Friday, June 5, 2009

John H. Patterson, Industrial Genius - with a Flaw

Several responses to my first post on PlumwoodRoad came to my personal email. To those who sent them, Thank you. It was great to get the positive feedback.

Among the responses was one from Jack B. I copied and pasted it into the response box below.

Jack's note provoked a further thought on the subject of NCR and John H. Patterson. If someone could write a book about Patterson it seems like I ought to be able to write a couple posts about him.

Jack B. theorized that NCR did not adapt to the touch screen. He was amazingly close to the mark.

John H. Patterson was a great man and was so spot-on in much of his thinking. We all, living in Dayton, Ohio at that time, lived with the benefits of his vision. I believe I accurately portrayed that city as a little jewel of a place to live; prosperous, tidy, and populated with intelligent citizens who made new things happening all the time.

However, being human,John H. Patterson had personal foibles. Mostly this expressed itself in beneficial and interesting ways.

For example, Patterson believed in personal cleanliness and had showers with state-of-the-art plumbing installed in the factory. Every employee was required to shower weekly on company time. This was the late 19th / early 20th century, remember, so the old punch-line "whether he needed it or not" might really fit the situation. Patterson also was an early health-food advocate; is said that no bread and butter was served in the executive dining room. He was also an early advocate of exercise, and built the giant employees-only Old River Park.

He viewed management and labor as a team and he was the captain. He openly solicited opinions on how to improve product or operations from every employee via the innovation of the Suggestion Box.

However, Patterson had an ego that could get out of controll. It was a single outburst of this ego that hurt the team, many years later.

For a period of time his vice-president was a man named Thomas Watson. Watson was fascinated by the possibilities presented by electrifying the cash register. The old machines had a hand crank on the side to advance the register tape. Watson pushed the company to build a model that had an electric motor.

I got this story from my Father, who at one time sold for NCR and was fascinated by the lore of the company. Patterson and Watson clashed over the direction to take the company and at some point this turned into personal animosity and Patterson fired him, and the way he fired him made news. Watson showed up for work one day and found his desk and belongings on the sidewalk in front executive building.

As a kid living in the neighborhood we walked by the building many times and Pop would tell the story and point to a spot in front of the main entrance and say "Right there". It made an impression on this little kid's mind. I could see a wooden desk, a chair and a waste basket sitting there on the broad sidewalk next to the curb.

John H. Patterson may have thought he settled the matter but he didn't. For quite a while, his vision of the company prevailed. Long term he made a mistake. It didn't hurt him, or his company right away. But the mistake eventually returned to bite NCR.

A good man will eventually find work somewhere, and Thomas Watson found work with a small time competitor of NCR, International Business Machine, IBM. Watson led his new company full-tilt into research into electrical machines. In the old Machine-Age, IBM was a minor player, but eventually IBM developed the punch card system. Then, during World War II they built the first working computer for the Navy. This computer was so massive it filled an entire room. Everybody knows how things turned out after that.

Long after Patterson and Watson were both gone, it was the direction that Watson led IBM that prevailed and knocked NCR off its perch.

1 comment:

Bruce said...

Your description of the relationship between Patterson and Watson mentions that Patterson directed that Thomas Watson's desk be moved out in front of the executive building. It does not mention another aspect to this story that I read elsewhere: that Patterson also had Watson's desk set on fire. To your knowledge, did this burning of the desk actually happen?