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Thomas J. Watson

AKA Thomas John Watson, Sr.

Born: 17-Feb-1874
Birthplace: Campbell, NY
Died: 19-Jun-1956
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Sleepy Hollow, NY

Gender: Male
Religion: Presbyterian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Business

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Led IBM into the computer era

Thomas J. Watson was not the founder of IBM, but he was the driving force that catapulted the company from a nondescript manufacturer of office equipment to the modern giant that drives computers worldwide.

He was born in 1874 and educated in a one-room schoolhouse. As a young man he attended college only briefly, but found it boring. He worked as an accountant for a small-town grocery store, then performed similar duties at a hardware shop, and later he sold sewing machines and stocks.

He worked for several years as a salesman for the National Cash Register Co., where he had a strong sales record and eventually rose to management. In 1913 he was among numerous NCR executives who were charged in a complex anti-trust scheme that involved setting up shadow companies that operated as ostensible competitors to NCR but were actually NCR fronts. Watson was convicted but never served jail time. According to some accounts his antitrust conviction was overturned on appeal, but records suggest that his appeal was rejected by the appellate court, and never heard.

Leaving NCR, Watson joined the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) as General Manager in 1914, was promoted to President the following year, and added the title Chief Executive Officer in 1924. He was known for enforcing a strict office dress code dark suit, white shirt and for his rather straightforward motto "Think" which he had printed on business cards and wall posters.

CTR was a profitable but not dominant concern, manufacturing time-clocks and other business and shop furnishings and equipment, even including meat choppers and coffee millers. Its best-selling products were punch-cards and punch-card tabulating machines, which allowed the assembly of data and preparation of statistics in the era before computers. After being promoted to CEO, Watson's first act was to change the 33-year-old company's name to International Business Machines (IBM).

He was CEO of IBM for decades, but two decisions, brilliant in retrospect, marked his long tenure. First, as the Great Depression struck in 1929, he decided not to lay off large numbers of workers, and instead kept the company's factories going, stockpiling inventory. In the first three years of the Depression, as competitors cut back on manufacturing, IBM actually increased its production substantially, based on Watson's belief that as the economy improved orders would eventually return and when that happened, IBM would be able to fill orders faster than its competitors, because its machines were already built and ready to ship. It was a dicey gamble, but Watson was right.

His second momentous decision came in 1937, when Watson authorized Howard Aiken's proposal to build a program-controlled super-calculator at IBM's experimental facility in Endicott, New York. The project cost IBM almost half a million dollars (an astonishing amount in the 1930s) and Aiken's prototype, dubbed the Mark I computer or IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), was far too huge and expensive to be manufactured or sold. It weighed thirty-five tons, and had more than 700,000 mechanical parts and 530 miles of wiring. Still, it worked, and it was great publicity for IBM, giving the company its grounding and reputation as a leader in a new industry, and beginning Big Blue's transformation from a maker of accounting devices to the world's dominant computer company.

Watson handed the company's leadership to his son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr, in 1956, and suffered a fatal heart attack five weeks later.

Wife: Jeanette M. Kittredge (m. 17-Apr-1913, two sons, two daughters)
Son: Thomas J. Watson, Jr. (later head of IBM, b. 1914, d. 1993)
Daughter: Jane Watson Irwin (m. John N. Irwin II)
Daughter: Helen Watson Buckner
Son: Arthur K. Watson (President, IBM World Trade Corporation, d. 1974)

    High School: Addison Academy, Addison, NY
    University: Elmira School of Commerce, Elmira, NY (attended, briefly)
    Administrator: Trustee, Columbia University
    Administrator: Trustee, Lafayette College

    IBM President & CEO (1924-56)
    IBM President, Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. (1915-24)
    IBM Gen Mgr, Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. (1914-15)
    NCR Sales Manager (1909-13)
    NCR Salesman (1899-1909)
    American Philosophical Society 1984
    Boy Scouts of America
    Council for Moderation 1935
    Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels
    Japan Society
    Metropolitan Museum of Art
    New York Metropolitan Opera
    Cross of Merit of the Decoration of the German Eagle with Star Berlin, Germany (Jul-1937)
    French Legion of Honor
    Order of Merit
    Silver Buffalo 1944
    Antitrust Violations Convicted (1913)
    Risk Factors: Aviophobia

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