Thomas John Watson, Jr.

I was so intimately entwined with my father, I had a compelling desire, maybe out of honor for the old gentleman, maybe out of sheer cussedness, to prove to the world that I could excel in the same way that he did.” Tom Watson in the opening page of his autobiography Father, Son & Co: My life at IBM and beyond (1990).

Tom Watson, the son of his equally famous father whose name he bore, led IBM from the punch card and tabulator era into the computer age. Under his direction he made IBM into today’s multi billion dollar company, one of the largest in the modern computer industry.

Thomas John Watson, Jr. was born on January 14, 1914, in Dayton, Ohio. It was only a few weeks after his father, Thomas John Watson, Sr., had been fired by NCR and in the same year that father Watson was appointed General Manager of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (which was renamed to IBM ten years later). The parents would get two daughters, Jane and Helen, and one more son, Arthur, after Tom’s birth. From an early age, the two sons were exposed to their father’s company and Watson later remembered a visit to IBM’s Dayton factory when he was only five. He occasionally had to join his dad on his business travels to Europe as well in order to get accustomed to his future environment as envisioned by Watson, Sr. Later Tom would comment that “My father and I had terrible fights… He seemed like a blanket that covered everything.” It was not surprising since both Watsons were rather stubborn and both could show a volcanic temper. This environment, combined with a form of dyslexia, resulted in Watson being a difficult learner. As a young teenager he suffered from bouts of depression and he lacked self-confidence. He simply could not see himself taking over the helm at IBM and at one stage told his mother: “I can’t go to work for IBM.” All this affected his schooling badly and it took him six years and three schools to complete his high school. Despite his poor results, and with some assistance from his influential father, he managed to get accepted at Brown University, an Ivy League college in Rhode Island. The rebellious Watson’s interests were more in partying, drinking, dancing and the local night life than in his studies. In his freshman year he had learned to fly and apart from this giving him new-found self-confidence, he immediately developed a passion for his new hobby. In 1937, Brown University leniently awarded Watson his B.A. degree.

Starting at IBM

Despite his earlier misgivings, Tom Watson decided in his final year at university to give his father’s company a try. After graduating he became a trainee salesman and started in IBM’s sales training school in Endicott, New York, where his father’s motto “THINK” hung above the front door. At Endicott he was trained in the company’s policies and products, its tabulators, time clocks and card punch machines. After completing his training as salesman he received an excellent sales territory in Manhattan’s financial district – it helped to be the boss’ son – and he was allocated a target of a certain number of sales calls per day. Although he did well, Watson still suffered from self doubt and saw any success as the result of his name and not because of what he did. He very much disliked the job and tried to complete his daily call target during the mornings so he could spend the afternoons on his hobby: flying airplanes. In the evenings he continued his earlier playboy lifestyle of drinking, dancing and nightclubs. At IBM this caused some eyebrows to lift, but Watson, Sr. did not comment too much on “Terrible Tommy’s” behaviour, probably because the Watson name did not show up in the gossip papers.

World War II

When World War II broke out, Thom Watson, Jr. joined the U.S. Army Air Force as a military pilot. To him it meant fulfilling a lifelong dream but he later realised it also had become a turning point in his life. In 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor, he married Olive Cawley who bore him a son in 1944 – Thomas John Watson III – followed by five daughters. They would stay married till Tom’s death. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Watson was assigned to patrol the coast of California, looking for Japanese submarines. Because he could not get on with his Commander, he asked his father to intervene. One week later he was transferred to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas where he successfully promoted the use of flight simulators in pilot training. He soon became aide-de-camp and pilot of Major General Follett Bradley. Bradley took Watson along on his trips to Moscow where Watson often flew or chauffeured him around. His stays in Russia also enabled him to learn Russian which later proved very useful when he became American Ambassador to the Soviet Union. Watson was a skillful pilot and ultimately rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He intended to become a commercial pilot for United Airlines after the war. He later recalled that when he mentioned this in a chance conversation with Bradley, the latter responded: “Really? I always thought you'd go back and run the IBM company.” Watson was stunned and asked him if he thought he could do to the job. “Of course!” replied the general. Bradley’s vote of confidence set Watson thinking and made him change his mind.

