For a century, no matter what kinds of relationships people have sought with IBM, they have often been drawn less to particular products, services or strategies than to certain qualities of IBM’s people – such as a unique ability to conceptualize opportunities and to tackle and overcome grand challenges … the distinctive way in which IBMers “Think.”
Several of IBM’s 100 Icons of Progress – ideas, inventions and events that have transformed a century – tell these stories, and show how IBM’s culture is manifest in how its people approach problems, as well as the types of problems they choose to approach.
For example, in 1981 two IBM researchers named Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer broke new ground in the science of the very, very small with their invention of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM). Like no instrument before it, Binnig and Rohrer’s invention enabled scientists to see a world not previously observable. The STM won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1986 and is widely regarded as the instrument that opened the door to nanotechnology and other fields.
As with other breakthrough discoveries and journeys of invention that the 100 Icons describe, the STM grew from a unique collaboration between two gifted scientists with inquiring minds. Working together at the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory in the late 1970s, Binnig and Rohrer both had backgrounds in superconductivity and were stirred by the thrill and mystery of seeing the invisible.
Thomas J. Watson Jr. referred to IBMers like Binnig and Rohrer as “wild ducks” — meaning, self-starters who weren’t just part of the uniform mass.
The Icon on Automated Test Scoring tells the story of another “wild duck”. Reynold B. Johnson was a high school teacher who began experimenting with the electrical conductivity of pencil marks as a way to grade his students’ tests. A Columbia University researcher and IBM consultant named Benjamin Wood saw the potential of Johnson’s invention – and his ‘inquiring mind.’
Wood put a call directly into Thomas J. Watson, Sr., and in 1934 Johnson was hired as a senior engineer at the IBM Endicott Lab. The IBMer then went to work on the development of the IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine – the first in a long line of devices that are still being used today for processing standardized educational tests.
After the 805, Johnson wasn’t finished – he went on to develop several other clever machines that made a difference in the educational and data processing fields. Like other prolific IBM inventors with inquiring minds that are a part of IBM’s rich, long history, once Johnson was inside the IBM think tank … the creative juices kept flowing and flowing.