“I’m not a philosopher. I’m a physicist and a technician…you have ideas or you see needs and you think about them. Mostly I’ve done that.”
That’s how IBM Fellow Emeritus and former IBM Researcher Richard L. “Dick” Garwin humbly sums up his career as one of the most influential scientists and researchers of his time, someone who advised every U.S. President from Eisenhower to Obama.
Among the “needs” he saw and addressed: a viable nuclear test in the early years of the Cold War, followed by pragmatic strategies for arms control and stockpile safety; inventing new cockpit technologies for military and civilian aircraft; developing America’s satellite reconnaissance program; conceiving ideas to plug the BP oil well blow-out in 2010 as well as alternatives for dealing with the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in 2011.
Today, in recognition of these and other exceptional contributions, Garwin will be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama – one of 21 individuals to receive the United States’ highest civilian honor this year.
Watch President Obama award the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees at 2:55 PM US, Eastern: here.
This is the second time Garwin is being recognized for his accomplishments at the White House. In 2003, President George W. Bush presented him with the National Medal of Science for his research and discoveries in physics and his contributions to national security.
Garwin gives IBM much of the credit for enabling his public life. Thanks to a unique agreement he made with the company when he was hired in 1952, he was permitted to devote one-third of his time to his other vocation: placing science in the service of humanity as an advisor to the U.S. government.
Notwithstanding his enduring commitment to serving his country, Garwin went on to enjoy a prolific career of discovery and innovation at IBM, where he developed or co-developed a series of revolutionary technologies and was credited with 47 patents.
Over the course of more than four decades at IBM Research, he invented pioneering techniques in nuclear magnetic resonance, used in today’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. He carried out groundbreaking work in superconducting computers and silicon integrated circuit technology. He was integral to the development of laser printers and displays, gesture and gaze-controlled input to computers and devices, touchscreen monitors and more.
Colleagues praise his extraordinary dedication to IBM, no matter what national or global crisis he was involved in managing. “Wherever he was in the world, if you sent him an e-mail in the morning about a problem you were having, he’d always get back to you within hours with a solution,” one of them recalls.
In a blog for IBM Research scientists, Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, wrote, “This is an incredible tribute to Dick, and one in which we should all take tremendous pride. Many of us who came to IBM in the hope that our work could make a difference – that it could impact the world in some profound way – drew our inspiration from Dick, because that is exactly what he achieved throughout his long and brilliant career.”
Though Garwin officially retired from IBM in 1993, he has continued to remain very active as an advisor to the U.S. government on a range of critical issues spanning nuclear arms control, healthcare and the environment. The weekend before he received his award he was in Washington, D.C., to attend an advisory meeting of academic scientists. And on Monday, he was back at his desk at the T.J. Watson Research Center in New York, where he still maintains an office.
Looking back, Garwin is deeply grateful to IBM for taking the risk of bringing him on board, given the extended amount of time the company knew he would be called away from his job. Without question, it was a bet that paid off handsomely for IBM, for Garwin’s country, and for the common good.