The Watson Dynasty: 10th anniversary on a IBM Historical Account
I read The Watson Dynasty, by Richard S. Tedlow back in 2003 when it was first published. Ten years later I’m re-reading this IBM Classic account and re-introducing myself to the mindset and philosophies of IBM’s founding father and son, T.J. Watson Sr. and T.J. Watson Jr.
The book is interesting from the point of view of adventures in business and rags to riches empire building. While the book certainly talks about and touches on the great innovations and technology that IBM created, the purpose of the book is to account the history of how IBM grew into the powerhouse its knows for by the Watson father and son leadership.
Thomas J. Watson Senior
Starting with Thomas J. Watson Senior’s life and character you get a sense right off the introduction that this is not your typical business leader. The opening example of taking what would be a crippling train accident with hundreds of his employees during IBM Day at the second New York World’s Fair in 1940, and turning it into an flourishing opportunity.
I found T.J. Watson’s life a fascinating and relentless battle. Here’s an excerpt at age twenty-one:
‘The only place for him to rest his head at night was a pile of sponges in the basement of a store. Watson went from rags to riches, but he did not begin life in rags. He worked his way down before he worked his way up.’
What’s interesting is learning how at the roots of IBM’s history was computation devices such as scales and cash registers. It was through a series of lucky opportunities and hard work and love of selling that allowed T.J. Watson Sr. at the beginning of his career to found International Business Machines and turn it into a market leader. In fact he was so successful and so cut throat to the competition he was faced under devastating anti-trust lawsuit in a former company he headed the sales with before founding IBM.
T.J. Watson Sr. is also certainly known for his famous quote,
“Would you like me to give you a formula for… success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
This philosophy is captured by Tedlow as he touches on some other gems I found interesting about Senior.
‘Senior was a big tipper…His son asked why.
“I do this for two reason, Tom. First, that fellow…I feel sorry for him. The second reason is that there is a whole class of people in the world who are in position to poor-mouth you unless you are sensitive to them…They see you in an intimate fashion and can really knock off your reputation.”
Junior (aka “Terrible Tommy Watson”)
After getting a sense of T.J Watson Sr. as the “Man of Men”, the book begins to account the life and character of Junior. Described by college presidents and administration people as a “predetermined failure”. It’s difficult not to feel sorry for “Terrible Tommy” overshadowed by his father’s legacy and depending on his father’s influence to get him into Brown University.
The bickering between father and son only intensifies as Junior followed in his father’s footsteps working and leading IBM on.
“Terrible Tommy failed at most of the things he tired.”
It interesting to see how “Terrible Tommy” despite other people’s expectations and the battles between him and his father how he later saves IBM from “The Old Man” as the dawn of electronic computers arrived and later the pushing force behind mainframes.
Intangible vs. The Punch Card in Hand
It’s half way in the book, Chapter 17, before electronic computers are introduced. Before that IBM was running a sophisticated business with sophisticated technology running gears to compute and calculate the numbers for businesses. This way of doing the job obviously takes a drastic change once World War II introduced a “computer revolution”.
The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (or ENIAC) project, funded by the Army Ballistic Research Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering, proved to out perform IBM’s fastest punch card machines in 5000 additions per second to 4!
While ENIAC at the time was acres of vacuum tubes that attracted moths (hence the term “debugging”) the “electronic brain” was born!
It’s interesting obviously in hindsight as the first computers were being engineered and IBM trying to convince customers the validity and utility of this new technology. Senior had the customer’s interest in mind with having a tangible IBM punch card with the information that could be held in the hand, while Junior represented the new generation and influence where information was moving on to magnetic tapes becoming an intangible solution to storage woes of some of IBM’s biggest customers. One of the them described they had 3 floors of typists on punch cards.
The true arch in the story, and what will interest many Millennial Mainframers, is the intense gamble IBM took creating System/360. It was without a doubt a HUGE undertaking. Tedlow quite boldly states:
‘The System/360 was one of the two greatest new product introductions in the twentieth-century American business history. The other was the Model T Ford.’
It goes into detail explaining how System/360 took $5 billion over a period of four years and close to 2000 programmers. The name 360 was in reference to all points of the compass.
Internal conflict and shaky belief that System/360 would ever succeed threatened the entire project as it slowly progressed forward. When it was finally revealed the earliest customers were Bank of America and NASA proving to be a compelling and superior product that it brought about another antitrust lawsuit against IBM.
I liked the book. Although be warned its a historical account of IBM and the Watson Dynasty, thus the hardcore nerdy technological details are missing and broadly covered. Tedlow however does a fantastic job covering the historic business of IBM.
Probably the most interesting aspects of this book is that despite IBM being a huge empire making big moves and influencing the business world, at the center of it all was some family drama.
My favorite part obviously is the struggle and calculated risk IBM took pushing System/360 into the world. System/360 was the predecessor of the now famous z/OS mainframe operating system still used extensively today.
I recommend checking this book out!
(Read more about The Watson Dynasty here: The Watsons: IBM’s Troubled Legacy )
*** full disclosure: some of the Amazon links have affiliate links to support Sean McBride’s efforts with MillennialMainframer.com ***