Book Review: Father, Son, & Co., by Thomas Watson Jr and Peter Petre (rerun)

(Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the IBM System/360 series (original press release here)…seems like a good time to rerun this book review, which I originally posted in 2011)

Buy the book: Father, Son & Co.


When Tom Watson Jr was 10 years old, his father came home and proudly announced that he had changed the name of his company. The business that had been known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company would now be known by the grand name International Business Machines.

“That little outfit?” thought young Tom to himself, picturing the company’s rather random-seeming collection of products, which included time clocks, coffee grinders, and scales, and the “cigar-chomping guys” who sold them. This was in 1924.

This is the best business autobiography I’ve read. It’s about Watson Jr, his difficult relationship with his father, the company they built, and the emergence of the computing industry. It is an emotional, reflective, and self-critical book, without the kind of “here’s how brilliant I was” tone that afflicts too many executive autobiographies. With today being IBM’s 100th anniversary (counting from the incorporation of CTR), I thought it would be a good time to finally get this review finished and posted.

Watson’s relationship with his father was never an easy one. From an early age, he sensed a parental expectation that he would follow his father into IBM, despite both his parents assuring him that this was not the case and he could do whatever he wanted. This feeling that his life course was defined in advance, combined with fear that he would never be able to measure up to his increasingly-famous father, was likely a factor in the episodes of severe depression which afflicted him from 13 to 19. In college Watson was an indifferent student and something of a playboy. His most significant accomplishment during this period was learning to fly airplanes—-”I’d finally discovered something I was good at”–a skill that would have great influence on his future. His first job at IBM, as a trainee salesman, did little to boost his self-confidence or his sense of independence: he was aware that local IBM managers were handing him easy accounts, wanting to ensure success for the chief executive’s son. It was only when Watson joined the Army Air Force during WWII–he flew B-24s and was based in Russia, assisting General Follett Bradley in the organization of supply shipments to the Soviet Union–that he proved to himself that he could succeed without special treatment. As the war wound down, he set his sights on becoming an airline pilot–General Bradley expressed surprise, saying “Really? I always thought you’d go back and run the IBM company.” This expression of confidence, from a man he greatly respected, helped influence Watson to give IBM another try.

The products that Watson had been selling, as a junior salesman, were punched card systems. Although these were not computers in the modern sense of the word, they could be used to implement some pretty comprehensive information systems. Punched card systems were an important enabler of the increasing dominance of larger organizations in both business and government: the Social Security Act of 1935 was hugely beneficial to IBM both because of the systems they sold to the government directly and those sold to businesses needing to keep up with the required record-keeping.


During the war, the first true digital computers were created. IBM partnered with Harvard University to create an electromechanical machine, programmed by punched paper tape, for the U.S. Navy; separately, the University of Pennsylvania built an all-electronic computer, the ENIAC, for the Army. ENIAC was fast by the standards of the day–5000 additions per second–it contained 18000 vacuum tubes, took up a lot of space, and consumed a lot of power. Neither Watson nor his father initially saw ENIAC as the sort of thing that would be useful for the typical business. Tom Jr did, though, soon develop an interest on the application of electronics to IBM’s business, albeit on a less-grandiose scale than that represented by ENIAC. After meeting an engineer who had hooked up a relatively simple assembly of electronics to a standard punched card machine, he pressed for the rapid commercialization of this technology. It was released, as the IBM 603 Electronic Multiplier, in September 1946. Its function was simple: it read a punched card, multiplied two numbers, punched the result back out on the same card, and kept on doing it, 100 times a minute–this was perhaps 5-10 times the speed of the earlier electromechanical multiplier. The fact that people were willing to pay $350/month to rent this thing (that would be the equivalent of about $3300/month in today’s money) illustrates how strong the need must have been for solutions to burdensome computational problems. The 603 was soon upgraded to the more capable 604, and several thousand of these systems were “sold” (IBM used the term “sold” even though its products were actually almost always rented.)

IBM’s first stored-program computer wasn’t announced until 1952; this was the IBM 701, which was given the patriotic name “Defense Calculator” for the purpose of warding off internal critics of the large investment required. Rental price was about $15000/month.

