IBM From the Beginning
In its earliest days, it built scales, time-recording devices, and tabulating machines as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, or "CTR" as it was known. Global ambitions led Tom Watson Sr., who led the company from 1914 until 1956, to change the name to International Business Machines in 1924 (the year this picture was taken outside the company's office in Washington, D.C.).
Under Watson and later his son, Tom Watson Jr. (top exec from 1956 to 1971), IBM took on massive projects ranging from implementing the Social Security Act of 1935, to developing Cold-War-era aircraft tracking systems and atomic research labs, to building guidance systems for the early space program. IBM has plenty of inventions to its credit along the way, from electric tabulators and typewriters, to dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) and hard disk drives, to the barcodes and magnetic-stripe cards now ubiquitous in retail transactions.
IBM has also played a significant role in software, contributing to the FORTRAN, COBOL, and SQL programming languages, among others, and introducing the relational database and speech recognition software. Real IT veterans will hark back to the System/360, while younger generations will remember the IBM PCs and AS/400s of the 1980s. IBM dominated computing from the 1960s into the early 1980s, but that success led to anti-trust scrutiny. That distraction plus sprawl led to the near collapse of the company in the early 1990s, but turnaround figure Lou Gerstner resisted calls to break up the company. A resurgence has been led by a move into software and services in recent years, and through it all, IBM has retained a culture that values internal leadership development, investment in R&D, and big thinking.