I first met IBM in 1964 at the World’s Fair in New York City. You might say it was corporate love at first sight.
Like many small investors during that era, my father was a proud IBM shareholder, which among other benefits entitled us to passes for a special showing at the IBM pavilion. Once we settled into our seats, as I recall it, the entire audience was magically lifted 50 feet in the air and into a spherical, multimedia auditorium, where we were treated to a magical tour of the technological future. I can’t remember what we heard and saw, but I do remember wishing that it would never end.
Steven Pearlstein is a Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist at The Washington Post.
( IBM / VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS ) - An IBM punch card machine is being assembled.
That was a period of great confidence and optimism in American business. The whole world seemed to admire America, Americans admired big businesses and big business admired IBM. The old joke was that nobody ever lost his job by buying IBM, which was as much a knock on the risk-aversion of corporate executives as an acknowledgment of IBM’s reputation for quality and reliability. In those days, Big Blue was the place everyone wanted to work and invest. It recruited the best graduates from the best universities, imbued them with its core values of “excellence,” “customer service” and “respect for the individual,” and sent them out in blue suits and white shirts to sell the world on electronic computing.
That year, 1964, was also a turning point for IBM.
In the previous half-century, the company had grown from a business machine company producing cheese slicers, calculators and punch-card readers into an innovation powerhouse that had developed the vacuum tube and Fortran, discovered how to store massive amounts of data on magnetic tapes and designed the refrigerator-size machines that could retrieve that data in seconds. Its computers kept the records of the Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration, guided missiles and rockets for the Navy and the new space program, and allowed American Airlines to introduce the first automated reservation system.
In 1964, IBM introduced its 360 line of computers that revolutionized computing by making it affordable and accessible to businesses and organizations of almost any size. Thomas Watson Jr., the son of the company’s founder, had bet the company on the 360, completely reorganizing and investing what today would be the equivalent of $35 billion into its development. The 360 line was so successful that IBM was soon pulling far ahead of its erstwhile competitors at Sperry, Burroughs and Remington Rand, drawing the attention of the antitrust division at the Justice Department. The government would later go to court in what proved to be an unsuccessful effort to break up the computer monopoly.
I, of course, knew none of that back in 1964. The only thing I took away from my World’s Fair visit was that everything about IBM seemed very classy. In the years since, there’s been very little to disabuse me of that initial impression. There was the gorgeous design that was built into everything the company created, from the elegant three-letter logo and the iconic IBM Selectric typewriter to the headquarters tower at 590 Madison Ave. in Manhattan. There was the memorable and endearing advertising created by David Ogilvy and his associates, including the award-winning Charlie Chaplin campaign for IBM’s new line of personal computers. You experienced the classiness in the professionalism of the repair service. And you sensed it from the fierce loyalty and pride of IBMers, whose belief that they were more than just employees was reinforced by generous wages and benefits, extensive training and ironclad job security.