Machine Man: Thomas J. Watson Jr. And IBM


Although Fortune magazine proclaimed him the most successful capitalist in history, Thomas Watson, Jr. was no pinstriped Chipp-wearing egomaniac. In fact, the IBM president was quite the opposite: a consummate gentleman who once said, “Really big people are, above everything else, courteous, considerate and generous — not just to some people in some circumstances — but to everyone all the time.”

Born in Short Hills, NJ, Watson prepped at the Hun School of Princeton and then went on to Brown University. Never a great student, “Terrible Tommy” usually put drinking and dancing ahead of studies. But he soon became the kind of leader you wanted to follow. In 1952 he was appointed president of the company his father founded, and spent the next 19 years building IBM into the unchallenged giant of the computer industry, and one of the largest corporations in the world. Forward thinking and adaptive, Watson embraced mainframe computers and moved IBM from punch cards to electrons.

Although he was very much a modern leader, it was Watson who formalized the now legendary conservative IBM uniform of gray suit, white shirt and “sincere” tie. Former IBM employee and computer industry pioneer Bob Bemer recalled that he was once scheduled to appear on a TV program in the ’50s. Apparently white shirts were blinding on early TV cameras, and Bemer had to get special permission from IBM management to wear a blue shirt.

When Watson retired from IBM in 1971, he traded in his suit and tie for a captain’s hat and spent considerable time on the water. He won awards from the New York Yacht Club and the Cruising Club of America for guiding his sailboat farther up the coast of Greenland than any non-military ship had ever ventured. Watson also followed Captain Cook’s route across the Pacific and, in appropriately noteworthy fashion, named seven successive sailboats Palawan.

In 1979 President Carter appointed Watson ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Watson also had a love of flying, and in 1986 was the first private citizen granted permission from then Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to pilot his jet across all the time zones of the Soviet Union. — CHRIS HOGAN

8 Comments on "Machine Man: Thomas J. Watson Jr. And IBM"

  1. elder prep | March 19, 2019 at 6:05 pm |

    I believe IBM was one of the early big Blue Chip corporations.

  2. elder prep | March 19, 2019 at 6:25 pm |

    For a humorous take on 1960’s big business, see Robert Morse in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

  3. He was an officer (Elder) at Brick Presbyterian. Maybe I-S should have a “Best of WASPs and/or WASPYness” list. As more famous WASPs go, he would be close to the top.

  4. The Earl of Iredell | March 20, 2019 at 3:22 pm |

    Mr. Watson, Junior, was a young man at the time of WWII. He was a B-17 pilot, but saw little or no combat, as he was, I believe, a “taxi driver” for the other General Bradley (not Omar). Junior was a good man, and even had some sense of modesty and humor.

    His father, Mr Watson, Senior, — and the IBM Corporation — seem to have had a problematic relationship with the Third Reich. See “IBM and the Holocaust,” by Edwin Black (Three rivers Press, 2001), which gives a thoroughly documented account. Black claims that IBM-Sweden and IBM-Switzerland were instrumental in keeping concentration-camp IBM equipment up and running. He gives the impression (at least to me) that Senior was simply in it for the money, and had no moral qualms regarding the Third Reich. I believe that this history was thoroughly expunged after the war, when “Dehomag” was reorganized, renamed, and rolled into “IBM World Trade.”

    The white shirt was a natural given Senior’s dictate that the IBM salesmen dress like their clients, which were mostly big-business and Wall Street executives.

  5. Anony Mouse | March 20, 2019 at 6:51 pm |

    As to the question of why white shirts, it is because white is the most formal shirt. It is also the most crisp and clean look. Historically, a white shirt meant you were not doing manual labor that would soil the shirt (hence the terms white collar and blue collar), and it meant you had the money to launder it, and more than one shirt (which many people did not) so you could launder and rotate.

    There were (and are) many men that would not wear any dress shirt other than white.

  6. I remember my dad telling me that the early TV equipment (cameras and the fuzzy, small screen TV sets themselves) made it look like every man at the McCarthy hearings was wearing a solid black suit with a solid black tie and a bright white shirt.

  7. Why Big Companies Hire Ivy League Graduates:

  8. Basically, a costume to participate in the industrial acting society.

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