never Gotten Anywhere: Robert Lincoln Watkins, M.D., 1863-1934. An Invention 15 Years in the Making Puts the Doc Off Machine-Making for Good.

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