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Cortada's IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon

In March, CBI Senior Research Fellow James W. Cortada published a landmark book surveying the more than a century-long history of International Business Machines (IBM). His book, IBM: The Rise and Fall and Reinvention of a Global Icon, was published in William Aspray and Thomas Misa’s History of Computing Series with MIT Press. This outstanding book is a major contribution that spans the period from the firm’s prehistory with Herman Hollerith, to its recent forays into cloud and analytics as its fast growth areas.

Jim spent nearly four decades working for this computer industry giant, and though he has published dozens of IT history books, he waited until retirement to write this monumental 722-page study—fittingly big with a blue cover—of the company and its many contexts. It is in part a significant contribution to history of technology, but makes even deeper contributions to business history, as it focuses on themes such as sales practices, corporate culture, strategic shifts, competitive challenges, anti-trust lawsuits, and transitions to new areas and redefined revenue and profit centers. Adding greatly to its importance, Cortada's book does not shortchange IBM World Trade and international operations, as other authors’ surveys generally have done. It provides fresh insights into the pre-1985 era in its first two sections. Then it offers in many cases a first look into and a very cogent analysis of developments and trajectories of the 1986 to 2017 period in the final two sections, comprising roughly one-third of this important volume.

In addition to Cortada’s rich insights from having studied IT history and business history for decades, his book offers many things that set it apart from the other 40-plus books on the company. This includes coverage of the entire span of IBM’s history up to about 2017, access to IBM’s rich Corporate Archives, and the opportunity to observe IBM first-hand through 38 years of fundamental change as he served in a number of different roles within the company (as a salesman, a sales manager, a consultant, and a senior business analyst and executive). Jim’s book also benefits from his half-decade following retirement from IBM, which provided distance to reflect on how being an insider shaped some of his perspectives.

Before Cortada’s unparalleled new book, I tend to think of IBM engineer Emerson Pugh’s Building IBM as the strongest survey on the company. Like Cortada, Pugh benefited from the IBM Corporate Archives, which Robert Sobel, who wrote an early survey, in 1981, titled Colossus, never had access to use. For Cortada’s recent book, the secondary scholarly literature on IBM’s history is far richer in volume, diversity, and quality than when Sobel and Pugh wrote their surveys.

Much of the strongest scholarship to date on IBM has been articles and book chapters published over the past 20 years by senior IT historians who have written directly on IBM in particular eras and with targeted themes, such as Steve Usselman and Eden Medina, or other senior IT historians who have included IBM as part of a broader-based survey or study, such as in works by William Aspray, Janet Abbate, Martin Campbell-Kelly, Thomas Misa, Paul Ceruzzi, Nathan Ensmenger, Mar Hicks, Pierre Mounier-Kuhn, Lars Heide, Petri Paju, Ross Bassett, JoAnne Yates, and Thomas Haigh. Adding greatly to this is the exceptional work of earlier career standouts such as Corinna Schlombs, and Gerardo Con Diaz. A scholar who will soon extend this further is our just-named Tomash Fellow Colette Perold (see related article). Outside of history, scholars such as anthropologist Peter Little have added meaningfully. The aforementioned scholars (as well as some of my own scholarship) has explored such themes as IBM and the computer industry (Usselman, Aspray, Campbell-Kelly, Ceruzzi, Haigh, Ensmenger, Misa, Yates, Yost), IBM and gender (Abbate, Aspray, Hicks, Schlombs, Misa, Yost), IBM and software (Aspray, Campbell-Kelly, Haigh, Ensmenger), IBM and anti-trust/political economy (Usselman, Campbell-Kelly, Con Diaz, Schlombs, Perold, Yost), IBM and components/semiconductors (Bassett), IBM in Chile (Medina), IBM in Germany (Schlombs), IBM in France (Mounier-Kuhn), IBM in Scandanavia (Paju), IBM in Brazil (Perold), IBM and the environment (Ensmenger, Little), IBM in the punch card tabulation era (Haigh, Heide, Yates, Perold), and IBM and services (Yost).

Collectively this IBM historical scholarship has added much to our understanding and is drawn from and analyzed by the skilled and senior historian Cortada in his new book. This, coupled with his own primary research and his front row seat if not direct involvement in much of the transformative history of IBM in the past four decades, has led to a unique and extremely rich volume. It should be on every historian’s bookshelf (and despite its great length, it is very attractively priced at MIT Press, and especially at Amazon.com). We offer deep congratulations to Jim, our Senior Research Fellow of more than a half decade, for this truly exceptional achievement.

Jeffrey R. Yost

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