IBM – General History

When you hear the name IBM, you think of giant computers with blinking lights and reel-to-reel disks swirling around and around. But how did IBM – or “Big Blue” – go from creating tabulating machines, clocks, bells, and typewriters to creating the first personal computer?

The Early Days

In the late 1880s, the United States Census Bureau had a dilemma. A large influx of immigrants migrated to the United States, which would cause a counting issue for the 1890 U.S. census. It was estimated that the 1890 census would take too long to do by hand (the “previous” method) that it wouldn’t even be done by 1900.

A man named Herman Hollerith, however, had a great idea. Hollerith, who borrowed the idea from the cards which operated Jacquard looms – a type of loom that could weave intricate patterns and invented in 1801.

Hollerith’s machine – called a “tabulating machine” – completed the 1890 census with time to spare. Hollerith’s invention did more than complete a census count: it would also start the tabulating machine and unit record equipment industry, form the foundation of a company that would dominate the unit record industry and later dominate the computing industry, and it would also lay the foundation of digital computers.

Through the 1900s, the International Time Recording Company (ITR) and Computing Scale Company of America – in addition to the Tabulating Machine Company which Hollerith formed following his success in the 1890s all were successful. In 1911, the three companies consolidated into one company: the Computing-Tabulating-Recording (CTR) company. The company, headquartered in Endicott, New York, produced machinery ranging from tabulating machines to scales to clocks.

In 1914, a man named Thomas J. Watson was hired to help run the company. Watson previously had a fall-out with the National Cash Register (NCR) company, after being jailed with other NCR executives for breaking Federal anti-trust laws.

Watson revolutionized the way which IBM’ers acted and dressed. One thing he is still known by is his infamous “THINK” motto – which gave way to signs above mainframes which encouraged operators to “THINK”, to modern IBM (and Lenovo) computers bearing the name “THINKPads” and “THINKCenteres.” Watson also enforced a strict dress code for IBM employees and salesmen, as well as developing songs and other things to maintain employee pride.

On February 14, 1924, CTR changed their name to a more modern name: International Business Machines, or – more commonly known as, IBM.

The 1930s started a legacy for IBM. As early as 1933, IBM manufactured and marketed fire alarm systems and bells. In 1935, IBM also diversified into electric typewriters – an industry which would later make IBM popular with the general public throughout the 1990s. The company also provided tabulating machines for what has been considered one of the largest accounting tasks in modern history: Social Security. The company weathered the Great Depression well.

Following the conclusion of World War II in 1945, IBM would enter a new industry: electronic computers.

IBM and Early Electronic Computing

Entering the 1950s, IBM focused its attention on a growing industry: electronic data processing, or electronic digital computers.

In 1956, IBM developed a technology which we all take for granted today: magnetic disk storage. The RAMAC 305 was the first “hard drive” used for storing large quantities of data in one, easily and quickly-accessible format.

IBM and the SAGE System

Following the detonation of Little Boy and Fat Man over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan (respectively), the USSR (Soviet Union) threatened the United States with developing its own nuclear weapons; a threat that would linger until the early 1990s.

Thus, data processing become a giant tool in national defense. Computers could analyze data and perform mathematical calculations much quicker than humans could. IBM, along with other companies and the United States Air Force (USAF) developed the earliest early warning defense system in the US: SAGE, or Semi-Automatic Ground Environment.

The solution, which materialized in 1956, was a network of command centers with computers linked together. The centers were also linked with RADAR systems for input, and linked with missile and USAF bases to provide them with alerts if things were to go south.

While SAGE was outdated by the time it was fully introduced in the early 1960s (as the USSR developed capable ICBMs), it brought many technologies we rely on to this day with it. SAGE systems laid a foundation for SABRE, a flight scheduling system that was used from the 1960s until the late 1990s.

For more information on SAGE, please see my blog entry regarding the SAGE computer.


IBM’s first mainframe computing systems – or “electronic data processing systems” – utilized a technology common for the time period: vacuum tubes.

While vacuum tubes worked and got the job done and were faster than relays, they were inefficient. Vacuum tubes required heating to operate. This caused the computer to consume much more power, and to generate additional heat. While modern mainframe computers and supercomputers require a lot of air conditioning and ventilation, vacuum-tube computers required even more air conditioning to maintain temperature within the computer.

Despite the inefficiency and somewhat unreliable nature of vacuum tubes, there were no real alternatives. However, one invention was on its way to change that: the transistor.

The transistor went from being a laboratory experiment to being in consumer goods in 1954 with the introduction of the Regency TR-1 radio. This pocket radio had three transistors inside and was one of – if not the first – consumer product using the new technology.

However, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Jr. felt that if radios could replace vacuum tubes with transistors, why couldn’t computers? He created an initiative to replace vacuum tubes with transistors in all IBM products from then out, or: “go solid state in ‘fifty-eight.”

The work paid off. The IBM 1401 was released in 1959 and was the first fully-transistorized computer by IBM. With 10,800 transistors, the 1401 opened a window into the future of computing for IBM. The 1401 was a success, counting for half of the “computer population” in 1965.

(The IBM 1401 contained 10,800 transistors. By comparison, my ThinkPad dating from 2011 with an Intel Core i5 processor contains over 1,170,000,000 transistors!)

System/360 Era

The 1401 was a success, but the early 1960’s was a transition period for IBM while the company turned its focus from unit record equipment (tabulating machines) to electronic computers.

