Thomas J. Watson

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Thomas J. Watson, Sr. (February 17, 1874June 19, 1956) is considered to be the founder of International Business Machines (IBM). He was one of the richest men of his time and called the world's greatest salesman when he died.

Thomas Watson, pictured in 1917, is considered the founder of IBM.
Thomas Watson, pictured in 1917, is considered the founder of IBM.


Early life and career

Watson was born in Campbell, New York. His formal education consisted of only a course in the Elmira School of Commerce. His first job was at age 18 as a bookkeeper in Clarence Risley's Market in Painted Post, New York. Later he sold sewing machines and musical instruments before joining the National Cash Register Company (NCR) as a salesman in Buffalo. He eventually worked his way up to general sales manager. Bent on inspiring the dispirited NCR sales force, Watson introduced the motto, "THINK," which later became a widely known symbol of IBM.

While at NCR, he was convicted for illegal anti-competitive sales practices (e.g. he used to have people sell deliberately faulty cash registers, either second-hand NCR or from competitors; soon after the second-hand NCR or competitors cash register failed, an NCR salesperson would arrive to sell them a brand new NCR cash register). He was sentenced, along with John H. Patterson (the owner of NCR), to one year of imprisonment. Their conviction was unpopular with the public, due to the efforts of Patterson and Watson to help those affected by the 1913 Dayton, Ohio floods, but efforts to have them pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson were unsuccessful. However, the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction on appeal in 1915, on the grounds that important defense evidence should have been admitted.

Watson married Jeanette M. Kittredge on April 17, 1913. The couple had two sons and two daughters. Both sons followed him into the family business, rising to top executive positions at IBM. The older son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., became head of IBM shortly before his father's death. The younger son, Arthur K. Watson, served as president of IBM World Trade Corp., the company's international operations.

Head of IBM

Watson became the president of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company on May 1, 1914. This was a company that had only been in existence for three years. When he took the job, the company had fewer than 400 employees. In 1924 the company took the name International Business Machines. Watson built IBM into such a powerful force that the federal government filed a civil antitrust suit against them in 1952. IBM owned more than 90 percent of all tabulating machines in the United States at the time.

He considered an important part of his job to motivate the sales force. As part of this, he was famous for making his salespeople at both NCR and IBM attend sing-a-longs (see The IBM Songbook below).

Throughout his life, Watson maintained a deep interest in international relations. He adopted for IBM the slogan, "World Peace Through World Trade," worked closely with the International Chamber of Commerce and in 1937 was elected its president. For many years Mr. Watson served as a trustee of Columbia University and Lafayette College. He was presented with honorary degrees by 27 colleges and universities in the United States and four abroad. This work, however, was not without controversy. In 1937, Watson received the Eagle with Star medal from German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, for the help that IBM subsidiary Dehomag and its Hollerith punchcard machines provided the Nazi regime for tabulating census data. After the outbreak of World War II, Watson returned the medal, and the German government took control of the Dehomag operation.

Watson was named chairman of IBM in September 1949. A month before his death, Watson handed over the reins of the company to his older son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr. His other son, Arthur K. Watson, served as president of IBM World Trade Corp.

He lived at 4 East Seventy-fifth Street in Manhattan at the time of his death. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

The business historian Robert N. Sobel published Thomas Watson, Sr.: IBM and the Computer Revolution in 1981.

Famous misquote

Although Watson is well known for his alleged 1943 statement: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," there is no evidence he ever made it. The author Kevin Maney tried to find the origin of the quote, but has been unable to locate any speeches or documents of Watson's that contain this, nor are the words present in any contemporary articles about IBM. The earliest known citation is from 1986 on Usenet in the signature of a poster from Convex Computer Corporation as "I think there is a world market for about five computers" --Remark attributed to Thomas J. Watson (Chairman of the Board of International Business Machines), 1943.

However, in 1985 the story was discussed on Usenet (in net.misc), without Watson's name being attached. The original discussion has not survived, but an explanation has; it attributes a very similar quote to the Cambridge mathematician Professor Douglas Hartree, around 1951:

I went to see Professor Douglas Hartree, who had built the first differential analyzers in England and had more experience in using these very specialized computers than anyone else. He told me that, in his opinion, all the calculations that would ever be needed in this country could be done on the three digital computers which were then being built -- one in Cambridge, one in Teddington, and one in Manchester. No one else, he said, would ever need machines of the own, or would be able to afford to buy them.
(quotation from an article by Lord Bowden; American Scientist vol 58 (1970) pp 43-53); cited on Usenet


  • Maney, Kevin (2003). The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson, Sr. and the Making of IBM. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0471414638.
  • Black, Edwin. IBM and the Holocaust.

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Thomas J. Watson, Jr.
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