Thomas Watson, Jr.
1914 - 1993
The man who built IBM into a computer giant was racked by angst
at the notion of filling his father's shoes. But worry was a
By JOHN GREENWALD for Time Magazine
eldest son of the president of International Business Machines,
Thomas Watson Jr. grew up tortured by self-doubt. He suffered
bouts of depression and once burst into tears over the thought
that his formidable father wanted him to join IBM and eventually
run what was already a significant company. "I can't do it," he
wailed to his mother. "I can't go to work for IBM."
Yet 26 years later, Watson not only succeeded his father but
also would eventually surpass him. IBM is now synonymous with
computers, even though the company did not invent the device
that would change our life, nor had it shipped a single computer
before Tom Jr. took over.
But he boldly took IBM — and the world — into the computer age,
and in the process developed a company whose awesome sales and
service savvy and dark-suited culture stood for everything good
and bad about corporate America. No wonder the Justice
Department sought (unsuccessfully) to break it up.
Under Tom Jr., Big Blue put its logo on 70% of the world's
computers and so thoroughly dominated the industry that even
rivals like Univac--which built the first large commercial
computer — were dismissed as merely part of "the Bunch." And
while newcomers such as Compaq and Microsoft brought the company
to its knees in the 1980s, the colossus that Watson inherited
and reinvented in the 1950s and '60s stands strong again today,
the sixth largest U.S. company. Not a bad legacy for someone who
spent his youth "convinced that I had something missing" inside.
A perpetually failing student, "Terrible Tommy" Watson vented
his frustration by pulling pranks and tangling with authority.
He needed six years and three schools to get through high
school, and managed to graduate from Brown University only
through the forbearance of a sympathetic dean. The young playboy
rated the pleasures of drinking and dancing far above those of
Watson enrolled in IBM sales school after college and hated that
as well. He devoted more time to indulging his passions for
flying airplanes by day and partying by night than to calling on
clients. Even so, Watson filled his entire sales quota for 1940
on the first day of that year — but only because the company had
thrown the boss's son a big account to make him look good.
World War II liberated Tom Watson Jr. from his demons. His
success in promoting the use of flight simulators earned him a
job as aide and pilot for Major General Follett Bradley, the
Army Air Forces' inspector general. Watson flew throughout Asia,
Africa and the Pacific, displaying steel nerves and shrewd
foresight and planning skills. He was set to fly for United Air
Lines after the war when a chance conversation with Bradley
changed his course. Informed of Watson's job plans, the general
said, "Really? I always thought you'd go back and run the IBM
company." A stunned Watson asked Bradley if he really thought
his former aide up to the job. The general replied, "Of course."
The IBM that Watson went home to was an American icon. It was
the outgrowth of a debt-ridden maker of scales, time clocks and
accounting machines that his father took charge of in 1914 — the
year Tom Jr. was born. The elder Watson created a fanatically
loyal work force at IBM — the company's name since 1924 —
hanging think signs everywhere, leading employee sing-alongs
(corporate anthem: Hail to IBM) and dictating everything from
office attire (white shirt, dark suit) to policies on smoking
and drinking (forbidden on the job and strongly discouraged off
it). IBM dominated the market for punch-card tabulators —
forerunners of computers that performed such tasks as running
payrolls and collating census data.
Back from the war, Tom Jr. saw IBM afresh and quickly realized
that its future lay in computers, not a 19th century information
technology like tabulators. Even the first primitive vacuum-tube
machines could calculate 10 times as fast as IBM's tabulators.
Many people, however, including Watson's father, couldn't
believe the company's core products were headed for extinction.
