The Acorn That Put Boca On The Map

IBM
The early years of IBM in Boca Raton

An IBM veteran remembers the glory days of Don Estridge and the invention of the PC

The IBM story in Boca Raton began in the late ‘60s when then-Chairman of the Board of IBM, Thomas Watson, announced the company would open a manufacturing facility here to produce its 550 Model 20 Midsize computer. That site, now the Boca Raton Innovation Campus, was designed by renowned architects Marcel Breuer and Robert Gatje, and at its peak covered 3.6 million square feet in more than 40 buildings. It would be big for Boca. But no one knew how big.

The transformative product of that IBM campus was code-named “Acorn” and ultimately became the first personal computer. Pete Martinez (right), now 65 and chairman and CEO of the SIVOTEC family of companies, remembers those days; he was part of the team that developed the new product, and calls its mastermind, Don Estridge, his “mentor.” Martinez worked at IBM from 1975 to 2007, when he retired as Vice President, Global Services and Senior Executive for South Florida.

“Don Estridge is known as the father of the IBM PC Division…We were doing worldwide manufacturing from here—from Boca—so we took the IBM population from 2,000 employees to close to 12,000 within a period of three years. All because of the PC,” Martinez says.

At the time, he says they all thought they were working on an “experiment” designed to get a “better understanding of the industry.”

For the first time IBM was not going after traditional big Fortune 500 customers; it was targeting individual consumers.

“Think of it,” he says. “One of the retail outlets for us was Sears. Imagine an IBM product being sold in Sears…It was incredibly secretive. We knew that it was going to be different from anything IBM had done previously, but the expectations from the company were in the hundreds of thousands of product sales. We missed by a little bit.”

In fact, the company had predicted maybe 250,000 sales of its PC; in the first 18 months of rollout, sales more than doubled that forecast. In 1983 Time named the computer “Machine of the Year,” the first time ever that an object won the award.

That’s when Martinez realized “we were in a different world.”

“Think of what is around us now—we all have computers…The internet would have never happened had it not been for the personal computer—[without it], what would you connect? Because of the volumes that we drove on, related technologies such as memory sticks arose… If it were not for the volume of personal computers we would still be looking at tube TVs. We made a very big gamble that said we’re going to flip the industry over. We were going to drive it with our volumes, and then all of a sudden the technology became affordable, then expandable.”

Martinez can rattle off all the ways that little product in Boca Raton changed the world: speech recognition, ATMs, the gas pump, airline reservations, the smartphone. He calls it “a fundamental shift in the history of mankind.” And it all started here, in Boca Raton.

This spring the Boca Raton Historical Society will open an exhibition on the invention of the PC—and the role of IBM—in Boca Raton.

This story is from the January 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.