The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived: Tom Watson Jr. and the Epic Story of How IBM Created the Digital Age (Hardcover)
Nearly fifty years into IBM’s existence, Thomas Watson Jr. undertook the biggest gamble in business history when he “bet the farm” on the creation of the IBM System/360, the world’s first fully integrated and compatible mainframe computer. As CEO, Watson drove a revolution no other company—then or now—would dare, laying the foundation for the digital age that has transformed every society, corporation, and government.
The story of Watson being “present at the creation” of the digital age is intertwined with near-Shakespearean personal drama. While he put IBM and its employees at risk, Watson also carried out a family-shattering battle over the future of the company with his brother Dick. This titanic struggle between brothers led to Dick’s death and almost killed Watson Jr. himself.
Though he was eventually touted by Fortune magazine as “the greatest capitalist who ever lived,” Watson’s directionless, playboy early years made him an unlikely candidate for corporate titan. How he pulled his life together and, despite personal demons, paved the way for what became a global industry is an epic tale full of drama, inspiration, and valuable lessons in leadership, risk-taking, and social responsibility.
Marc Wortman, an independent historian and freelance journalist, has written for many publications, including Vanity Fair, Smithsonian, Time, Air & Space, and The Daily Beast and has appeared on CNN, NPR, C-SPAN BookTV, History Channel. He is the author of four books on American military and social history, most recently Admiral Hyman Rickover: Engineer of Power (Yale University Press, 2022). He has taught at Princeton and Quinnipiac Universities and a college program at a maximum security prison. He was the recipient of a New York Public Library Research Fellowship and was the 2014 Jalonick Memorial Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Texas Dallas. Following college at Brown University, he received a doctorate in comparative literature from Princeton University.
—The New York Times Book Review, Editor's Choice
“A riveting tale, one well worth telling, that will be appreciated by fans of Succession. To the public, IBM once looked like that most staid of corporations, a bastion of suited yes-men with lifetime employment. Wortman and McElvenny tell the dramatic family saga behind that image. They also show even the ‘greatest capitalist’ sometimes worked alongside the federal government to produce landmark achievements, from Social Security to military-systems technology.”—Beverly Gage, John Lewis Gaddis Professor of History, Yale University, and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning G-Man
“A briskly told biography of Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM’s mid-20th-century CEO, makes clear that the history of the company offers much more than an object lesson about complacent Goliaths...IBM was remarkably prescient in making the leap from mechanical to electronic technologies, helping usher in the digital age.”
“Tortured by relations with both his father and his brother, Tom Watson Jr. managed to use his personal demons as fuel to build the company that launched the computer age and earn the epitaph from Fortune captured in the book’s title: The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived. His story is unflinching and makes for a highly readable history of both a man and a company that dominated much of the last half of the twentieth century. A real-life Succession drama.”—Alan Murray, CEO, Fortune Media, and author of Tomorrow’s Capitalist
“Watson Jr. stands alongside Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in the pantheon of tech leaders who have changed our world. Anyone wanting to learn his methods of inspiring innovation and creativity in a modern American corporation must read The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived.”—Craig Nelson, New York Times–bestselling author of Rocket Men
“Watson Jr., the legendary leader who steered IBM to unparalleled success, achieved remarkable feats that place him in the esteemed company of modern tech leaders like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. Despite leading IBM during a different era, Watson Jr.’s accomplishments resonate strongly in today’s context, showcasing his enduring influence. His foresight, leadership, and willingness to take risks propelled IBM’s entry into the computer industry guiding the company to become a global leader in information technology. The Greatest Capitalist Who Ever Lived is a must-read for anyone seeking inspiration, insights, and a deeper understanding of the extraordinary achievements of Watson Jr. and IBM.”—James M. Citrin, leader, Spencer Stuart CEO & Boards Practice, and author of The Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers
“The life and leadership of a patriotic, principled man who revolutionized technology, championed science, and built the model global enterprise. Watson Jr. transformed a business to embrace a digital revolution and did so with no blueprint to follow. His technological, strategic, and cultural moves became the gold standard for leaders across industries and nations. When leaders were not threatened by labels like ‘being woke,’ he rewarded shareholders and other stakeholders handsomely. A tough but compassionate leader, he boldly showed doing good is consistent with doing well. This compelling biography is no hagiography by friends and family but a starkly candid, inspiring saga of family distress, personal demons, sweeping vision, and industrial triumphs which should be read by every tech titan today as well as every aspiring entrepreneur.”—Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies, Yale School of Management, and author of The Hero’s Farewell
“In a swift-moving narrative, the authors make clear that Watson was a man of parts, one of the prime shapers of the modern technological world. A readable and revealing work of business and tech history.”—Kirkus
“A nuanced portrait of Watson who went on to unexpectedly make business history.… The authors skillfully weave this profile of a recalcitrant heir together with a chronicle of computing in the 20th century. It’s an informative and entertaining study.” – Publishers Weekly—Publishers Weekly