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As the 1950s began, Thomas Watson, Sr. , founder of IBM, presided over a company that was a trendsetter and leader in the world of computing, which at that time were largely uncharted waters. This was no coincidence, but rather the culmination of over a decade of hard work, beginning back when Watson, Sr. traveled to upstate New York, the town of Poughkeepsie to be exact, to take a closer look at parcels of land that would eventually become the property of his International Business Machines, or IBM as it is popularly known today to virtually everyone who has ever heard of computers.
Ultimately, the Poughkeepsie plant would become the largest, and main IBM production facility (Ceruzzi). In this paper, the details of how Watson “gave the signal” for Poughkeepsie to commence operations, and the various factors that impacted that decision will be presented in detail in order to better understand this fascinating innovator in the modern world of computing as well as his place in not only the history of information technology, but US history as well.
Watson’s Mindset in Selecting Poughkeepsie One of the essential questions that inevitably comes up when discussing Poughkeepsie as an IBM stronghold, which is exactly why Watson chose that area to locate a facility. Upon further analysis, there are several reasons for this; logistically, the site was reasonably close to the metropolitan areas of New York, which represented a lucrative IBM customer (or potential customer) base, an available workforce, and the like.
However, one of the most important, if not the most important factor that inspired Watson to locate a facility there was the opportunity to quickly grow the company through government contracts, albeit not the contracts that he would ideally like to have had. Cannons Versus Computers? Most likely in anticipation of involvement in World War II, the US government in mid-1941 called upon Watson and his ingenuity to design and manufacture heavy artillery pieces for the military.
While Watson was not particularly fond of this possibility, he was interested in the prospect of realizing the kinds of revenues that he would need to be able to bring his computer production goals to life. With that in mind, IBM eventually designed, produced and delivered these guns, realizing millions of dollars in profits in the process. This cycle would be repeated many times, as IBM found itself involved in the war effort. Once again, however, it appears that this was a means to an end in Watson’s mind.
The direction that Watson had envisioned for IBM was to be able to develop and produce computing products that would benefit the civilian and military markets as well, rather than become more deeply involved in weapons production. This conflict so burdened the mind of Watson that he is said to have suffered a physical breakdown during World War II due to the stretching of his abilities as well as his inner conflict over the direction that IBM was taking as opposed to his vision for it (Ceruzzi). Watson Gives The Signal
Ironically, the war products that Watson found himself torn about producing eventually generated the revenue that IBM needed to be able to continue the research and development of computing products that would benefit not only a nation at war, but the general population as well. To Watson’s delight, and in line with his vision for what Poughkeepsie could become in its best use, IBM was able to successfully develop and produce an early punch card system which would allow for the rapid, and largely accurate, processing of large amounts of data (Grosch).
Undoubtedly, this technology was harnessed for classified applications which aided the US military in ways that can only be imagined, but also, this product/application had a more direct human impact as well; for example, punch cards were used to process the records of individual soldiers; therefore, families were able to receive accurate information about the wellbeing of their loved ones fighting overseas, but perhaps more importantly, families very rarely received inaccurate notification of the death of their loved ones, which was an all too common occurrence before Watson and IBM were involved in the process.
Inspired by this success, and the potential it held to greatly improve not only the bottom line of IBM, but also the lives of all Americans, Watson recovered from his physical downfall and “gave the signal” for Poughkeepsie to move forward, full throttle, in research and development, as well as production of computing products. Many of the products developed in Poughkeepsie, as an example, are direct ancestors of the computers used by virtually every modern nation on earth in the present day.
By the 1950s, IBM had grown from a company that had to resort to war profiteering in the past to an international giant in the computer industry, generating huge revenues and setting the stage for the legendary activities that would one day commence in Silicon Valley and make overnight billionaires out of tech savvy entrepreneurs with names like Dell, Gates, and Jobs.
Without risk takers like Thomas Watson, Sr. , the world of computers would likely be a much different place today. Conclusion In retrospect, the decision of Thomas Watson, Sr.to devote full resources to the development of IBM Poughkeepsie can fairly be attributed to the winning of World War II, and improving the lives of literally billions of people. This early success allowed Watson, and IBM, to rule the business world of the 1950s. In closing, perhaps that is Watson’s greatest legacy, and it is likely that he would be pleased with this distinction.
Ceruzzi, P. A History of Modern Computing. 2nd ed. Cambridge: MIT P, 2000. Grosch, H. Computer Bit-Slices from a Life. 31 January 2007 <http://www. columbia. edu/acis/history/computer/html>.