20 Things You Didn’t Know About IBM

For the past century, IBM has been one of the world’s most influential companies, constantly pushing technology and innovation forward. Despite the dominating presence of Apple, Google, and Microsoft in today’s pop culture sphere, IBM’s contributions have been just as groundbreaking in shaping the information age. In fact, all of those companies have a solid chunk of Big Blue’s DNA coded into their mainframes.

The proof is in its rich and colorful history, laden with technical feats, workplace breakthroughs, and yes, the occasional legal drama. Here are 20 fun facts sure to change your view on the iconic PC manufacturer.

1. The tech giant was founded in New York City over 100 years ago.

Silicon Valley might be home to some of tech’s biggest names, but IBM was incorporated in the Big Apple. Inventor Herman Hollerith started it as the ‘Tabulating Machine Company’ in 1896 and incorporated the name ‘Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company’ in 1911.

2. IBM stands for “International Business Machines.”

“International Business and Pleasure Machines” just didn’t sound right.

3. Its computers helped put the first man on the moon.

Deeply involved in the Apollo missions, IBM assigned over 4,000 employees to man computer systems to help NASA track the orbital flight of the Mercury astronauts. The computers had around 4K of ram, which is half the size of this article in a plain text document.

4. Experts consider the Simon brick phone to be the first real smartphone.

Before Apple revolutionized the mobile landscape with the iPhone, IBM proved it was way beyond the curve when it released the Simon Personal Communicator in 1994. Yes, the massive handset lacked web browser support, but it featured email access and the ability to send faxes.

5. Five IBM employees won the Nobel Peace Prize.

A handful of IBMers have been rewarded with the world’s most prestigious award for their technical breakthroughs in research and science. The list includes Leo Esaki (semiconductors); George Bednorz and Alex Bueller (superconductivity research); and Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer (scanning tunneling microscope). If you know what that stuff means, good for you!

6. The executive brass instituted a strict, yet stylish dress code for most of the 20th century.

Walking into the IBM offices was supposedly like being transported into the Mad Men universe, as all the men were forced to wear “pin-striped suits, white button-down shirts, rep ties and wing-tipped shoes.” Although the company’s fashion stylings eventually switched up over the years to accommodate a more business casual look.

7. It’s built machines capable of beating some of the world’s smartest people.

IBM first demonstrated the prowess of artificial intelligence when it made the chess computer “Deep Blue,” which the entire world watched beat renowned champion Gary Kasparov. Almost 14 years later, it developed another machine dubbed “Watson” that competed and destroyed two champions on Jeopardy. How’s that for a Daily Double?

8. IBM’s been offering awesome perks way before Google made it cool.

You thought the search engine leviathan spoiled their employees? IBM’s been doing it since 1914—being one of the first to provide group life insurance, survivor benefits, and special training programs for the disabled, while also creating employee sports teams and the Quarter Century Club to commemorate those who’ve put in 25 years with the corporation.

9. IBM’s “Big Blue” moniker has a few origin stories.

IBM’s colorful nickname remains one of tech’s greatest urban legends. One theory claims security analysts came up with the nickname after the use of color in products and the logo. Another theory suggests it came from a loyal IBM customer referred to as a “True Blue."

10. The classic ThinkPad Butterfly keyboard design was inspired by a puzzle.

Generation X should have fond memories of lugging this sucker around campus in the mid-90s. Here’s a fun little fact behind it: an IBM researcher actually came up with the foldable keyboard design when helping his daughter solve a puzzle.

11. Apple’s ‘Think Different’ slogan is considered a direct shot at IBM’s “Think” badge.

It’s no secret Steve Jobs loathed IBM. The photo speaks for itself. Though it’s been implied over the decades that Apple’s CEO not only based his company’s infamous motto on former chairman Thomas J. Watson’s coined phrase, but flipped it (see what we did there) into a subliminal jab.

12. The company invests over $6 billion per year in R&D.

No one knows the value of research and development more than IBM. It’s devoted billions to the future of computing chips, spending about six percent of its revenue.

13. It was involved in the longest antitrust suit ever.

When you hear the words “antitrust lawsuit”, one company usually comes to mind: Microsoft. Yet ironically, IBM is in the record books for being involved in the most expensive and longest-running antitrust trial ever, which lasted 13 years with 2,500 depositions and over 50 million pages of documents.

14. IBM’s early tech innovations formed today’s PC industry.

Floppy disks and hard disk drives might seem archaic for modern times, but the technologies have laid the groundwork for multimedia storage. We tip our hat to IBM for creating both, along with the magnetic stripe, RAM, relational databases, UPC bar codes, and the world’s first disk storage system: RAMAC.

15. Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand sketched the current “8-bar” logo.

The American modernist is credited for designing IBM’s logo, plus the logos for ABC, UPS, and Steve Job’s NeXT company. Apparently he just wanted to create something that represented the innovation and expertise of the company. Well done!

16. It’s developing “brain-like” chips that mimic the human mind.

These new supercomputers supposedly carry 4,096 cores and can imitate one million human neurons and 256 million synapses, which serve as the biological building blocks of the brain. The first step of Skynet has just been completed!

17. The green IT movement originated in 1971 with IBM’s Blue initiative.

Most of today’s companies have adopted a more eco-friendly approach to their business operations, though IBM was an early trendsetter. It became the first to issue a corporate policy on environmental affairs more than a few decades ago.

18. IBM technology played a pivotal role during the Holocaust.

According to author Edwin Black, who wrote the book IBM and the Holocaust, the company assisted Hitler’s Third Reich by leasing and servicing over 2,000 of its multi-machine sets. IBM also developed a punch card machine used by the Nazis that supposedly allowed them to automate the persecution of the Jews. Opinion was divided as to whether they bore responsibility.

19. It’s made more strides in the health care industry than any other tech company.

IBM has remained at the forefront of the health industry thanks to several revolutionary innovations that include the heart lung machine and first-ever continuous blood separator to treat leukemia patients. It’s even gone on to create a 3D avatar for the purpose of helping doctors visualize a patent's medical records

20. Every major modern gaming console was powered by its CPUs.

Every wondered how games like Gears of War, Super Mario Galaxy or Uncharted were even made playable? Look underneath the hood of your Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii or Sony PS3 and notice the company’s processors served as driving force of these machines.

Alex Bracetti is a contributor to Supercompressor, Complex, Ask Men, HOOP, and several other popular lifestyle outlets. Follow him on Twitter @AlexBracetti.