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Icons of Progress

IBM 603

The First Commercial Electronic Calculator

No product, idea or achievement is possible without our most critical asset—the collective thought capital of hundreds of thousands of IBMers. The expertise, technical skill, willingness to take risk and overall dedication of IBM employees have led to countless transformative innovations through the years. Meet team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress.

  • Thomas Watson Jr.

    Thomas Watson Jr.
    “[Watson Jr.] had the imagination and the vision to see what needed to be done, and to find the people who could do it.” – Peter Hillyer, Think, March 1974

    When he returned from World War II, a young Thomas Watson Jr. found the rapid advances in electronics a perfect match for his drive and ambition. But Thomas Watson Sr. was still doubtful about electronics surpassing mechanical devices. Without the personal sponsorship of Watson Jr., it is unlikely that the 603 would have gone into production. Despite legitimate concerns about the reliability of vacuum tubes, Watson Jr. took a calculated gamble and backed the 603 to see if the business world was ready to accept electronic business machines. The device’s success in essence gave Watson Jr. ownership over the future of IBM, allowing his father the opportunity to focus on the company’s traditional business, while grooming his successor. Watson Jr. would continue this trend of supporting emerging technologies when he later became CEO of IBM.

  • A. Halsey Dickinson 

    “[It] impressed me as though somebody had hit me in the head with a hammer.” – Thomas Watson Jr. on Dickinson’s electronic calculator prototype

    IBM hired A. Halsey Dickinson, who had a master’s degree in engineering, in 1932. He was an assistant to James Bryce in the Patent Development Department, where he conducted lab experiments in electronics. In 1936, he conceived what is believed to be the first method to perform addition and subtraction using vacuum tubes. His patent for this method is the first ever patent application for an electronic computing machine. During World War II, Dickinson continued developing electronic computing in his basement, leading to the development of the IBM 603. By the end of his career he was second only to Bryce in IBMers with the highest number of US patents (135). His other notable projects included Eckert’s machine installation at Columbia University, the development of the high-speed Aberdeen calculators used by the US military during World War II, and the IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC). Importantly, he led the company’s early explorations into transistors in 1948 and ’49.

  • Byron Phelps 

    Hired by IBM in 1935 as an engineering trainee after receiving his degree in electrical engineering from Union College in New York, Byron Phelps served as the lone engineer on the 1942 electronic multiplier prototype. Phelps invented binary-coded decimal representation, which drastically reduced the number of vacuum tubes electronic computers needed and made computers more suitable for commercial use. He played key roles in the development of the 603, the 604, the SSEC and the 701. Phelps was also a principle figure in the development of magnetic tape.

  • Ralph Palmer 

    Ralph Palmer

    Ralph Palmer joined IBM in 1932. In 1946, Palmer was tasked to redesign the IBM 603. Palmer focused his energies on creating a machine that could divide and crosspunch—severe limitations of the 603. The result was the greatly enhanced 604. Palmer also contributed to the IBM 701. He was made director of engineering in 1954, and he was named an IBM Fellow in 1963.