Taking over the helm at post-war IBM

In 1946, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. returned to IBM and was promoted to Vice President six months later. Four months later he became a member of the board of directors. The company he found had grown to an annual revenue of $138 million with more than 18,000 very loyal employees. Its product line consisted of tabulators, card punch machines, accounting machines, scales, typewriters, clock card and time recording systems. Post-war IBM was dominant in most of these industries. It soon dawned on Watson that the company’s technology was ageing rapidly and he set about changing its course. He realised that the few modern computers of the early fifties – which we may call ‘primitive’ today as they were all vacuum tube based – vastly outperformed IBM’s fastest tabulators.

Watson hired hundreds of experts in the new field of electronics and invited people, such as John von Neumann, to teach IBM’s scientists and technicians the latest technological developments. He also invested a bigger slice (9%) of IBM’s revenue in Research and Development. Watson, Sr. was less convinced that tabulators were heading for extinction and disagreed. It led to hefty arguments, but the younger Watson dug in his heels.

In 1952, the Department of Justice brought an anti-trust case against IBM. It resulted in a consent decree which forced IBM to give up many of its restrictive trade policies. Since most of this decree involved the use of tabulators, the manufacture of punched cards and punch card equipment, Tom Watson was quite willing to sign the decree to settle the long running case. His father disagreed, as did most of his executives, but Tom foresaw that in years to come this technology would become more and more obsolete so the decree would not really hurt the company. IBM signed the consent decree four years later.

In 1952, Watson became President of IBM. That same year IBM launched the IBM 701, its first large computer based on vacuum tubes. The 701 processed information at a speed of 17,000 instructions per second. Although early canvassing had resulted – to everyone’s surprise – in 30 letters of intent, in the end only 19 computers were installed but this was more than enough to recoup IBM’s $3 million investment. It also proved an excellent learning path for IBM in its quest to become the dominant force in this industry. It also meant a path of fast and furious changes in technology.

On May 8, 1956, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. took over the helm at IBM as Chief Executive Officer from his father. Six weeks later, on June 19, 1956, his father, Thomas J. Watson, Sr. passed away. As Watson described it himself: “When my father died in 1956 — six weeks after making me head of IBM — I was the most frightened man in America. For ten years he had groomed me to succeed him, and I had been a young man in a hurry, eager to take over, cocky and impatient. Now, suddenly, I had the job — but what I didn't have was dad there to back me up.


In 1957, IBM introduced its IBM 305 RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control). The computer system consisted of the 305 processor, the large 350 disk system (with fifty 24-inch diameter disks), operator console, card reader and printer. The IBM 305 RAMAC is depicted on the 2008 Guinea stamp above. The same stamp shows Frances Allen, who joined IBM in 1957. Being an ex-teacher in mathematics, her first task at IBM was to teach its scientists the new FORTRAN programming language – FORTRAN stands for FORmula TRANslation – which had been released on April 15 of that same year.

Watson’s IBM continued building bigger, better and faster computers: In 1958 the IBM 7090 was announced – it was one of the first mainframe computers using transistors and operated at a speed of 229,000 instructions per second.


The IBM 1401 computer

In 1959, IBM announced the IBM 1401 – a highly successful commercial data processing computer with more than 10,000 units sold in its lifespan. The system included the IBM 1403 printer – a fast chain impact printer – the 1311 disk drive which had removable disk packs and the 1402 punch card reader/punch.

80-column punch card mailed in 1969 by a State Department. The punched
holes in the centre represent the permit’s license number R548347.

Since the IBM 1401 was the first computer I got exposed to in the mid sixties as a young trainee programmer, allow me to digress a little and enlighten you with some personal experiences.

