IBM turned 100 years old last week, on June 16.
In our studies of the effects of technology in the 20th century, do we give enough information and deference about IBM? The company surely is not familiar to high school students — seniors for the class of 2012 having been born circa 1994, long after the heyday of the IBM System 360, the once-ubiquitous data punch cards, and the astonishingly advanced Selectric typewriters. IBM retired the Selectric in 1986, a year before our older son was born, nearly a decade before today’s high school seniors bounced into the world. The IBM punch cards, introduced in 1928, became difficult to find by the time I was coaching debate at the University of Arizona (we used the cards for debate evidence because they were larger and lighter than index cards, as did many other people in other walks of life). Computing power of the S/360 paled in comparison to minicomputers available by 1985, and especially in comparison to the desktop microcomputers that dominate our working world today.
I wonder what today’s high school students really understand of the computer revolution? Do they understand the fundamental roles IBM played in inventing the 21st century?
IBM occupies a particular fond spot in my heart. Through the National Merit Scholarship program, I had my college paid for in great measure by a four-year grant from IBM, a Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Scholarship. As I recall it was for about $5,000, much more than adequate for tuition and fees at the University of Utah at under $400/quarter. Coupled with a more modest scholarship from Utah and my 40 hours/week job in a laboratory, my undergraduate years were financially easy compared to our sons’ studies today.
As a sort of thank-you, I was expected to make an annual trek to the IBM offices in Salt Lake City to report on my progress. IBMers at the time were still very much on the white-shirt/blue-shirt plan, and the contrast between campus and the IBM office could scarcely have been more stark. Despite their sponsoring my education, I could not convince IBM to give me a price break on my first IBM Correcting Selectric II; it was a major scrape to come up with the $740, full list price of the beast.
But what a great investment! My apartment became term-paper central. At the end of the quarter, I could go without paying for a meal for two or three weeks. I did have one apartment manager complain about women spending the night in my apartment, and I don’t think he believed me when I said they were working on term papers. I had not expected the academic benefits of the machine: My grades in broadcast classes rose with scripts submitted in easy-to-read Orator typeface; I’m convinced the lack of pencil-corrected errors added a full half-grade to other papers, too.
That typewriter finally succumbed to my unwillingness to pay for the annual servicing from IBM. I think Kathryn donated it to the Salvation Army sometime after we got to Texas, after two decades of service. I found another at a garage sale in about 2000, for $10, with six elements and a slew of ribbons and correctapes. It also succumbed to a lack of service, though, and joined its predecessor at the Salvation Army five years ago. I’d love to have a good working version today, still, though I can do almost everything it could do with a wordprocessor and a laser printer.
IBM’s leadership as a company runs much deeper than simply as an innovator in technology. IBM for years had the best corporate training available — at American Airlines we benchmarked our training against IBM, when benchmarking was a tool of corporate improvement. IBM’s people had the good sense to sit us down and explain they had benchmarked their own training against American’s pilot training, which they explained was the model for outstanding training: Hire people who already know how to do the job, have a lot of experience, and love the work; train them intensively in the company ways and systems, and especially the machines they will use; use simulators to offer much more practice than can safely be had on the job; provide a mentor to monitor closely that the student (pilot) is doing the job right; require extensive refresher courses at least once a year.
At one point IBM had 20% growth in revenues for 20 consecutive years. IBM even figures in one of the great urban legends of the 20th century. For the film of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick used a computer as a central character. The computer becomes the bad guy in the movie, however; the urban legend is that the company refused to let Kubrick use their logo. So, the legend claims, Kubrick simply backed up one letter in the alphabet for each letter, and the nefarious HAL computer was born. Both Kubrick and Clarke denied that was the case, noting that HAL was a form of acronym for “Heuristic Algorithmic.” They also note that IBM computers are pictured in the movie. The story merely adds to the understanding that IBM was everywhere that technology or good management was found on the planet.
Despite having been eclipsed by its two partners in micro computers, Microsoft and Intel, IBM today offers yet another reinvention of itself, larger than it was when its fortunes were said to have collapsed, a few years before our high school students were born.
CBS Sunday Morning offered a short version of the company’s history on June 12 — fortunately, one of the items CBS posted on YouTube (they don’t put enough of the Sunday Morning stuff there, if you ask me).