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Communications of the ACM

Historical reflections

Defining American Greatness: IBM from Watson to Trump

Thomas J. Watson

Thomas J. Watson

Credit: Watson Foundation

We have been hearing a lot lately on the topic of American greatness, where it went, and how to reclaim it. But greatness is complicated, and our ideas of what is great and what is not have changed over time. In this column, I ask what the history of one mighty corporation—IBM—can tell us about the rise and fall of a particular kind of American greatness.

Decade after decade, IBM has been one of the world's largest, most profitable, and most admired companies. Of all American businesses, only General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and Exxon-Mobile have generated more wealth.a Despite recent troubles, it has been ranked in the 2010s as the number one company for leaders (Fortune), the greenest company (Newsweek), the second most valuable global brand (Interbrand), the second most respected company (Barron's) and the fifth most admired (Fortune). IBM technical contributions to computing are second to none. Its researchers won six Turing awards and, more startling, four Nobel prizes. Its engineers produced the first hard disk drive, the first floppy disk drive, the first architecture implemented over a range of diverse but compatible machines, the first widely used high-level programming language, the relational database, the first scientific supercomputer, the first RISC designs, and the first DRAM chip.


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