Watson gives considerable credit for IBM’s success with computers to several individuals within the company, including executive named Jim Birkenstock. As a young sales manager, Birkenstock had been spontaneously elevated to the position of general sales manager for the entire country by Watson Senior based on a single impressive presentation. Unsurprisingly, he was not a success in this job, and was demoted to running a market-research group called Future Demands. He was pretty demoralized by this fall; however, Tom Jr persuaded him to stay with the company, and Birkenstock, once he got over his initial self-pity, transformed Future Demands from a group concerned with keeping track of customer enhancement requests to “a watchdog of IBM’s future.” The Birkenstock story is an interesting example of the point that a person who is unsuccessful in one job can sometimes make very substantial contributions in a different one.

The elder Watson was not opposed to use the use electronics for computing; indeed, Tom Jr says that electronics was almost “the only major issue on which we didn’t fight.” When it came to the use of electronics for information storage, however, Mr Watson had serious reservations–he viewed the punched card itself as IBM’s Unique Selling Proposition, and believed that businesspeople would never tolerate their criticial information being stored invisibly on magnetic media. Large customers, however, were beginning to think differently. Metropolitan Life, for one, stated their unwillingness to continue to devoting whole floors of expensive Manhattan real-estate to the storage and processing of their immense punched-card files. The magnetic-tape-based IBM 702 was announced in 1953.

The tendency of companies to hold an excessive allegiance to technologies which have worked well for them in the past and with which they are strongly identified can be very strong–if Birkenstock, Tom Jr, and others had not made a strong effort to overcome this tendency and if Watson Sr had not allowed himself to be convinced, then business history would have been very different.

Even as IBM was growing into a very large company and Tom Jr was promoted to President, the father-son conflicts continued. On one occasion, they were arguing vehemently about something or other when Tom had to leave to catch a West Coast flight. On arrival at the airport, he found that his father had followed him there, unwilling to delay the argument. Tom Jr, never known for the ability to hold his temper, lost it pretty badly:

God damn you, old man! Can’t you ever leave me alone?

There were no phones on planes in those days, of course, and “that flight was the longest nine hours I’d ever spent in my life…When we landed I couldn’t wait to get to a phone to tell him how sorry I was.”

The government filed an antitrust suit against IBM, and Tom Jr was deeply involved in settlement negotiations. Just as he was about to go downtown for another session, his father flew into a rage and told him he was not competent to handle this sort of matter. Finally, Mr Watson told his son to go on to the meeting, but not to make any decisions.

I was so upset that I was shaking. I got to the courthouse and sat down at that long table. I didn’t say much to anybody because I was so tense.

His father’s secretary came into the room and handed him a note, which Tom Jr accepted expecting the worst. But it said:


In the early 1960s, IBM decided to adopt a new architecture which would obsolete all of its existing product lines and replace them with a single compatable family–the System/360 series–spanning a wide price and performance range. This was very much a bet-your-company decision by Tom Jr, as much as the decision to expand production during the Depression had been a high-risk decision by his father, and he vividly describes the problems and the tensions involved in this program. Unfortunately, during this period Watson made the unwise decision to put his brother Dick in charge of the company’s technology and manufacturing operations. Although Dick…”a merry fellow”…had many strengths, this job did not match them very well, and he eventually had to be removed.

 I felt nothing but shame and frustration at the way I’d treated him. There were so many other ways to have managed things. Perhaps the wisest course would have been to leave Dick in World Trade. He would have been known as the great IBM internationalist…As it was, we remade the computer industry with the System/360, and objectively it was the greatest triumph of my business career. But whenever I look back on it, I think about the brother I injured and the dream of my father’s that I could never make come right.After retirement from IBM, Watson served as US ambassador to the Soviet Union, continuing his lifelong interest in that country and its people.

There’s a lot in this book…descriptions of some amusing incidents from Watson’s college years (like the friend who was too lazy to feed his dog and got the animal a meal ticket at a local restaurant), a portrait of IBM’s sales culture (company songs!), discussions of various business and management issues and how they were handled, and information about many historical IBM products and projects, including the remarkable SAGE air defense system of the mid-1950s. There are 449 pages, and not many dull ones. Highly recommended.

In another book that I can’t locate at the moment, someone asserted that Thomas Watson Jr “was not a very nice man.” It may be the case that Watson was not a nice man, but in the present book he certainly comes across as a complex, thoughtful and interesting one.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Father, Son, & Co., by Thomas Watson Jr and Peter Petre (rerun)”

  1. In 1959, I was programming an IBM 650 and the Douglas Aircraft main plant across the street was using a 704, which was the last vacuum tube main frame.

