No one in our profession can fail to be interested in the cosmogonical question, Where did IBM come from? in the theological question, Is IBM good or evil? or in the terminal question, What will happen to IBM? This autobiography by the junior member of what Eric Weiss calls the Trinity describes the origins of the world’s greatest corporation, casts a vigorous vote for its virtue, and hints persuasively at an unlimited future.
The IBM of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was the creation of Thomas J. Watson Sr., who became a world figure towering over his rather small company. When I was hired in 1945 as IBM’s second scientist (and its first employee with a beard), sales were only $140 million, but IBM was already thought of as an international power, and the old man was maneuvering a placid Dwight Eisenhower toward the U.S. presidency.
Watson Senior welded the rudder of The Good Ship IBM in place--attention to customers, benefits for employees, and liberal politics, along with THINK signs, blue suits, and white shirts. A few of his parameters were annulled: lease-only died with the 1956 consent decree. But while Watson Jr. and a collection of golden boys dashed madly about on the bridge, IBM continued on course for the Fortunate Isles, as the founder had ordained.
Tom Junior and his co-author--who obviously did a magnificent job in the company archives and by interviewing key characters in the drama--tell the story well. The book looks impressive, although it has minor flaws: an imperfect index, “punch card” and “punch-card” instead of “punched card,” “Air Force” instead of “Air Corps,” and sickly endpapers. I was delighted to see an appreciation of Bill Rodgers’s unauthorized biography .
The book includes an unattractive amount of whining about what a bad, bad son Tom was, how he mishandled his family and his brother Dick, and his preference for flying and sailing over business decision-making. Computer people can skip lightly over that. The stories of IBM’s dominance of punched card data processing, its vigorous entry on the technical computing scene in the mid-1940s, its decision in 1950 to challenge Univac by building the 700-series computers, and its creation of the 360 family in 1964 are fascinating, however.
Readers must recognize that neither author has any real grasp of computer hardware or software or any feel for the user community and its problems. Tom Junior was a salesman, then an executive in his father’s shadow, and finally CEO for 15 years. He manipulated engineers, manufacturing people, and salesmen--yes, and customers--with considerable skill. But he was not a computer man in the sense that Bill Norris, Ken Olsen, and Gene Amdahl are.
Tom and his henchmen were afraid of General Electric in 1956, of RCA in 1965, of the Washington antitrust pygmies, of European rivals. The long story about the “necessity” to develop, announce, sell, manufacture, install, and service the 360 is engrossing--and completely misleading.
Certainly Tom Junior, Vin Learson, and Dick Watson all believed they were being overtaken by the competition and had to make an enormous investment--“bet the company,” as goggle-eyed journalists wrote--to stay in front. As we all know, they made that investment. But I was consulting for Univac Europe at the time, and could see only too clearly that neither Univac nor any other of the Seven Dwarfs, nor all seven collectively, could pick up any major share of the IBM customer base if the 360 fell on its face. They did not have the sales forces, the manufacturing capacities, or the service organizations. If the competition had increased its share of the world market by 50 percent--an unimaginable accomplishment--IBM’s share would have dropped from 70 percent to 55 percent.
So the central drama of the son’s book, and of his career, is a hollow one. The real branch point was when Watson Senior decided to best the frontrunners in big computers and funded the Defense Calculator--the IBM 701.
Shakespeare said in Twelfth Night that “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” IBM was born great, and Watson Senior truly achieved greatness. As for Tom Watson Junior, the book tells his story.