Home history A legacy of invention A legacy of invention
A talented group of creative minds forged novel machines that changed business and the future of computing
Frank E. Hamilton, Clair D. Lake, Howard H. Aiken, and Benjamin M. Durfee stand in front of the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC)

A pantheon of some of modern history’s most prolific inventors assembled at IBM in the first half of the 20th century. With a keen sense for everyday business needs and a mandate to create, they designed their way to hundreds of patented processes, products and devices. Over five decades, they built a beachhead of intellectual property in business mechanization for the company and forged paths to the coming computer age.

Far from inventing for inventing’s sake, this group of engineers and scientists designed with practical, real-world applications in mind. By faithfully thinking utility first, they would revolutionize data collection for a world hungry to count and catalog everything; expand society’s computational abilities to accelerate scientific discovery; and usher business into a new era of opportunity with machines that could efficiently and accurately perform important work.

The company’s ability to gather so many talented engineers was a testament to the vibrancy of IBM’s ideas culture and the importance that it placed on invention as a means to achieve its global ambitions. Thomas J. Watson Sr., the first chairman and CEO of IBM, devoted substantial time to engineering oversight and invested heavily in research and development to build the company of tomorrow.

“As Mr. Watson has so often reminded us, this business is being built with a view not only to this year and the next but to the many other years that are to come,” said Fred Carroll, head of engineering and invention in one of the company’s engineering departments, following a 1927 convention of the company’s Hundred Percent Club of top salespeople and its Executive School.

While there were dozens of inventors tinkering and prospecting on the company’s behalf, some emerged as especially prodigious across many business lines. They included James Bryce, credited with hundreds of patents; Arthur H. Dickinson, an assistant to Bryce and second only to him in patent count; Clair Lake, whose inventions transformed punched card machines; and Carroll, who built machines to make punched cards.

...this business is being built with a view not only to this year and the next but to the many other years that are to come Fred Carroll Early IBM head of engineering and invention
Herman Hollerith and Eugene Ford

In the early part of the century, Herman Hollerith’s punched card tabulator emerged as an electromechanical marvel. While automating data processing, it revolutionized business and commercial processes and inspired a generation of novel technical and conceptual advances. 

The Hollerith machine earned worldwide credibility by demonstrating its efficiency in tabulating national census counts. As the device’s reputation grew in the private sector, the market for enhancements, extrapolations and improvements exploded. Because the best and brightest talents came to IBM to build the future of machine technology, the company had an able core of visionaries in place to deliver them. A 1928 issue of Business Machines hailed this group as the “creators of the devices that make IBM great.”

Eugene Ford, for one, worked directly with Hollerith to enhance the punched card tabulator’s designs. Before IBM, he crafted a keyboard punch to improve on Hollerith’s original pantograph, drawing from experience fabricating his own brand of typewriters. Later, he helped streamline Hollerith’s tabulating and sorting machines during the system’s next phases of development.

At the behest of Watson Sr., Ford moved to New York City in 1914 to open a lab and was named the company’s chief development engineer. He went on to contribute a number of important inventions, including the Type 80 horizontal sorter of 1925, which processed punched cards more than twice as fast as previous models.

Fred Carroll and  James Bryce

While Ford found a way to sort more cards faster, Carroll focused on card manufacturing. His rotary card machine of the 1920s revolutionized how cards were made, replacing flatbed press and cutting machines with cylinders that could cut cards on the fly. His first machine achieved a production rate of 460 cards per minute, nearly four times faster than the old-style press. Later models would reach a rate of 850 cards per minute.

Customers also wanted to fit more data on their cards. Watson Sr. asked inventors Lake and J. Royden Peirce to come up with independent designs. Both were steeped in punched card technology and already had more patents between them than most inventors in history. Lake proposed a system of smaller, rectangular holes. They would be easier to read but require new machines to punch and tally. Peirce proposed using the same round holes, but each would represent more than one number or symbol.

In the end, Lake’s proposal won the day thanks to the recommendation of Bryce, whom Watson had asked to judge the contest. Bryce, or “father engineer” as he came to be known, spent decades helping to turn others’ ideas into patented IP and commercial products while churning out his own inventions at a torrid pace. Holder of more than 500 US and foreign patents, he was named among the 10 greatest living inventors by the US Patent Office in 1936.

Bryce joined the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company in 1917, was named its chief engineer in 1923, and in 1926 organized the IBM Patent Department. Among his many inventions were the self-regulating time system (allowing for synchronization of systems of clocks), the completely automatic multiplying punch, and the application of electron tubes in mathematical operations, later used in the first commercial electronic multiplier. His inventions were important components of the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator and the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator of the mid-1940s. He possessed, as the company said, “brilliant talent that had poured forth an incessant stream of creative thought.”

Arthur Dickinson

From early in his career, Bryce believed that vacuum tubes, used primarily in radios, held great promise within calculating machines. In 1932, he started projects to explore the use of these electronic tubes to radically improve the speed of arithmetic operations.

Under Bryce’s direction, Arthur H. Dickinson found a way to perform addition using vacuum tubes, an important breakthrough in the evolution of machines toward electronic calculating. A productive inventor himself, Dickinson was granted 135 patents over his 38-year career with IBM, second only to Bryce’s tally. His other work included adapting equipment to help the first director of IBM Research, Wallace Eckert, track moon orbits, and developing the IBM 603 electronic calculator, forerunner to the commercially successful Type 604 machine.

This talented group of inventors earned its place in IBM’s history of achievement by forging the technology of a 20th century industrial giant. Visionaries of the possible and practical, they approached their work with a fundamental purpose — to give the business world “machines that are better than any other machines in the world,” Bryce once said — and their contributions still echo throughout today’s modern computing.

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