    Watson Jr was a pretty successful yacht racer. In the 1966 Bermuda Race, he was sailing Palawan, a custom 58 footer, and Vince Learson, a senior IBM executive, was sailing one of the first Cal 40s. Watson told Learson, “You’d better not win if you want to stay at IBM.” When Learson won the race, Watson’s wife wired him, “You’re fired !” He wasn’t though and became chairman of the Board later.

  2. IBM System/360 – Revolution in Computing System [1964]

    My father programmed in Fortran for use on an IBM 1130 computer ( ). I used to go to work with him occasionally on a weekend and play on the punch-card machine.

    To run a program, you would load a box of cards into the reader, which would scan the cards and read the main program. If a subroutine was called, that had to be loaded, scanned, then unloaded. Laughable today. But at the time, it saved enormous man hours and improved accuracy through repeatability – once you had the program correct.

    There was an aesthetic to IBM industrial design which was iconic in the 60’s as representing technology and computers, something like the iPhone aesthetic is today. Instantly recognizable. If you’ve seen 2001: A Space Odyssey (and if not, get to it!) you would recognize those computers in a flash as modeled in IBM’s style. Still looks futuristic and cutting edge to me today, all these years later.

    [Trivia: HAL is one letter each from IBM.]

  3. If you are into this story and want to have a little “taste” of it – and if you are in the Mid-Atlantic, a fun and tasty stop (a bit pricey) is the ‘Sea Catch’ restaurant in Georgetown (DC). It is on the Potomac / C&O canal side of M Street, the main drag there, and, well…. I’ll let them tell the rest –

    Long before Sea Catch became a renowned Georgetown Washington DC restaurant, its location, the Canal Square Building originally built in 1842, served as a shipping warehouse for barge traffic on the bustling C&O Canal. In 1892, the Canal Square building gained its full historical status when Herman Hollerith converted the structure into a factory for manufacturing & printing punched card tabulating machines. By using these machines in the 1890 census, the government was able to shave 2 years and 5 million dollars off of the project as compared with previous censuses, increasing the demand for the machines and creating the need for a larger factory.

    With such a success, Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was merged with two others to eventually create, in 1924, the “International Business Machines Corporation” otherwise known as IBM. In 1984, IBM recognized the Canal Square Building as a historic site, referring to the building as “the birthplace of the original computer.”

    I must swear to all that I have no relation to this restaurant whatsoever, and I do not know it’s owners/managers in any way. I’m just a DC hotel guy who is in DC because I love history so much, as do so many readers here, obviously. So I like to send people there because of this as much as anything else, ’cause it’s a great story to tell, and I appreciate the owner’s decision to make the history of the building a fundamental part of the establishment’s culture. I wish there was more of that out there…. much more.

    Just thought I’d chime in.

  4. Andrew X…thanks! I’ve heard that Sea Catch is good, but haven’t eaten there…not much of a seafood fan, but they probably have steaks & such as well.

    Of course, for the *real* historical experience, they could put an antique punched card machine in the lobby…just check eBay and couldn’t find one at the moment, though.

  5. DF – They do have a display there, that might have such a card. Funny thing is, I should be strolling down M street in just a few hours. I’ll have a look.

  6. The tendency of companies to hold an excessive allegiance to technologies which have worked well for them in the past and with which they are strongly identified can be very strong–if Birkenstock, Tom Jr, and others had not made a strong effort to overcome this tendency and if Watson Sr had not allowed himself to be convinced, then business history would have been very different.

    That is what puts most companies to irrelevancy

    And until Louis Gerstner (sp?) came along it almost killed IBM in the 80s-90s – relying solely on mainframe sales – they had to reinvent themselves again.

    If I am not mistaken, the basic 360 architecture is still here in their latest mainframes

  7. Bill…what saved Watson Sr in this matter was his strong sales orientation. He loved punched cards, but he loved winning deals even more, and the thought of losing the Met Life account (to some upstarts calling themselves UNIVAC) was painful enough to overcome the technological attachment.

  8. David – until the GUI interface became fully entrenched (due to much higher CPU powers and cheap memory) the typical terminal standard was 80 columns – all going back to IBM’s punched cards.

    Interesting about Watson Sr – sales is where it is at – doesn’t matter how good your product is if you can’t sell it….(of course having a good product keeps you there too!)

    Would you say that IBM became the powerhouse to to Sr’s focusing on sales and Jr’s focusing on the technical end?

    I had forgotten what an avid pilot Jr was – even flew his own jet – a Lockheed Jetstar?

  9. I enjoyed reading it again.

    The elder Watson was not opposed to use the use electronics for computing

    Is this a 2014 editing problem or a 2011 editing problem?

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