IBM Turns 100

June 16, 2011

It was 100 years ago today, on June 16, 1911, that the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company [CTR] was founded, organized by the financier Charles Flint; that company would go on to become IBM.  CTR was formed by a combination of the International Time Recording Company, which manufactured time clocks; the Computing Scale Company of America, which made computing scales (these could weigh the item and compute the price); and the Hollerith Tabulating Machine Company, which made machines that could sort and count information punched on cards.  The Tabulating Machine Co. had built the machines used to count the 1890 US Census.

As related on an IBM history page, the new company struggled a bit at first.  Flint then hired Thomas Watson, Sr, to run CTR, and to turn it into a coherent business.

Over the following decade, Watson forged the disparate pieces of C-T-R into a unified company with a strong culture. He focused resources on the tabulating machine business, foreseeing that information technology had an ever-expanding future and literally creating the information industry.

The move paid off in the long term; despite IBM’s ups and downs, the company went from net income of $800,000 in 1911 to $14.8 billion in 2010.  By the mid-20th century, Hollerith’s punched cards (often, by then, referred to as “IBM cards”) had become ubiquitous.   The company subsequently struggled following the widespread use of personal computers (which, ironically, it introduced to the business world), but is once again a very successful enterprise.

IBM, along with AT&T, was one of the small number of companies that maintained a pure science research facility.  I’ve written here before about some of IBM’s innovations in the computing world, including FORTRAN and the System/360.  Other computing mainstays introduced by IBM include:

  • Magnetic tape storage
  • Floppy disks
  • SABRE, the first online airline reservation system
  • Improved “Winchester” hard disk technology
  • The Universal Product Code
  • Dynamic Random Access Memory

IBM also developed the Selectric typewriter (and its ergonomic keyboard), the scanning/tunneling electron microscope (for which Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM’s Zurich Research Center were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics), and fractal geometry, developed by Benoit Mandelbrot.  IBM also sponsors the World Community Grid, which makes a huge donated computing grid available for research projects (including FightAIDS@Home, Computing for Clean Water, and Discovering Dengue Drugs Together).  More recently, IBM has developed the first integrated circuit using graphene transistors.

The anniversary was marked by four-page advertisements in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and, doubtless, many other papers.  IBM also has a centennial Web site.

It’s most interesting to look back over the intertwined histories of technology and IBM, and to realize how far we have come in a relatively short time.

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