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Revealed: IBM’s founder was a chip off the old block

July 24, 2011
Image representing IBM as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

IBM (International Business Machines) is now celebrating its first 100 years with a range of activities across the world.

As you’d expect, it is a very impressive corporate web history with a strong emphasis on continued progress in the Panglossian mode. You won’t, for example, find out much about Edwin Black’s book on the company’s links with the Nazi regime. There is a lot of good material in the IBM web archive but Germany doesn’t get much more than a picture of happy workers in 1910.

Image via Wikipedia

Yet all of this left me a bit cold. There is precious little about the human story of its founder Thomas J Watson (right) and what actually made him tick which is probably what the general public would find interesting. And tick he certainly did.

The 1956 New York Times obituary hailed him as the world’s greatest salesman. He probably contributed more than anyone else to corporate culture in the United States – the Think! slogan which he describes here , company songs, decent conditions and salaries for workers in return for their hard work and appreciation of the great leader.

Watson was the only son of Jane and Thomas Watson who is almost invariably described as a farmer and lumber merchant living in Steuben County, New York State. They had married in Edinburgh in September 1862 – just as news was arriving in Britain of the battle of Antietam which raised American Civil War slaughter to industrial levels.

A search on  ScotlandsPeople reveals the marriage certificate: Jane is listed as a “domestic servant” and Thomas as a “commercial traveller.” – in other words a travelling salesman. So the world’s greatest salesman didn’t suddenly take up the career from nothing as you might readily suppose – he was a chip off the old block.

I’m a novice on the Watsons and all of this is tentative exploration open to revision by those who have made serious study of the family. But it does open up an intriguing area for further inquiry.

Thomas Watson was living as a boarder in an Edinburgh city centre tenement block (now demolished) in Leith Street Terrace both in 1862 and in April 1861 where the census also gives his occupation as a commercial traveller. Just living a stone’s throw away at that time was a toddler who would later make the name Watson known around the world – the young Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Watsons were married in the Pleasance Church – at that time part of the Free Church of Scotland which split from the Church of Scotland in the 1843 Disruption before coming back together in 1929.

Ian Jack explores well similar links relating to Rupert Murdoch and other media magnates who emigrated from Scotland in this period in this Guardian piece.

It may be that some of the values of Scottish Presbyterianism – thrift, hard work, education, abstinence from alcohol and a singled-minded ruthlessness tempered by a genuine concern for others – can be tracked in Watson’s later career at IBM.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was born in Edinburgh and his parents were married in Glasgow but he’s scarcely made a mention – never mind a virtue – of his Scottish links or ancestry.

I don’t know what happened to Thomas and Jane and what led them to emigrate to America (settling appropriately in Campbell, New York) before their son’s birth in 1874. Nor what father actually sold as a commercial traveller. They wanted their son to be a lawyer and he tried a few things before finding the métier he shared with his father and his own son and namesake, Thomas Jnr. who succeeded him at IBM.

He did come to Scotland in 1950 meeting his friend Hector McNeil, then Secretary of State for Scotland who shared his internationalist outlook, to look at potential sites for IBM. The IBM plant at Greenock opened a year later.

What would his father thought of that?

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