I started my IT career as trainee programmer in the computer department at the head office of a large multinational in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. My first task was to learn SPS (Symbolic Programming Systems), the programming language for the 1401. This entailed regular visits to IBM’s head office in Amsterdam to sit their exams. This 1401 computer was housed in a large air-conditioned room with raised flooring (to hide the multitude of cables) and a double door airlock entrance. It was operated on a 24/7 basis by a group of white-coated operators. Programmers, like myself, were only allowed inside this strictly controlled environment for pre-arranged testing sessions or support calls. Our 1401 had the massive memory of 4K (that’s right, not 4Gb, not 4Mb, just 4096 bytes) and did not have a multiply or divide facility. Although this was available from IBM – at a price – the company had decided not to install this option, forcing us to write our own multiply and divide subroutines. All our programs had to run within this 4K limit. As a result we became masters in saving every byte possible, for example by omitting the century in a date of birth or an order date. Our byte-saving skills would later cause the notorious Y2K bug. Mea culpa.
We learned a special jargon which gave new meaning to words like ‘crash’, ‘dump’, ‘abort’ and ‘byte’. Since everybody else in the world was computer illiterate, nobody could follow our discussions. We had become a special breed and we loved it. When our 1403 printer started malfunctioning in a single position, we opened its inside and with the help of a soldiering iron managed to get it back to work. On this computer we ran the payroll, invoicing, accounting and a few other applications for about a dozen daughter companies in the Netherlands. Once a month we ran a FORTRAN program which used linear programming techniques to calculate the optimum production parameters for the making of margarine by one of its companies using dozens of variables. The program ran overnight as it took more than 12 hours to complete the calculations. It gave me my first exposure to FORTRAN, an exhilarating experience.

When in 1967 our company expanded the 1401’s memory from its 4K to a massive 8K, we were dumbfounded: what do you do with all that extra memory? Imagine us when one year later the company acquired its first IBM 360/40 with 64K of memory – 64,000 bytes for us to play with! It could even run more than one program at a time. Imagine that! It also made me to become expert in two more languages, COBOL and PL/1.

We once gave a demonstration of our 1401 computer to the Board of Directors and convinced them that this electronic wonder could recognize colours. We put a deck of cards in the hopper of the 1402 reader. The deck consisted of red, blue and green cards. Pressing a button resulted in the computer separating the cards quickly with each colour landing up in a different stack. The executives were most impressed and now understood why this machine was so expensive. Obviously they did not realize that the deck of cards started with a small program selecting each card on a certain code – all the red cards had a “1” in column 1, the green cards had a “2”, etc.

Our 1401 SPS source programs were punched in 80-column cards – woe the programmer who had not punched the sequence numbers in his source deck and dropped his deck of cards on the floor. This source deck went through a 2-pass assembler to convert it to a punched object deck. Program errors were fixed in the source following which the 2-pass assembler process had to run again. The more experienced programmer managed to patch his object deck with small red patches which covered a punched hole. Additional holes we punched using a hand punch which we operated with a soon acquired dexterity of our fingers. This often circumvented a number of compilation runs. An even faster way was to directly modify the program in memory at run time by using the switches and knobs on the impressive looking 1401’s front panel. At my company we could only do that overnight by booking a few hours of dedicated computer time. One had to keep track of all these direct memory patches, but it saved me many days of testing as the normal turnaround for a single test run was 24 hours.
Those were the days, my friends.

The Swedish meter mark on the left promotes IBM’s new System/360 computer.
The Ivory Coast stamp shows an IBM S/360 CPU on the left, an operator at her console,
a punch card in the top right and ferrite core memory in the bottom right.

IBM Series/360

On April 7, 1964, IBM introduced its biggest gamble. Watson had spent more than $5 billion developing a new family of computers, the Series S/360. Compare this investment against its annual revenue of around $1.8 billion in 1960. The S/360 used integrated circuits - originally invented by Jack Kilby in 1958.

Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit, colloquially called the “chip”.
The Togo stamp shows a modern computer chip.

