1874, Campbell, NY
Watson inspired unprecedented loyalty in his employees. At sales rallies, his staff was not embarrassed to belt out verses of the CTR song, idolizing the father of their company: "Mister Watson is the man we're working for/He's the leader of the CTR/He's the fairest, squarest man we know; sincere and true. /He has shown us how to play the game./ And how to make the dough."
Photos: Courtesy of IBM Archives
Advanced Business Machines
A master salesman and forward-thinker helped bring business machines into the computer age.
Thomas J. Watson was born in 1874 in Campbell, New York. One of his first jobs was selling pianos and sewing machines door-to-door. At age 23, he went to work as a salesman for the National Cash Register Company. Six years later, his boss and mentor, the powerful John Patterson, assigned him to a secret project to put competitors out of business. Partly because of this covert sales warfare, Watson, Patterson and others would be prosecuted in 1913 under new anti-trust laws enacted to prevent business monopolies.
Computing, Tabulating, Recording
After President Woodrow Wilson's administration dropped the case in 1915, Watson became general manager of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, a business that dealt in business information devices like time clocks, punch-card tabulators, and scales that weighed food and calculated its price. Watson immediately focused on research, betting that the business trends of automation and information recording would only increase. He was right.
Watson made his company a good place to work, paying attention to rational work-group structures, employee deportment, and job benefits and security. In 1924 he renamed his steadily-expanding empire International Business Machines. The company survived the stock market crash of 1929 and profited from New Deal policies during the Depression. Suddenly, American employers had to keep track of employee time in order to pay into the nation's new Social Security fund. Only Watson's I.B.M. was poised to provide the technology.
Into the Computer Age
In 1938, Watson helped open the door to the computer age by underwriting Harvard scientist Howard Aiken's idea to build a digital calculating machine, the Mark I. During World War II, Watson doubled I.B.M.'s workforce to 22,000 people, providing war materiel as well as computation machines that aided thousands of complex military logistics decisions. The company's Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, nicknamed Poppy, debuted in 1947, the first I.B.M. machine to use electronics. Watson next asked his researchers to develop business machines based on the electronics technology they had invented in their showpiece machines. His company prospered; he died in 1956, shortly after his son, Thomas Watson, Jr. took his place at I.B.M.'s helm.