Introducing IBM at 100: Patents and Innovation
Updated: Feb 20
With the looming Jeopardy! challenge competition involving IBM Watson, I am feeling proud of my association with IBM. In part because IBM is an icon of business. As a tribute, I plan to re-post a few of the notable achievements by IBM and IBMers from the past 100 years as an attempt to put the company’s contributions years into perspective. Has IBM made a difference on our world … our planet? What kind of impact has IBM had on the world? Is it really a smarter planet as a result of the past 100 years?
I hope to answer these and other questions through these posts. A dedicated website has these postings and much more about IBM’s past 100 years. Check back often. New stories will be added throughout the centennial year. Let’s start with Patents and Innovation … a cornerstone of IBM’s heritage and reputation.
IBM’s 100 Icons of Progress
In the span of a century, IBM has evolved from a small business that made scales, time clocks and tabulating machines to a globally integrated enterprise with 400,000 employees and a strong vision for the future. The stories that have emerged throughout our history are complex tales of big risks, lessons learned and discoveries that have transformed the way we work and live. These 100 iconic moments—these Icons of Progress—demonstrate our faith in science, our pursuit of knowledge and our belief that together we can make the world work better.
Patents and Innovation
By hiring engineer and inventor James W. Bryce in 1917, Thomas Watson Sr. showed his commitment to pure inventing. Bryce and his team established IBM as a long-term leader in the development and protection of intellectual property. By 1929, 90 percent of IBM’s products were the result of Watson’s investments in R&D. In 1940, the team invented a method for adding and subtracting using vacuum tubes—a basic building block of the fully electronic computers that transformed business in the 1950s. This pattern—using innovation to create intellectual property—shaped IBM’s history.
On January 26, 1939, James W. Bryce, IBM’s chief engineer, dictated a two-page letter to Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the company’s president. It was an update on the research and patents he had been working on. Today, the remarkable letter serves as a window into IBM’s long-held role as a leader in the development and protection of intellectual property.
Bryce was one of the most prolific inventors in American history, racking up more than 500 U.S. and foreign patents by the end of his career. In his letter to Watson, he described six projects, each of which would be considered a signature life achievement for the average person. They included research into the magnetic recording of data, an investigation into the use of light rays in computing and plans with Harvard University for what would become one of the first digital computers.
Tubes changed everything.
But another project was perhaps most significant. Wrote Bryce: “We have been carrying on an investigation in connection with the development of computing devices which do not employ the usual adding wheels, but instead use electronic effects and employ tubes similar to those used in radio work.”
The investigation bore fruit. On January 15, 1940, Arthur H. Dickinson, Bryce’s top associate and a world-beating inventor in his own right, submitted an application for a patent for “certain improvements in accounting apparatus.” In fact, the patent represented a turning point in computing history. Dickinson, under Bryce’s supervision, had invented a method for adding and subtracting using vacuum tubes—a basic building block of the fully electronic computers that began to appear in the 1940s and transformed the world of business in the 1950s.
This pattern—using innovation to create intellectual property—is evident throughout IBM’s history. Indeed, intellectual property has been strategically important at IBM since before it was IBM.
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