While the IBM 1401 was successful, it was a low-powered computer. The 1400 line introduced a wide variety of electronic computers that could be utilized in different applications. IBM followed with other computers, including transistorizing prior IBM computer systems that utilized vacuum tubes (creating machines like the 7090, etc.) and introducing new computers like STRETCH.

However, there was a problem. All of IBM computers had different internal architectures. Meaning that when a machine was updated, all programs and records had to be rewritten to work with the new machine. IBM also offered no easy path of upgrade for businesses, creating confusion.

In 1964, another revolution was created by IBM. The System/360 (S/360) introduced various technologies that we still utilize to this day – including backwards-compatibility with the 1401, a more universal architecture and instruction set, and a more clear upgrade path.

The System/360 came in a variety of sizes – each offering its own level of specifications. Thus, you could purchase the Model 30 as an entry-level machine and move to the more powerful Model 65 when the time came.

Believe it or not: the current line of IBM mainframes, the z-series, is backwards-compatible with almost all System/360 programs. The major programming languages used on the 1401 and S/360, RPG and FORTRAN, are still supported by modern IBM mainframes.

You can read more about the System/360 and its importance here.

It’s Selectric

IBM was still International Business Machines, which included other devices. While IBM sold off their clock and fire alarm business units to other manufacturers in 1958, they still made electric typewriters.

While one part of IBM was revolutionizing the way we compute, another was busy revolutionizing the way we type. In 1962, the first IBM Selectric typewriters rolled off the assembly line in Lexington, Kentucky. The Selectric was special: it featured the “golf ball” typing mechanism (type ball) rather than the old type that was more prone to jamming and mechanical failures.

The Selectric would later become one of the most popular electric typewriters during the 1970s and 1980s. The Selectric would live on into the 1980s with the Selectric II, Selectric III, and correcting models. IBM married their magnetic storage technology with the Selectric to make the IBM Selectric MC/ST in 1964.

While the Selectric was discontinued in 1984, IBM continued to make typewriters until they sold the typewriter division (along with keyboards and printers) to spin off a company that is still known today: Lexmark. In 1984, IBM started producing the Wheelwriter and Quietwriter typewriters.

For more information about IBM typewriters, see my page here.

Miniframe Era

In the 1970s, rival Digital Electronics Corporation (DEC) was producing the PDP series. Unlike the IBM System/360 and similar mainframe systems, many later PDP models like the PDP-11 were much more compact: hence the name the miniframe.

IBM’s System/3x machines and later System/370 models were much more compact and no longer consumed an entire room. The CPU was more compact, requiring even less air conditioning. The I/O was also more streamlined, as most users transitioned from teletype systems to complete terminals.

During this time, IBM also made some important inventions. The UPC (or, as we call it, the “bar code”) was invented by N. Joseph Woodland in the late 1940s. However, insufficient technology rendered the UPC technology (UPC standing for Universal Product Code) useless until George Laurer invented a laser-based reading system in the 1970s. IBM also introduced the floppy disk and ATM (automated teller machine) during the 1970s, as well.

Personal Computers

In 1977, Microcomputer Mania! swept the nation. Apple, Commodore, and other major manufacturers like Texas Instruments were all releasing their own microcomputers – computers that businesses and consumers alike could purchase and take home and/or use in the office. This started a new trend, but Big Blue was out of the loop.

Microcomputers were also eating a portion of IBM’s market share in the computing industry. Thus, IBM decided to develop their own.

The Personal Computer, or “PC” (IBM-PC), was released in August 1981 after being designed by a team lead by Don Estridge. The team, who was stationed in the so-called “Skunkworks” in Boca Raton, Florida, used mainly off-the-shelf components in making the PC. Almost everything, including the Intel 8088 processor, was off-the-shelf.

By 1986, the PC was being cloned by competitors like Compaq, Dell (then PCs Limited), and Hewlett-Packard. Apple released the Macintosh in 1984, adding even more competition.

In April 1987, IBM released the Personal System/2 (PS/2) computer line in an effort to solve the clone problem. The PS/2 lasted until 1995 in many incarnations – like the PS/2e, PS/VP, and even the PS/1.

At the same time, IBM was continuing to produce other, bigger computers and electric typewriters. The Wheelwriter family of electric typewriters were released in 1984, but was updated in 1987. In 1991, IBM spun-off its electric typewriter and keyboard manufacturing business to form Lexmark. IBM also manufactured mainframe and miniframe systems, such as the System/390 and later the AS400.

Welcome to the Nineties

After making notebook and luggable versions of the PS/2, IBM released the ThinkPad in 1992. The ThinkPad, in it’s black slab glory, is still produced to this day – albeit by a different company.

The PS/2 line, introduced in 1987, lasted until 1995 thanks to the PS/2e (an energy-efficient, pizza box-style PS/2 model) and PS/VP (Personal System/Value Point) systems. IBM had released other consumer-grade PC’s, like the Aptiva and Netvista.

In the 1990s, one of the big things IBM did was produce the POWER processor. IBM would join the AIM alliance in 1992 (an alliance composing of Apple-IBM-Motorola) and produce the PowerPC processors found in Macintosh computers until 2006.

Into the New Millenium

IBM released the ThinkCentre in 2003. Two years later, in 2005, IBM sold their Personal Computer division to the Chinese manufacturer Lenovo. To this day, Lenovo sells the ThinkPad and ThinkCentre line of computers. Later, IBM would sell other lines (such as servers) to Lenovo.

IBM started focusing on Watson, an artificial-intelligence which has assisted researchers, doctors, and won after competing on Jeopardy!.

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