Nonetheless, Tom Jr., who became IBM president in 1952, never
retreated. He recruited electronics experts and brought in
luminaries like computer pioneer John von Neumann to teach the
company's engineers and scientists. By 1963, IBM had grabbed an
8-to-1 lead in revenues over Sperry Rand, the manufacturer of
Watson, who shared his father's volcanic temper, was just
warming up. Fearful of falling behind in the fast-changing
industry, Watson promoted "scratchy, harsh" individuals and
pressured them to think ahead. (When IBM engineers complained
that transistors were unreliable, Watson handed out transistor
radios and challenged the critics to wear them out.) He never
backed away from conflict, not even what he called "savage,
primal and unstoppable" fights with his father over issues like
finance. He installed a "contention" system that encouraged IBM
managers to challenge one another. Watson was paternal with
rank-and-file employees, but he was murder on his lieutenants,
in accordance with his dictum that "the higher the monkey
climbs, the more he shows his ass."
With IBM clearly on top in the early '60s, Watson took one of
the biggest gambles in corporate history. He proposed spending
more than $5 billion--about three times IBM's revenues at the
time — to develop a new line of computers that would make the
company's existing machines obsolete. The goal was to replace
specialized units with a family of compatible computers that
could fill every data-processing need. Customers could start
with small computers and move up as their demands increased,
taking their old software along with them. This flexibility
inspired the name System/360, after the 360 degrees in a circle.
The strategy nearly failed when software problems created
delivery delays. Panic raced through IBM's top echelons as
rivals closed in. A desperate Watson ousted his younger brother
Dick as head of engineering and manufacturing for the System/360
project, derailing the younger man's career and filling Watson
Ultimately, System/360, which revolutionized the industry,
proved to be wildly successful as well. IBM's base of installed
computers jumped from 11,000 in early 1964 to 35,000 in 1970,
and its revenues more than doubled, to $7.5 billion. At the same
time, IBM's market value soared from about $14 billion to more
than $36 billion.
A heart attack forced Watson to retire at age 57 in 1971,
leaving him plenty of time for such adventures as retracing a
flight across Siberia that he had made during the war. A
lifelong Democrat (his father had been a Franklin Roosevelt
confidant), Watson served for two years as Jimmy Carter's
ambassador to Moscow.
But perhaps his proudest achievement was to emerge from the
shadow of a legendary, relentlessly demanding father. In his
first five years as chairman, the younger Watson observed the
anniversary of his father's death in 1956 with a ritual. He
quietly took stock of what IBM had accomplished since his father
died, and then said to his wife, "That's another year I've made
it in his absence."
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. (1914-1993) assumed control of
International Business Machines (IBM) from his father in 1956.
Under his leadership, IBM entered the computer market, focusing
on sales, service, and adaptation. He also changed IBM's
management style and invested in new plants and laboratories.
Toward the end of his life, Watson became involved in arms
control and Soviet-U.S. relations, serving as the ambassador to
the Soviet Union in 1979.
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. was born on January 14, 1914 to Thomas J.
Watson, Sr. and Jeannette Watson, in Short Hills, New Jersey.
The Watsons later had two daughters, Jane and Helen, and another
son, Arthur. Thomas Watson, Sr. began managing the Computin
g-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR) in 1914. In the 1920s,
Thomas Watson, Sr. became chief executive officer and renamed
the company IBM.
Trouble at School
Thomas Watson, Jr. was a poor student and often in trouble. He
embarrassed his father, a member of the school board, by putting
skunk odour in the school's ventilating system, forcing the
school to close for the day. Watson had trouble reading and had
little self-confidence. The greatest moment of his childhood was
when he flew in an airplane for the first time, at age ten, and
saw his first film with sound, both on the same day. Although
his father always told him he was free to choose any career,
Thomas Watson, Sr. groomed his son from an early age to take
over IBM, taking him to sales conventions, factories, and
Because his grades were poor, Watson needed his father's help
getting into college. He attended Brown University, where he
also received poor grades, but managed to graduate. In September
of his freshman year, Watson learned to fly, gaining a great
deal of self-confidence. Besides flying, Watson spent his time
at college drinking and socializing. In his senior year, Watson
decided that he wanted to work for IBM. He began as a sales
trainee that fall, after spending the summer of 1937 travelling
to Asia, Germany, and Russia.
