Abstract: IBM as the Very Model of a Modern Major Corporation

Thomas Haigh


From its foundation in 1911 (as CTR) through the late 1970s IBM has made vigorous efforts to define itself as a virtuous company. In the 1920s and 1930s it was a leading proponent of welfare capitalism and world trade, building its corporate culture around a personality cult and a song book. It built a strong relationship with the federal government from the New Deal onward, growing during the Second World War. In the 1950s it remade itself around electronics and government contracts in the early Cold War, building American strength in high technology. It embraced sleek design, enlightened management, and modern architecture. From the late 1960s it committed to boosting the position of women and minorities. IBM provides a window onto changing constructions of corporate vice and virtue. As time went by, some virtues, such as its 1930s focus on employee rallies with company flags and songs, no longer seemed quite so wholesomely American. More fundamentally, I argue that IBM's cultural prominence and political influence gave it an outsized role in shaping accepted notions of corporate virtue, and so in reshaping the aspirations of managers and workers in other firms.