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Thomas J. Watson

CEO 1914 - 1956


Full biography

Thomas J. Watson was a pioneer in the development of accounting and computing equipment used today by business, government, science and industry. He built a worldwide industry during his 42 years at IBM.

Mr. Watson was born in Campbell, N.Y., February 17, 1874. His first job was at age 18 as a bookkeeper in Clarence Risley's Market in Painted Post, N.Y. He earned $6 a week. Later he sold sewing machines and musical instruments in the same village before joining the National Cash Register Company as a salesman in Buffalo. He eventually worked his way up to general sales manager.

Bent on inspiring the dispirited NCR sales force, Mr. Watson introduced the motto, "THINK," which later became a widely known symbol of IBM. He told salesmen, " 'I didn't think' has cost the world millions of dollars." Overnight, framed placards with the single word, "THINK," sprouted throughout the offices of the company. Later, at IBM, he reintroduced the same motto.

Mr. Watson joined IBM, then known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co., as general manager in 1914. The following year he became president. During the early days of his leadership, Mr.Watson placed heavy emphasis on education, research and engineering to insure the company's growth. He believed these three factors essential for improving the then-existing models of business machines and the development of new ones.

Mr. Watson was recognized as one of the first leaders of industry to offer widespread benefits to employees, including medical expenses, insurance and a pension plan. Employee benefits were not incentives to work harder, Mr. Watson emphasized. On numerous occasions he told IBM employees that the good work they had already done had earned these benefits.

Throughout his life, Mr. Watson maintained a deep interest in international relations. He entertained kings, presidents, prime ministers and ambassadors when they visited New York City. President Franklin D. Roosevelt once remarked, "I take care of them in Washington. I have learned to rely confidently on Tom Watson to take care of them in New York."

Mr. Watson adopted for IBM the slogan, "World peace through world trade," and made it internationally known. He said he advocated "the exchange not only of goods and services but of men and methods, ideas and ideals." He worked closely with the International Chamber of Commerce and in 1937 was elected its president.

For many years Mr. Watson served as a trustee of Columbia University and Lafayette College. He was presented with honorary degrees by 27 colleges and universities in the United States and four abroad.

Mr. Watson married Jeannette M. Kittredge, daughter of an Ohio industrialist, on April 17, 1913. Mrs. Watson traveled widely with her husband and became a director of IBM in 1956, and before that was a director of IBM World Trade Corp. She was 82 when she died at her home in New York City on February 10, 1966.

A month before his death on June 19, 1956, Mr. Watson handed over the reins of the company to his eldest son, Thomas J. Watson Jr. Another son, Arthur K. Watson, served as president of IBM World Trade Corp., the company's international operations. Mr. Watson also had two daughters, Jane and Helen.