Trained at IBM School
Watson began his sales training at IBM's school in Endicott, New
York. The IBM school strove to inspire enthusiasm, loyalty, and
high ideals in its trainees. Over the front door the motto
"THINK" was written. Students and teachers alike wore the
company "uniform," dark business suits with white shirts. When
Watson went to a bar for a drink after school, the bartender
asked "Doesn't your father have a big policy about liquor?"
Watson recalled in his autobiography, Father, Son & Co. The
policy applied to drinking on the job or on IBM property, but
Watson felt Endicott was a rather unpleasant place, where he was
singled out as the boss' son.
Watson spent most of his training time learning about IBM's
punch card system, an automated accounting system. Although he
did poorly in school, he graduated and was given a prime sales
territory, the western half of Manhattan's financial district.
He did very well, but felt it was because of who he was, not
what he did. His three years in sales were full of self doubt.
By 1940, Watson made some sales calls in the morning and spent
the rest of the day flying airplanes. His evenings were spent
drinking and dancing in nightclubs. His behaviour caused a stir
at IBM, but his father did not say much as Watson managed to
stay out of the gossip columns.
Flew for His Country
In early 1940, war seemed inevitable. Watson knew he wanted to
fly planes for his country, but wanted to avoid flight school
and military discipline. He joined the National Guard and during
the week "marked time" at IBM. On weekends he practiced flying
with his squadron. In September 1940, the National Guard was
mobilized, and Watson became a military pilot at Fort McClellan
After the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Watson married Olive Cawley,
a model he had met in 1939. He was transferred to California,
where his squadron flew along the coast, looking for Japanese
submarines. He disliked his commander, and asked his father to
help him. A week later Watson was transferred to the Command and
General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Watson became
the aide-de-camp of Major General Follett Bradley. Together they
travelled to Moscow where they set up the Alaska-Siberia ferry
route to bring planes to the Soviets. Watson held other
positions during the war, flying about 2,500 hours in five
In 1942, Olive gave birth to a baby boy, who died at the age of
two months. In 1944, their son Tom was born. The couple also had
After the war, Watson returned to IBM to work as the assistant
to Charles Kirk, IBM's executive vice president. Watson became a
vice president, one of only five, in 1946.By 1950, Watson and Al
Williams were running the company, with Thomas Watson, Sr.
occasionally making a major decision. In 1952, Watson became
president; his father was chairman of the board. Four year
later, he became the official head of IBM. One month later, his
Watson's management style differed from his father's. Watson
wanted managers to use their imaginations and to make decisions
without always checking in with him. Although Watson could be
harsh, he tried to loosen things up at IBM. Soft collars on
shirts, rather than hard ones, were now allowed. IBM employees
could have an occasional drink. Watson also decentralized the
company's administration, encouraged more research and
development, and increased the company's debt.
Watson saw that IBM's punch cards would need to be replaced by
computers. The success of IBM's 604 Electronic Calculator
convinced Watson that the field of electronics would be
expanding rapidly, so he enlarged the company's research
department. In six years, the company increased the number of
engineers and technicians from 500 to over 4,000. In the early
1950s, Watson worried about the UNIVAC computer, produced by
Remington Rand. He wanted to create a computer to compete with
it. In 1953, IBM unveiled the 701, a computer for scientific
use. The IBM 702, an accounting computer, was up and running by
1956. In 1954, the company started delivering a small business
computer, the 650, which could perform complex accounting
In the early 1960s, IBM began developing a new computer, the
System/360. Development took longer and cost more than expected,
with hundreds of computer programmers having to write millions
of lines of code. The development of this software alone cost
half a billion dollars. The new computers used integrated
circuits, an innovation at the time. In 1964, Watson announced
the System/360, even though it was not fully developed. By 1966,
the System/360 was running with the long awaited software.
