Chapter 9: It's not about being First -- the Rise and Rise of IBM

The idea for this chapter grew out of the other stories. Though IBM wasn’t in at the start, I found that time and again these stories ended up with IBM as the presence that lurked in the background and loomed ever larger as the 50s passed and turned into the sixties. So the UNIVAC burst onto the scene in the US Presidential election of 1952, but within a few years was being outsold by the IBM. Remington Rand couldn’t “productionise” or sell like IBM. By 1960 IBM had Election Night coverage in the bag.
The Rand 409 was an intriguing byroad, and a very successful niche market computer in the 60s but by then IBM’s superior products had it beaten.
LEO engineers still believe they had a better approach to business computing, but as Frank Land said “IBM were big”. The LEO name disappeared in 1967, just as sales of the legendary IBM 360 rose into the stratosphere.
Soviet computing owed little to western technology until the mid 60s,but even it wasn’t immune from the IBM effect and in 1967 the government made the fateful decision to stop developing their indigenous designs and copy the IBM architecture.
Australia too, though in at the start of the computer age, dropped out of rival design early on and by the 60s were mostly buying IBM like everyone else.
So I had to find out why this company, which had seemed so wedded to the outmoded technology of punched card calculation after the war could so suddenly, so belatedly yet so effectively come to dominate the computing market almost as much as it had dominated punched card computing.
It’s a fantastic story and if my account reads critically in many places that is only because I’m trying to be as fair and balanced as my journalistic training emphasised. Thomas Watson Senior was a truly extraordinary man and his early experiences with “the Cash” as National Cash Register was then known, clearly formed him. Capitalism was a rough and brutal world then, but he learnt about dedication to the company, absolute loyalty, how to sell and the importance of continuous innovation. Also, at a time when it was not the norm, about the value of looking after your employees.
True, he failed to realise the importance of electronic computing as early as Eckert, Mauchly and the rest, but he had groomed his son to replace him and he had built a great corporation with the skills to rapidly design and manufacture its own version of this new device, to package it much better than any rivals, and above all to sell it. A company in other words that could come up with the killer blow in the 60s, the IBM 360 family.
Last update 21/3/05