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IBM – The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon

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by James W. Cortada

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IBM – The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon

A history of one of the most influential American companies of the last century.

“Nobody ever lost their job for recommending the purchase of IBM products.” —COMPUTER INDUSTRY FOLK WISDOM

For decades, IBM shaped the way the world did business. IBM products were in every large organization, and IBM corporate culture established a management style that was imitated by companies around the globe. It was “Big Blue, ” an icon. And yet over the years, IBM has gone through both failure and success, surviving flatlining revenue and forced reinvention. The company almost went out of business in the early 1990s, then came back strong with new business strategies and an emphasis on artificial intelligence. In this authoritative, monumental history, James Cortada tells the story of one of the most influential American companies of the last century.

Cortada, a historian who worked at IBM for many years, describes IBM’s technology breakthroughs, including the development of the punch card (used for automatic tabulation in the 1890 census), the calculation and printing of the first Social Security checks in the 1930s, the introduction of the PC to a mass audience in the 1980s, and the company’s shift in focus from hardware to software. He discusses IBM’s business culture and its orientation toward employees and customers; its global expansion; regulatory and legal issues, including antitrust litigation; and the track records of its CEOs. The secret to IBM’s unequaled longevity in the information technology market, Cortada shows, is its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and technologies.

The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Cortada, James W., author.

Title: IBM : the rise and fall and reinvention of a global icon / James W. Cortada.

Description: Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press, [2019] | Series: History of computing | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018023090 | ISBN 9780262039444 (hardcover : alk. paper)

Subjects: LCSH: International Business Machines Corporation—History. | Computer industry—United States—History.

Classification: LCC HD9696.2.U6 C67 2019 | DDC 338.7/61004—dc23

LC record available at



  I   From Birth to Identity: IBM in Its Early Years, 1880s–1945

  1   Origins, 1880s–1914

  2   Thomas J. Watson Sr. and the Creation of IBM, 1914–1924

  3   The Emergence of IBM and the Culture of THINK

  4   IBM and the Great Depression

  5   IBM in World War II, 1939–1945

 II   IBM the Computer Behemoth, 1945–1985

  6   IBM Gets into the Computer Business, 1945–1964

  7   How Customers, IBM, and a New Industry Evolved, 1945–1964

  8   System 360: One of the Greatest Products in History?

  9   “The IBM Way”: How It Worked, 1964–1993

10   “The IBM Way”: What the World Saw, 1964–1993

11   IBM on the Global Stage

12   Two Decades of Antitrust Suits, 1960s–1980s

13   Communist Computers

14   “A Tool for Modern Times”: IBM and the Personal Computer

III   A Time of Crisis, 1985–1994

15   Storms, Crisis, and Near Death, 1985–1993

16   IBM’s Initial Response, 1985–1993

17   How IBM Was Rescued, 1993–1994

IV   IBM in the New Century

18   A New IBM, 1995–2012

19   Hard Times, Again, and Another Transformation

20   THINK: IBM Today and Its Legacy

Author’s Note: In the Spirit of Transparency

Bibliographic Essay


“The purpose of this book is to introduce a new generation to IBM’s role by telling the story of its long history, its culture and values, and, most important, explain how it helped to shape the world in which we live, a process still unfolding. I argue that it is essential to understand its corporate culture, one that academics and reporters found difficult to describe but that they recognized was essential to describe. Published accounts of IBM offer insufficient insights. IBM is also a multinational company operating around the world, so we need to understand its role in international disputes. Is it an American corporation or is it so globalized that only its senior leaders are U.S. citizens? What are the implications for Russia, China, Germany, the United States, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Australia, and so many other countries?”

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