Computer Titan: The Early Years of Thomas Watson

In his youth, Tom Watson was anything but the picture of success he would later come to be. He was asthmatic, shy and had few friends. But, this loner would soon become one of the greatest and richest salesmen in the world. As one of the most successful self-made industrialists of his time, Watson would turn the winds of fate, transforming his humble beginnings into a career whose legacy continues to this day.

Born February 17, 1874, in Campbell, New York, Thomas John Watson grew up in a modest household. His father was the owner of a local lumber business who earned enough to be able to provide for the family and taught the young Watson the meaning of a hard day’s work.

What Watson lacked in direction, he made up for in ambition. After finishing school, Watson got his very first job as a teacher. But, after just one day, he quit. Instead, he had been tempted by an accounting and business course he had seen at the local Miller School of Commerce. He enrolled in the course and, after one year, he had not only finished the course but he also realized that he had found his niche.

Watson’s second job came in the form of a bookkeeper, where he earned $6 a week. Again, Watson found himself uninterested and uncommitted. He quit soon after becoming a peddler. He teamed up with another traveling salesman, George Cornwell, and began selling organs and pianos for the local hardware store. After Cornwell left, Watson continued on his own, earning $10 a week. He spent two years at this job, until he realized that because of his adept sales skills, had he been on a commission he would have been earning $70 a week.

While he had been mastering his ability to sell, Watson was nonetheless disappointed with his prospects as a peddler. He decided to make a career change and move to Buffalo. Here, he began selling sewing machines door-to-door for Wheeler and Wilcox. After celebrating a sale in a pub only to discover that all his equipment – horse, buggy and products – had been stolen outside, Watson was fired.

Once again, Watson hit the road as a traveling salesman with C.B. Barron. Together, they became successful peddling shares of Buffalo Building and Loan. Watson used his share of the profit to set up a butcher’s shop. Unfortunately, Barron one day took off with all of the money they had made, leaving Watson not only without any money, but without the butcher’s shop as well.

Before he lost his shop, Watson had purchased a new cash register from the National Cash Register Company. After visiting the company to arrange for repayment, he decided he wanted to work for them. Under personal guidance from NCR’s President, John Patterson, Watson had soon become the most successful salesman in the East, earning over $100 a week. As a result, at the age of 25, Watson was given the NCR agency in Rochester, for which he earned 35% commission. After creating an NCR monopoly in the region, Watson was moved to the NCR head office in Dayton, Ohio.

Assigned to the task of putting NCR’s competitors out of business, Watson used covert sales tactics to eventually create a near monopoly for the company. As a result, Watson and Patterson were prosecuted in 1913 under new anti-trust laws. Found guilty, fined $5000 and convicted of a year in Miami County jail, the U.S. Court of Appeals eventually overturned the decision two years later.

Watson was subsequently fired by Patterson. With a new wife and son to support, he needed to find another job, and fast.

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