Thomas John Watson, Sr. (February 17, 1874 – June 19, 1956) was the American president of International Business Machines (IBM), who oversaw that company's growth into an international force from the 1920s to the 1950s. Watson developed IBM's effective management style and turned it into one of the most effective selling organizations yet seen, based largely around punched card tabulating machines. A leading self-made industrialist, he was one of the richest men of his time and was called the world's greatest salesman when he died in 1956.
Having given up his first job — teaching — after just one day, he took a year's course in accounting and business at the local Miller School of Commerce; finishing in May 1892. His second job as a $6 a week bookkeeper was almost as brief as his first, giving way to a career as a peddler. He joined a traveling salesman, George Cornwell, peddling organs and pianos around the farms, for the local hardware store (William Bronsons). When Cornwell left, he continued alone, earning the sum of $10 per week. It was only after two years of this life that he realized he would be earning $70 per week if he were on a commission. The impact of his indignation on making this discovery was such that he upped stakes and moved from his familiar surroundings to the relative metropolis of Buffalo.
Watson then spent a very brief period selling sewing machines for Wheeler and Wilcox. According to Tom Watson Jr., in his autobiography, "One day my dad went into a roadside saloon to celebrate a sale and had too much to drink. When the bar closed, he found that his entire rig — horse, buggy, and samples — had been stolen. Wheeler and Wilcox fired him and dunned him for the lost property. Word got around, of course, and it took Dad more than a year to find another steady job." As Tom Jr. went on to say "This anecdote never made it into IBM lore, which is too bad, because it would have helped explain Father to the tens of thousands of people who had to follow his rules."
In the meantime, Watson once more set out on the road selling. In this case, his partner was C B Barron, a showman renowned for his disreputable conduct; which Watson, as a lifelong Methodist, deplored. Jointly they peddled shares of the Buffalo Building and Loan. They were soon very successful, and with his proceeds Watson set up a butchers shop as an investment. Unfortunately, true to form, Barron absconded with the commission and the loan funds, leaving Watson with no money, no investment (he lost the shop as a result), and no job. Thus for the second, but not the last time, he was fired.
In 1908, when the second-hand business was merged into the regular sales offices, Watson became assistant sales manager; moving up to become sales manager in 1910 with a further role — working along with NCR's engineers — in new product development.
In terms of the questionable second-hand business, Watson later claimed that he didn't appreciate the implications of what he was doing, and indeed it is quite possible that he was so immersed in the work that he failed to understand the full depth of Patterson's machinations. Nevertheless, it was a clear, indeed blatant, breach of the anti‑trust legislation; though until that time such legislation had, in the spirit of the age, been more honored in the breach rather than by adherence. Perhaps he was unlucky, but along with 30 other NCR managers (including Patterson) on February 22, 1912 he was indicted in an anti‑trust suit instigated by managers previously.
In the six months before his trial, he met his wife to be, Jeanette Kittredge. He married her just two weeks after the trial finished on February 13, 1913; he having been found guilty and sentenced to a $5,000 fine plus a year in Miami County jail. The jail sentence was unexpected, previously only fines had been imposed; and the sentence was appealed. Charges against Patterson were eventually dismissed because of his efforts to manage the Great Dayton Flood of 1913.
Watson joined the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR) on May 1, 1914. When Watson took over as general manager, the company had fewer than 400 employees. In 1924, he renamed the company 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 and leased more than 90 percent of all tabulating machines in the United States at the time.
Throughout his life, Watson maintained a deep interest in international relations. He was known as President Roosevelt's un-official Ambassador in NY and often entertained foreign statesman. In 1937, he was elected president of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and at that year's biennial congress in Berlin stated the conference keynote to be World Peace Through World Trade. That phrase became the slogan of both the ICC and IBM. He was one of the most prominent businessmen in the Democratic Party. Watson served as a trustee of Columbia University, where he engineered the selection of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president.
Watson personally approved and spearheaded IBM's strategic technological relationship with the Third Reich. In this relationship, IBM helped make Nazi Germany more efficient; as it did its enemies Britain, Soviet Russia, and the United States of America, where IBM did substantial business as well. In 1937, Watson received the Eagle with Star medal from Germany for the help that IBM subsidiary Dehomag (Deutsche Hollerith-Maschinen Gesellschaft mbH) and its punchcard machines provided the Nazi regime for tabulating census data.
After the outbreak of The Second World War, Watson returned the medal, and the German government tried to take ownership of the Dehomag operation, but it in fact, the Third Reich was unable to make the punch cards in Germany and so unable to execute the Holocaust without the support of the NY office of IBM.
In the same time, IBM became more deeply involved in the war effort for the United States of America, focusing on producing large quantities of data processing equipment for the military and experimenting with analog computers. His son Tom Watson Jr. joined the Air Force where he would ferry General Follet Bradley, who was in charge of all Lend-Lease equipment supplied to the Soviet Union from the United States. Watson also developed the 1% doctrine for war profits which mandated that IBM receive no more than 1% profit from the sales of military equipment to U.S. Government. Watson has been one of the few CEO's to develop such a policy.
Watson worked with other local leaders to create a college in the Binghamton area, where IBM was founded and had major plants. In 1946, IBM provided land and funding for Triple Cities College, an extension of Syracuse University. Later it became known as Harpur College, and eventually evolved into Binghamton University. Its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences is named the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, although the IBM plant in the neighboring city of Endicott has since downsized drastically.
After World War II, Watson began work to further the extent of IBM's influence abroad and in 1949, the year he stepped down, created the IBM World Trade Corporation in order to control IBM's foreign business.
Watson was named chairman emeritus of IBM in 1956. A month before his death, Watson handed over the reins of the company to his oldest son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr.
As a Democrat (after his criminal indictment by the Taft Administration) Watson was an ardent supporter of Roosevelt. He was considered Roosevelt's strongest supporter in the business community.
The US Supreme Court, in 1936, upheld the lower court decision that IBM, together with Remington, should cease its practice of requiring its customers to buy their cards from it alone. In the event it made little difference because IBM was the only effective supplier to the market; and profits continued undiminished. As a powerful trustee of Columbia University (June 6, 1933 – death), Watson played the central role in convincing Dwight D. Eisenhower to become president of the school.
In the 1940s, Watson was on the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America and served for a time as International Scout Commissioner. E. Urner Goodman recounts that the elderly Watson attended an International Scout Commissioners' meeting in Switzerland, where the IBM founder asked not to be put on a pedestal. Before the conference was over, Goodman relates, Watson "… sat by that campfire, in Scout uniform, 'chewing the fat' like the rest of the boys". He received the Silver Buffalo Award in 1944. Watson's son Thomas Jr. later served as National president of the Boy Scouts of America from 1964–1968.
Watson was chairman of the Elmira College Centennial Committee in 1955 and gave Watson Hall, primarily a music and mathematics academic building.
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:
The misquote is itself often misquoted, with fifty computers instead of five.
Interestingly, since the quote is typically used to demonstrate the fallacy of predictions, if Watson did make such a prediction in 1943, then, as Gordon Bell pointed out in his ACM 50 years celebration keynote, it would have held true for some ten years.