Stories from History Regarding Innovation


IBM in the 1930s – Investing in innovation and entrepreneurship: Some of the government programs to improve the quality of life would not have succeeded without Americans’ innovation and entrepreneurship. In 1935, for example, after people had endured several hard years of the Depression, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. But it was not clear how such a complex and extensive system could be administered. For one thing, there were no Social Security Numbers or cards. Employers were not reporting employee wages to the government. By this time, Thomas Watson, previously in sales, had become IBM’s CEO. Mr. Watson’s philosophy was to ask what the client wanted to achieve and then ask the innovators within the company to create and test. IBM built the tabulation equipment that permitted the government to begin awarding Social Security benefits, and the government was able to send benefits by 1937.

IBM was an economic bright spot during the Depression years. IBM’s profits increased, and it raised employee salaries and benefits above industry standards. It achieved business success by listening to what the government and other clients wanted to do, supporting its innovative staff, and allocating staff time to develop the technology that would allow clients to achieve their goals.


The Jimmy Fund in the 1940s — innovation, positivity, and better together: In the late 1940’s a child with cancer rarely survived. Doctors were hopeful though that research would increase the number of cures. Still, these optimistic doctors were uncertain how to persuade the public to donate to cancer research when the public thought of cancer as incurable. A Boston physician, Dr. Sidney Farber, refused to give up and had the idea of a giving a human face – one of his pediatric cancer patients – to the calls for donations. The first radio broadcast of twelve-year-old “Jimmy,” renamed to preserve his privacy, enthusing from his hospital bed about his favorite baseball team and players, as those very players walked into his hospital room, resulted in 25 times the anticipated contributions. Donors joined together and bought Jimmy a television so that he could watch his team play and ultimately gave millions of dollars to cancer research. The Jimmy Fund for cancer research and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute were born. Dana-Farber is now a pre-eminent center for cancer research, and its physicians have helped to develop a variety of cancer therapies.

In 1998 – 50 years after the initial radio broadcasts – Jimmy, whose real name was Einar Gustafson, surprised the Dana-Farber staff who thought he had surely died of cancer, by returning, complete with his shoe box of baseball cards and other souvenirs from his hospital stay. Exemplifying his doctor’s “can do” attitude, Mr. Gustafson became honorary chairman of the Jimmy Fund, recording announcements for radio and television and visiting with cancer patients.