IBM at 100 years!

Next year IBM will celebrate its 100th. birthday. Quite an accomplishments in this business. Actually the number of companies in the USA 100 years or older are very few. On top of it, the computer industry being relatively new has no one even half of IBM’s age.

It is worthwhile to remind ourselves that IBM did not start as a computer company. It’s initial business was tabulators for use at the US census. It got into varieties of counting devices, mostly mechanical and clunky. Only  after the second world war, the idea of digital computers started during the 1940s and 50s.

Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, had famously predicted in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” The early mainframe computers were heavy and needed raised floors, air-conditioning,  and serious power consumption. The magazine Popular Mechanics said back in 1942, “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” IBM’s early mainframes were machines like the 1401 model. This was before the introduction of CRT Terminals for user interaction. Everything was punched into cards and were read optically by passing lights through punched holes.

Thomas Watson Junior, son of the original founder really took IBM to big heights by betting on “IBM 360” during the 1960s. It was a bold move and IBM grew to become a behemoth in our industry. During those years IBM was so far ahead of competition that the group of players were called BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data Corp., Honeywell) or comically called “IBM and the seven dwarfs”.

The IBM 370 helped the fast growth during the 1970s and it also entered the mid-range computer market with its System 36 and 38 followed by the upgraded AS/400 series out of its Rochester, Minnesota lab. IBM entered the Unix workstation market via RS/6000 and AIX platform. At the end of 1981, IBM entered the PC market with the famous Charlie Chaplin branding. It became a huge success and helped Microsoft become the software behemoth.  Some people jokingly called IBM – “I Built Microsoft”.

IBM went through a difficult period and Lou Gerstner came and turned it around. Now IBM is doing well under the leadership of Sam Palmisano. They have moved with the changing times, shedding non-profitable units like the PC division and the hard disk division. The renewed focus on software and services has helped IBM maintain its growth and profitability.

I personally spent 16 years of my life at IBM, from the mid 1970s till early 1990s. The first five years were at IBM Canada and the remaining ones were at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose with a two-year stint at the Austin Lab. My respect for IBM’s leadership and culture is very high. I traveled extensively during my IBM years to many countries and understood the first letter I for “International” well. It is truly an international company.

The fundamental value system created by the Tom Watson father-son duo is exemplary. That has helped sustain such a great company over 100 years. Happy  centennial  IBM!


4 responses to “IBM at 100 years!


    I went through your post today and found it very much informative .
    How are you all . With my heartiest Dewali blessings to all I am waiting to receive an reply .

  2. A couple of quibbles:
    Early card readers used brushes to read cards. Brush reading technology was well proven at the time of the 1401/1402. So far as the reading, the 1402 was basically an 088 card reader. (zero, eight,eight)

    My time was 1961 to 1965, then leasing companies, supporting unit record equipment until about 3 years ago. Still a stockholder from the stock purchase program.

    WRT corporate culture, top level may have been very ethical but the levels I saw as a FE (unit record repair) was a mixed bag with most managers in the two levels above me playing serious CYA rather than fixing the problems. My view may have been skewed because I serviced flash point customers. I was scheduled to 7080 school in 1961 but got shuffled into UR to relieve somebody else who was needed for 1401 training.

  3. thanks for your information. I found the joking name IBM – “I Built Microsoft” as a very interesting one because it is true: the idea to build personal computers and give to Bill Gates the responsability of the software pcs, including also the Bill Gates idea to sell MSDOS with 1 US dollar SLU changed the world and made from MS a great company but who still knows really this history ?

    I would very much appreciate if the people today would know who created the first pc mouse or the display or the personal computer, the first internet communication, the first asynchronous communication, which today are only used. Not at least it is a pity to see books like dummies for old people in age of 60 to work with a laptop or personal computer or with MS Office, forgetting that the first personal computer was made in 1981 by people who are older than 60 now.. 🙂
    Most of the people have no idea that C is a language before they were born having an A and B before, as well as the first multi tasking real time operating system and that C is still the best language we have…
    There are a lot of evolutions in the last time regarding software and hardware but most of them are only for market.
    There are a lot of things to notice and I am wondering each time I read such comments like here about IBM how many people are thinking in the same way as I do…that why I decided to write these words here

    have a nice year,

  4. search for IBM Jargon in the net and you will be surprised of IBM’s own language and abbreviations e.g. CYA like ed fair mentioned above.
    In the UR (unit record) section many engineers were “buried face down, nine to the throat” – an expression of mild esteem.

    Very often nowadays you will find in a forum ” RTFM” Read The oFficial Manual. Used, with variations on the third word, to suggest to someone that instead of wasting anothers time with questions, the manual should be consulted.
    cheers Axel

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