System/360, a compatible multiple model system, was
revolutionary. The feature of compatibility did not yet exist in
computers. System/360 would allow any of the computers in this
"family" to use the same software, disk drivers, and printers as
any other computer in the family. A business could start with a
small, inexpensive model and move up to bigger, more powerful
ones by mixing and matching components from IBM's catalogue.
In 1974, IBM's president, Frank Cary, set up a part of IBM
called General Systems, to develop minicomputers. He established
major research centres in San Jose, California and Boulder,
Colorado. The San Jose centre became known for its informality
and unusual methods of problem solving. Watson approved of the
innovations because he felt IBM needed change.
Chose Health over IBM
In 1952, the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department
brought a restraint of trade case against IBM. Watson went over
his father's head, allowing IBM's lawyers to settle the case by
signing a consent decree in January 1956. In 1969, the Justice
Department filed an antitrust complaint accusing IBM of
monopolizing the computer industry. The government wanted IBM
broken up. This was one of the biggest antitrust cases ever. The
government felt that IBM's marketing tools were used to destroy
their competition. Six months after the suit was filed, IBM gave
up the marketing practice of bundling-selling everything a
computer customer would need for one price. Instead, each
component was sold separately. The government's case dragged on
until 1981, when the Reagan administration finally dropped it.
Although Watson intended to retire from IBM in 1974, he had a
heart attack in late 1970 that caused him to reconsider the
decision. After he recovered, he decided that he wanted to live
more than he wanted to run IBM. Thomas Learson assumed the
chairmanship and Frank Cary took over as president and CEO.
Watson remained as the head of the board's executive committee,
where he could retain some control. During his time at IBM,
Watson oversaw the remarkable growth of the company. In 1957,
the company hit $1 billion in sales. When he resigned in 1971,
the company had sales of $7.5 billion a year.
An Active Retirement
While still in the hospital, Watson began making plans for a new
sailboat. When he recovered, Watson and his crew sailed around
Newfoundland. In 1974, he made a major voyage off the coast of
Greenland, over 500 miles above the Arctic Circle.
Because he was one of the few liberal businessmen of the times,
Watson became involved with government during the Kennedy years.
He served on several committees and commissions, including the
Advisory Committee on Labour-Management Policy, which dealt with
unemployment, and the Peace Corps steering committee. Watson and
his wife attended many social events at the White House.
President Johnson asked Watson to be his secretary of commerce,
but Watson turned him down. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter
asked Watson to chair the General Advisory Committee on Arms
Control and Disarmament (GAC). This commission advised the
president on nuclear strategy. In 1978, GAC reported to Carter
that the MX missile should not be developed because it was
In 1979, Watson became the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. He felt
like a pawn in U.S.-Soviet relations, which at that time were
quite bad. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. In
response, the U.S. ended grain sales and boycotted the Moscow
Olympics. When Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan,
Watson's stint in diplomacy ended. He then founded the Centre
for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University.
On his return from his ambassadorship, Watson began speaking and
writing about arms control. In 1987, he flew across the Soviet
Union, retracing the route he took during WW II, when he helped
set up the Alaska-Siberia ferry route to bring planes to the
Soviets. In 1990, he published his autobiography.
For over three decades, Watson amassed one of the best scrimshaw
collections in the country, including 200 intricately carved
pieces, all made of whalebone by American whalers. The
collection was kept in his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and
at his summer home on North Haven Island, Maine. Watson sailed
and flew planes, helicopters, and stunt planes. He had a
personal fleet that included a Lear jet, a Breezy, a Twin King
Air, a Taylor Cub, and a Bell jet 206 helicopter. His favourite
was his stunt plane, a high-tech model, weighing only 850
pounds. Watson perfected a stunt show featuring inward loops and
upside down flying. He rode a motorcycle around the island,
dodging mouflon sheep. He also tinkered with antique cars, and
had four Ford Model T automobiles. He kept them on the island to
teach his grandchildren how to drive. Watson died of
complications following a stroke on December 31, 1993 in
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This web page was last updated on:
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