The S/360 series allowed users to start with a small version and upgrade this when more data processing power was required. The smallest computer in its range was the model 20, followed by the model 30, 40, 50, 65 and 75 with each higher model having more computing and processing power going up to 1.7 million instructions per second. The models were upward compatible, i.e. programs written for a certain model could run on a higher version within the range. This was a new feature and unknown in previous computers. It made migrating to a larger system – and obviously a larger price tag – that much easier for a customer. The S/360 even had a facility to run old 1401 programs under emulation. This made it even attractive for die-hard 1401 customers in need of more processing power to switch over to the new S/360. The upgradability was also the reason for its name: 360 degrees in a circle. Although suffering from the most common of problems in the computer industry – software that is faulty and/or delivered late – which caused panic stations at IBM, Watson’s $5 billion gamble was a runaway success and it reduced the computer industry worldwide so to speak to just two players: IBM and the BUNCH – with BUNCH standing for Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data Corporation and Honeywell. In the United States IBM had two more competitors – RCA and General Electric – resulting in the expression: Snow White (IBM) and the Seven Dwarfs. Big Blue (another nickname for IBM because of the blue colour of its computers) had become the world leader in the computer industry while the rest played more or less just a minor role. In 1970 - IBM now had an installed base of 35,000 computers – IBM announced the new System/370 family of computers, which was as expected compatible with the S/360. The S/370 used new concepts such as virtual memory, relational database technology and semiconductors.

The IBM logos

IBM pre-war (December 1940!) cover with its globe-like logo. The stamp is perfin’ed with IBM’s own perfin “BIM” which was in use at its New York offices from 1926 until 1954.

Since 1924 IBM used the above globe-like logo. It has been in use until 1946.

On January 1, 1947, Watson, Sr. decided to change the old style pre-war logo.
The famous globe was replaced with the large open letters IBM in a font called “Beton Bold”.
Although superseded in 1956, the logo would stay around until the eighties.

One of the first things Thomas J. Watson, Jr. did after assuming control in 1956,
was to reflect the change in command by changing the company’s logo.
He changed the open Beton Bold letters to solid letters.
Few meter marks exist showing both logos such as the one above from Austria.

In 1972, after Watson, Jr. had retired, the company modernised its logo and
changed it to its present version with eight horizontal stripes, usually in light blue.

Versions with 13 stripes – although not mentioned by the IBM Archives on the internet – also exist with dates prior
to 1972. The Egypt stamp of 2004 also shows a 13-stripes logo and commemorates IBM’s start in Egypt in 1954.

Watson retires

Although Watson intended to retire at age 60, i.e. in 1974, he suffered a heart attack towards the end of 1970. After having recuperated he decided to retire and stepped down as IBM Chairman and CEO on June 29, 1971. He had grown IBM to an industrial giant with a turnover of more than $8 billion while employing 256,000 employees worldwide.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter asked him to serve as Ambassador to the Soviet Union which he did until January 1981. In the early sixties President John Kennedy had already asked him to serve as Chairman of the General Advisory Committee which gives the President advice on nuclear defense issues and strategy.

Watson had also become a philanthropist and donated to many institutions:
Columbia University received donations from him and established the Thomas J. Watson Library of Business and Economics; it opened in 1964. The university also received funds to establish Watson House in the early eighties to provide accommodation for undergraduate senior students.
In 1968, Watson established the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship enabling graduating seniors of about 40 colleges to spend one year of study outside the United States.
In 1981, Watson founded the Watson Institute for International Studies at his alma mater, the Brown University in Rhode Island, to explore solutions to major global issues and to function as a centre for the development of foreign policy.
Watson contributed to the Greenwich Hospital in Connecticut which opened its new Olive and Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Pavilion in 2005.

In 1990, Watson published his autobiography Father, Son & Co: My life at IBM and beyond.

Following complications after a stroke, Thomas John Watson, Jr. died at the age of 79 on December 31, 1993, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Nearly eleven years later, his wife for 52 years, Olive, died on November 13, 2004 at her home in Greenwich.

Thomas John Watson, Jr. honoured

1964 – President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in America.
1976 – Inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame.
1986 – Fortune magazine showed Watson on its cover and named him “The Most Successful Capitalist in History”.

On June 30, 1999, Palau, a small island group in the West Pacific, issued a 25-stamp sheet titled “The Information Age: Visionaries in the Twentieth Century”. The sheet portrayed well-known personalities in the Information Technology (IT) industry. For more details on this sheet, see my earlier article About Cyber Geeks, Gurus and Geniuses published in 2001. Rightfully, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. has been included in this collection of 28 modern cyber heroes by being depicted on the 4th stamp of row 3. The stamp is shown at the top of this article and is the only philatelic item commemorating this icon.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2010

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