Jul 29, 2014
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Happy Birthday, IBM

As the corporate giant turns 100 today, Patch looks back at IBM's many connections to New Canaan.

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IBM turns 100 years old today, and looking back at a century of world-changing innovation and historic milestones, it's worth acknowledging the connection the technology giant has with New Canaan.

In the late 19th Century, the computing scale, dial recorder, electric tabulating machine and employee time clock were invented and patented. These technologies would form the foundation of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, or C-T-R, that merged on June 16, 1911 under the leadership of Charles Ranlett Flint.

From there, C-T-C advanced with the manufacturing and distribution of all kinds of machinery ... from scales and deli slicers to punched card equipment, a direct ancestor of the modern computer. In 1914, Flint hired a new general manager, National Cash Register Company executive Thomas J. Watson. At this time, the company was making $9 million in revenue, with more than 1,300 employees. Under Watson’s leadership, C-T-R doubled its profits in less than five years, and by 1924 the company had expanded its operations to the point where it needed a new name. C-T-R became “International Business Machines Corporation," or IBM.

Watson was an enigmatic leader, coming up with the motto “THINK," which eventually became the company’s slogan. During his 40-year reign as head of IBM, the company saw unprecedented growth and expansion. By the 1930s, IBM emerged as such a leader in the world of business and accounting, that when the Social Security Act of 1935 was passed by Congress, IBM won the contract to maintain the employment records of 26 million people — subsequently called “the biggest accounting operation of all time.”

By the time Watson handed control of IBM to his son Thomas, Jr. in 1956, IBM's revenues were nearly $900 million and the company employed more than 72,000 people. Since that time, the company’s technological advances in the world of business and technology are legendary and well-documented, impacting the modern world from home computers to the military and aerospace industries.

Despite the evolutionary changes of the company, Watson’s influence remains pertinent today; his slogan “THINK” was the inspiration behind the naming of the IBM Thinkpad. And the new supercomputer recently developed by IBM named simply “Watson” recently made headlines when it “defeated” former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on Jeopardy! this past February.

The New Canaan Connections

In 1949, Watson and his wife Jeanette purchased a home in New Canaan. Watson would alternate between his New York and New Canaan residences. As he eased up on his schedule in the 1950s, he began spending more and more time at his Weed Street “summer home."

It was in this New Canaan home that the man once called “the world’s greatest salesman” suffered a stroke on June 17, 1956. He passed away in NYC’s Roosevelt Hospital two days later.

“After his death it went to his widow and then to his daughter, who was Jane Irwin,” said Janet Lindstrom, executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society. “And it is from that name that came from. But it was originally Thomas Watson’s home in New Canaan.”

Soon after acquiring the rights to the property, Jane and John Irwin commissioned one of the famed “Harvard Five” architects, Landis Gores, to design a pool house (recently restored by the Historical Society and named "Gores Pavillion", it will soon be open to public as an art and architecture exhibit hall). But it was another member of the Harvard Five architects whose ties to IBM ran deep.

When Thomas Watson, Jr. took over the company in 1956, he hired Eliot Noyes as the company’s design consultant. Noyes’ impact on the look and feel of IBM was immediate, as his influential program is a landmark in the history of “house style” corporate design.

“IBM was really interested in their image and Eliot Noyes had a great deal to do with that,” Lindstrom said. 

Among the many projects launched under the leadership of Noyes, the most notable might be design of the IBM Selectric typewriter in 1961, which made the company an industry leader in corporate typewriters well into the 1980’s.

“He also designed a number of buildings for them,” Lindstrom told Patch. “And where he didn’t design, he was the person who selected the other architects. And in some cases for IBM he used architects like another one of the Harvard Five, Marcel Breuer. Eliot even chose the artwork for the corporate headquarters so I know that he was really involved in every way for IBM.”

Noyes’ designed IBM buildings in Garden City, NY, Los Angeles, CA, and San Antonio, TX. IBM’s corporate headquarters in Armonk, NY was another Noyes creation, completed three years after the architect's death in 1977.

But it wasn't only famous CEOs and iconic architects who called New Canaan home. As the company continued its growth as the 20th Century wore on, an inordinate number of IBM employees settled in "The Next Station to Heaven."

“Back in the 1950’s it was quite amazing how many people worked for IBM who lived in New Canaan,” said Lindstrom. “It was a very well-populated town as far as people who worked for IBM."

One of those who settled in New Canaan at that time was our own town historian, the late Joseph C. Sweet, Jr.

Having joined IBM in 1951 as a corporate lawyer, Joe Sweet lived in New Canaan for half a century. For 40 years he served as vice president of the New Canaan Historical Society, and was also the director of the New Canaan town band for 30 years, leading Family Fourth concerts at , Christmas carols on God’s Acre and Memorial Day parades. And, despite an official retirement from IBM in 1984, “Mr. Music” continued his association with the company.

“Even after he retired he continued as a corporate lawyer for IBM looking into and doing work on their patents,” Lindstrom said. “Just knowing that he retired and then kept working, Joe was probably pretty important and helpful to IBM also.”

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