Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday, IBM


BY JOHN HARWOOD
Associate professor of modern and contemporary architectural history at Oberlin College


As IBM is celebrates its centenary today, one might be tempted to ask how IBM actually settled on a birthday.

To hear IBM tell it, emerging from the key patents for punched-card storage and information processing written and held by Hermann Hollerith, and marrying those pieces of intellectual property to a set of clock, scale, and computational machine manufacturing concerns, a child—the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR)—was born on June 16th, 1911. As anyone can see, though, the letters “CTR” are quite distinctly different from the letters that replaced them in 1924: “IBM.” As is the significance of the letters. To compute, to tabulate, to record: anyone might do these things, whether “anyone” be a writer, a carpenter, a sports fan, or a musician. The letters “IBM,” of course, stand for “International Business Machines”: to use an international business machine is to do something quite different.

As The Economist has rightly stressed, the key to IBM’s longevity is that it has never been a corporation associated with a single product, nor even a single idea. Instead, as IBM publications have stressed from the 1920s right on through to yesterday, IBM is “more than just a business”: it is a corporation whose business is how other corporations do business.

Photo of the Hypertext Editing System (HES) console in use at
Brown University, circa October 1969. HES was developed as an IBM
sponsored research project. Original photo by Greg Lloyd, 1969.
Image source.
Any number of companies today, ranging from Accenture (nĂ© Andersen Consulting) to universities, offer putatively sage advice on how you ought to run your business. What separates and has separated IBM from all of these companies is that it has, throughout its history, actually played a role in determining exactly how you do business. This is not only because IBM did, until recently, manufacture the vast majority of “business machines” (i.e. tabulators, time-keeping systems, digital computers, real-time management systems, operating system software, etc.) used in the 20th century, but also—and crucially—because IBM’s managers thought of these various machines as part of a systematic method of organizing societies. This started early, with CTR’s (and IBM’s) founder, Thomas Watson, who exhorted his employees and his clients alike to pursue one sole goal: “THINK.”

Of course, the kind of thinking that Watson was talking about was rather specific. It was logical, it was rigorous, it was calculating. For Watson, everything had a value, and it was IBM’s unique ability to provide that value. As he wrote in 1916, well before the company’s engineers had even begun to conceive of a machine that might automate and render autonomous the process of crunching numbers: “A minute has no negative qualities; it can be made yield something but not nothing ... We spend minutes to improve ourselves physically, mentally, morally, socially and financially – they are our working capital. They are the basis of this or any business, but particularly of this business, inasmuch as we deal largely with time. When selling our products we stress the saving of time which our machines effect – the value of this time which is saved.... Make time your ally and time will make you.”

My book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976 is an attempt to provide a critical history of the corporation’s concrete intervention in American and international business practices by examining the crucial role that architects, industrial designers, and graphic designers played in helping IBM to articulate a coherent set of strategies for reforming those practices from the immediate aftermath of WWII to the beginning of the era of personal computing in the mid-1970s.

Far from being a superficial “rebranding” campaign, the involvement of designers in IBM’s reform-minded business plan marked a substantive effort to translate the often seemingly abstract notions and motions of data processing into concrete forms that could transform the physical and psychological aspects of everyday life.

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John Harwood is author of The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976.

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