History, Technology

The Origins of IBM in the U.S. Patent Office

One-hundred thirty-one years ago, on January 8, 1889, Herman Hollerith, a young man born to German immigrants in New York City, himself a graduate of Columbia University as an “Engineer of Mines, was granted a patent, part of which read as follows:

The herein-described method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth.

The company he founded, eponymously known at first as the Hollerith Electric Tabulating System, sold the machines that were used to compile the data collected in the 1890 census (this was the same year in which Hollerith asked for, and was granted, a PhD from MIT for his invention). Over the next fifteen years, as the products grew in capability and sophistication, the company underwent several name changes, and in 1911 was consolidated with several other companies to form The Computing Tabulating Record Company. Thirteen years later, the company, then under the direction of Thomas J. Watson, was renamed International Business Machines Corporation.


I first went to work for a technology company in 1978, in a field that was almost unknown at the time, but which came to be called “end-user support.” I was a Marketing Support Representative for NBI (yes, the choice of initials was deliberate, and no-one really knew what it stood for–story to follow sometime), and my responsibilities encompassed setting up word processing systems in customer offices, helping secretaries with no computer experience put these systems to use in their daily work to make them more efficient, training them in basic and advanced features, and performing sales demonstrations with the salesmen, and the occasional saleswoman, who were taking (in NBI’s case) the legal, the scientific, and the government markets by storm. Our main competition was the always amusing WANG (I thought I’d make a joke of it before someone else does), as well as Lanier, and a company called CPT (which stood for “Cassette-Powered Typewriter,” if that helps put the timeframe in perspective and context).

Most of the salesmen in our office had previously sold typewriters at IBM, and it was my first exposure to The IBM Way, the corporate culture that had made IBM such a behemoth in its field. In subsequent years, IBM became a victim of its own size and culture, found itself unable to respond swiftly and appropriately to the changing needs of the workplace, and suffered a downturn, and a subsequent re-energizing and transformation before re-emerging in a different form.

But, at the time, IBM, although not much in the way of competition for us (there was no PC, and the IBM Displaywriter, which was its word processing product, wasn’t very good), was the company, and the culture, we all aspired to emulate.

Thank goodness, though, we at NBI never went the whole way down the IBM rabbit hole. My three favorite salesmen, Vic, Chuck and Leo, all IBM alumni, would occasionally treat the rest of us to a performance of Ever Onward, IBM, which, when they worked for the company, was sung in the office courtyard or parking lot, every morning:

As you can probably imagine, there had to be a party, and adult beverages were involved, to get them to this point later in their careers.

Lord, I miss those days, and I raise a glass to Herman Hollerith who played a key role in making them possible, one-hundred thirty-one years ago today.

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