Garrett Fuller
(More) About Me Kewanee Boilers Computers Bicycles Journalism Miscellaneous

IBM: A History

IBMPersonally, when I hear the name "IBM", I always thought of a big business which catered to corporations with giant computers. This image is similar to that of many people, but it is (of course) false. The computer you're probably reading this on would not exist if it wasn't for an IBM-created standard. The computer this webpage is being created on is a Lenovo ThinkPad, the descendent of the original IBM ThinkPad, unveiled in 1992.

IBM started as the CTR Company (Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company) in June 1911. Prior, a man named Herman Hollerith developed the first tabulation machine in 1891 in order to count the census forms, a task which was estimated to take nearly 13 years using the old method (by hand.) CTR was founded in Endicott, New York. Endicott would later be known for major breakthroughs for the computing world, but they were still nearly forty years from 1911. The company's first products were very different from computers, as their first line of products ranged from scales to deli slicers.

Thomas J. Watson served as General Manager for CTR before becoming President of the company, after he was terminated from NCR (National Cash Register.) Mr. Watson created the "THINK" slogan for the company, before changing the name of the company to International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924.

The 1930s brought IBM good luck, and formed the relationship between the United States government and IBM. IBM tabulating machines processed data for nearly 26 million people under the then-new Social Security Act, which was put into action by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1952, Thomas Watson stepped down before his son, Thomas Watson, Jr. stepped in as president. The company had grown considerably, and the company was about to play a huge role in the next couple decades.

IBM and the Military

In 1945, two Japanese cities - Hiroshima and Nagasaki - were both decimated by two nuclear weapons. It was a surprise invention which ended the war once Japan surrendered only days after the event.

However, the fear of spreading was far from over. The Cold War started less than 5 years later, once it was discovered that the USSR (now Russia) had their hands on nuclear technology. The Cold War brought about many inventions that are important to us today, although no real fighting happened.

One such creation was the SAGE system, which happened in 1955. The SAGE system used a "supercomputer" which were networked together (before the time of internet or even modems.) They allowed military personell to track enemy and friendly airplanes, and the computer ran simple trajectory programs to determine an intercept point for a weapon. The SAGE system was connected to land-based radar systems, airplanes, and the ill-fated Texas Towers.

From Tabulating Machines to Solid State

In 1950, vacuum tubes were in nearly everything. Black-and-White television sets, radios, and even computers consisted of vacuum tubes. Vacuum tubes were inefficient, as they were big, bulky, and emitted a lot of heat. They also consumed a lot of power, and required a lot of air conditioning to cool larger equipment, such as computers, which consisted of thousands of vacuum tubes.

The tides turned, however, in 1954. The first commercial silicon transistor was manufactured by Texas Instruments in 1954. This product quickly found its way into consumer goods, including the Regency TR-1 pocket transistor radio, which was the first solid-state pocket radio produced.

However, IBM followed suit. Thomas Watson, Jr. was serious about switching to solid state versus the old vacuum tubes. He even told his engineers to go "Solid State in Fifty-Eight."

IBM 1401In 1959, IBM produced the 1401 computer. The 1401 was developed in Endicott, New York - the birthplace of IBM. The 1401 was solid-state inside. Although it was still quite expensive, it was the first computer which small businesses could actually afford. It was also smaller, although it still required a room to operate and a team of operators and a fleet of peripherals to run. The IBM 1403 printer, introduced alongside the 1401, was a high-quality printer which was capable of printing extremely fast. Although loud, many claim the print quality is comparable to daisy-wheel printers.

In 1963, IBM took their knowledge of printers and typewriters and introduced the Selectric electric typewriter. The Selectric was nearly an instant hit, as it obsoleted the print ribbon and replaced it with a print wheel which resembled a golf ball with letters molded into it.

A year later, IBM developed and released yet another mainframe. The IBM System/360. Alongside the System/360 was the first commercial computer operating system, OS/360. The System/360 was the first computer to find its way into small businesses and Ivy-League schools, as people started to see what a computer could do for them. NASA used the System/360. As did smaller businesses. One business was Ward Body Company, a school bus manufacturer, which utilized a System/360 to develop standards which made their vehicles safer.

Bringing it Home

In 1973, IBM developed the Selectric II typewriter. During the 1970s, IBM invented the UPC (Universal Product Code - or "bar codes") and other useful things, such as DRAM.

In 1977, the personal computer revolution was really taking off. Prior, computer user groups consisted of educated hobbyists who designed and built their own computers, and shared ideas and software. Apple Computer, formed by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne in 1976, released the Apple 2 (][) in 1977. Tandy (aka Radio Shack) released the TRS-80 computer in 1977, competing with the Commodore PET. Texas Instruments, AT&T, and other smaller companies created their own personal computers, some of which failed.

IBM, however, saw the microcomputer industry as a small threat. However, they re-evaluated it and thought that they should steal a piece of the microcomputer pie. A humble Bill Gates was writing software at the time for the Altair 8000 microcomputer.

IBM PC 5150In August 1981, IBM finally released their first microcomputer - the "PC" (Personal Computer). The 5150, or original PC, utilized MS-DOS, which was "written" by Microsoft for IBM. This was one of Bill Gate's first successes. IBM originally approached another software vendor, Digital Research, to use their operating system (CP/M), but they lost the bid to Microsoft.

IBM suffered from PC-clones. However, IBM set many standards still found today on personal computers. The only company to succeed without the IBM-set standards has been Apple and their Macintosh line of computers. IBM created successors to the 5150, including the PC XT, AT, Convertible. Microsoft released Windows for the first time in 1985, on top of MS-DOS, as a direct competitor to Apple's Macintosh operating system released a year earlier.

In 1987, IBM released another line of personal computers. The PS/2 (Personal System/2) line of computers were designed for business-use, and were built rugged. Many PS/2 computers still survive today, and are collected by computer hobbyists. Alongside the PS/2 was the PS/1, the version of the PS/2 made for home and small business use. Today, the PS/1 is much more rare and less collectible than the IBM PS/2. The PS/2 introduced more standards into the computing industry, including PS/2 ports for keyboard and mice (although recently made obsolete by USB), VGA, and other standards.

In 1992, IBM created the ThinkPad line of notebooks. Built for business use, they were designed to take a beating and not skip a beat. They fulfilled that purpose, and were used by NASA in space as the first personal computer in space. ThinkPad computers are still made today, as Lenovo kept the tradition after purchasing IBM's PC division in 2005. (This webpage is being created on a Lenovo ThinkPad, a descendent of the original ThinkPad.)

IBM also created the Aptiva personal computer, which later turned into the NetVista and, eventually, the ThinkCentre line of computers. The ThinkCentre is also still sold by Lenovo as a business-grade machine.

World's Smartest Machine

In 2005, IBM sold their Personal Computer (PC) line to Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo. Later in 2012, IBM would sell their server business to Lenovo, as well.

In the late 2000s, IBM started working on a machine which would become the closest attempt at creating an artificial intelligent computer - Watson. Watson eventually became a contestant on Jeopardy!, where he won.


©2014-16 Garrett Fuller. Learn more about this website.