Home history The origins of THINK The origins of THINK
An ad hoc lecture from IBM’s future CEO spawned a slogan to guide the company through a century and beyond
the word "Think" in multiple languages

Early one rainy morning in Dayton, Ohio, during a meeting of sales and advertising executives for the National Cash Register Company, Thomas J. Watson Sr. was frustrated with his colleagues; they were clearly having an off day. He strode forward in hopes of motivating the group to generate a few solid ideas for a campaign to boost sales. What came out of his mouth that morning in 1915 was nothing short of a scolding.

“The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads,” he intoned in a noteless lecture that continued for several minutes. “Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business.”

In his pique, Watson hit upon something that would evolve into his singular philosophy of management, creativity and productivity. He would espouse it at NCR and then carry it with him for decades at the helm of IBM. The mantra would establish Watson himself as a pioneer in corporate culture and become a true north guide for the technology company over a century of business cycles, from industry titan to near collapse to reemergence. At the heart of his ad hoc sermon that day was a message as simple as it was profound. There on the blackboard, presented in Watson’s scrawl, were five capital letters:

Knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM CEO
A founding philosophy
Watson takes THINK to C-T-R and then IBM

When Watson was recruited by Charles Ranlett Flint in 1914 to join the Computing-Tabulating Recording Company, the precursor to IBM, the company had been badly underperforming expectations. Worse, there was little cohesion among the employees, who had represented three distinct entities just a few years earlier. Flint decided he needed a new leader to create a common culture, so he lured Watson away from NCR.

In short order, Watson declared his mantra to be C-T-R’s official slogan and had a “THINK” placard posted prominently at headquarters. The block lettering would begin appearing on signs in offices and plants throughout the company. “Thought,” Watson would say, “has been the father of every advance since time began. ‘I didn’t think’ has cost the world millions of dollars.”

As it turned out, the motto was especially well-suited for a manufacturer of counting and measuring devices built to hasten decision-making and boost productivity. Think applied both as a directive to the intelligent people working to imagine, design and manufacture C-T-R’s machines and as a description for the utility of the machines themselves.


Thought has been the father of every advance since time began. ‘I didn’t think’ has cost the world millions of dollars. Thomas J. Watson Sr. IBM CEO
THINK in popular culture
THINK notebooks, placards and cartoons

The slogan grew even more prominent when C-T-R became IBM in 1924. “THINK” signs adorned the desks and walls of countless IBM offices, the company published an employee magazine called THINK, and many IBMers carried pocket-sized notebooks with “THINK” embossed on the cover. The motto was ubiquitous within IBM offices and factories throughout the world by the 1930s.

It also began attracting notice outside the company, and IBM was deluged with requests from the public and customers. In 1948, the company handed out 9,000 signs; by 1960 that number had jumped to 20,000. In the decades that followed — as Watson’s vision of the engaged and intelligent worker continued to resonate — the “THINK” sign became an enduring fixture of business culture.

By the 1950s, the widespread prevalence of the motto and the signs in American business had garnered media attention as well as the notice of cartoonists and satirists. MAD magazine published an uncharacteristically spare design for a 1955 issue with only the word “THINK” centered on the cover, and a THIMK humor magazine even popped up in 1958.

From thinking to doing
IBM’s culture of grand challenges

Watson never meant to espouse ivory-tower-style pondering. He intended for his charges to think as a means of improving IBM’s business and bettering the world. As such, IBM’s culture grew into one of striving to develop novel ideas, to tackle the grandest of challenges, and to exploit the greatest opportunities. “We believe an organization will stand out only if it is willing to take on seemingly impossible tasks,” said Thomas J. Watson Jr., the son of the first CEO who took up the cause. Speaking to a Columbia University audience in 1962, he said those “who set out to do what others say cannot be done are the ones who make the discoveries, produce the inventions and move the world ahead.”

IBM has tallied a long list of such discoveries, inventions and groundbreaking technologies. The company spends billions annually to fund IBM Research, one of the last remaining corporate R&D labs, with thousands of researchers working across 19 campuses on six continents. IBM Research has long harnessed a thinking culture to create dozens of life-changing technologies, from DRAM, the relational database, and the scanning tunneling microscope, to Watson and a fully functioning cloud-based quantum computer.

IBM has played a foundational role in advancing some of the world’s most complex systems. It helped birth the Social Security Administration. Alongside NASA, the company played an integral role in enabling space exploration, from the Mercury and Apollo missions to the Space Shuttle program. It continues to work with government partners, providing AI, IoT and cloud computing technologies and expertise to build more efficient transportation systems and smarter energy grids, and to reduce pollution and mitigate the effects of climate change around the world.

The company has likewise supplied key technologies and expertise across industry. The world’s global finance companies have relied on IBM technology for decades. The company provides AI and cloud computing technologies to healthcare entities to facilitate medical research, hasten drug discovery, find novel solutions to chronic diseases and improve organizational performance. And IBM has remained a key partner in logistics, agriculture and energy, helping companies to manage fleets and personnel, reduce carbon emissions and waste, optimize resources, expedite materials discovery and improve business performance.

In the midst of fostering massive systemic progress, IBM’s thinkers have become highly decorated for their efforts. IBM’s scientists and engineers have won six Nobel Prizes, six Turing Awards, 19 Medals of Technology, five National Medals of Science and three Kavli Prizes. As of 2021, IBM scientists had also published the most patents for 28 consecutive years.

Those who set out to do what others say cannot be done are the ones who make the discoveries, produce the inventions and move the world ahead Thomas J. Watson Jr. IBM CEO
IBM’s scientists and engineers have won: 6 Nobel Prizes 6 Turing Awards 19 Medals of Technology 5 National Medals of Science 3 Kavli Prizes
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