In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell uttered the indelible words, “Mr.Watson, come here, I want to see you,” and ushered in a new era. Thomas A. Watson, by most accounts, played a critical role in the invention of the telephone as we know it today. Yet Bell got the patent, most of the money, and virtually all of the fame associated with that invention—and Watson got relegated to a historical footnote.

A team of scholars has taken a close look at people like Watson. “[Everyone knows] about...

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