Computer science
IBM fostered a highly consequential field to find new utility for its machines and to train the next generations of technical talent
A "Columbia machine" early electromechanical calculator from 1929.

At a glance, computer science would seem to entail the study and improvement of information-processing devices. But it’s actually far grander, encompassing the investigation of a vast array of technological systems in hopes of solving ever more complex problems. Computer scientists use the tools of software engineering, programming, human-computer interaction, visuals and graphics, data analysis, security, natural language processing and artificial intelligence to tackle the world’s thorniest problems — whether mitigating climate change, building new modes of transportation, speeding the flow of commerce, streamlining the supply chain or halting the spread of disease.

As the Dutch computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once said, “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”

As consequential as the field has become in a digitized world, one might suspect it evolved out of a strategic collaboration among institutions of higher learning, governments and industry partners. In reality, it was born of a singular meeting between two men: IBM founder Thomas J. Watson Sr. and a Columbia University professor named Benjamin Wood.

Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes Edsger Dijkstra Dutch computer scientist
The dawn of computer science

The son of a farmer who grew up near remote Painted Post, New York, Watson didn’t have much of a formal education — only a high school diploma. Wood, on the other hand, was the head of Columbia’s Bureau of Collegiate Educational Research. Wood requested a meeting at New York’s Century Club one day in 1928 in hopes of persuading Watson to donate some tabulating machines to help further scientific progress.

Wood explained that IBM’s machines could have broad applicability across any field represented by mathematics, including physics, biology and astronomy. They could also, Wood explained, replace the laborious hand-scoring method for grading large-scale testing programs. The suggestion caught Watson off guard. He had always thought of IBM’s machines as business tools. He quickly granted the request for a donation.

Despite their differing backgrounds, Wood and Watson quickly formed a bond that strengthened the relationship between IBM and Columbia and whet Watson’s appetite for collaborating with other academic institutions. Watson soon became a Columbia trustee. In 1933, he helped set up a Columbia lab dedicated to using tabulating machines in astronomy. In 1945, IBM established its own basic research lab on the edge of the campus so its scientists could easily interact with those of Columbia and other universities.

A year later, Columbia began offering one of the first computing courses for academic credit. “They helped catalyze the teaching of computer science,” said Henry Chesbrough, faculty director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

A new outlook on academia

While the electromechanical machines of the 1940s were a far cry from what we would today consider to be a computer, their unfamiliarity and relative complexity required training for most scientists. So in 1947, IBM created the Watson Laboratory Three-Week Course on Computing. Before long, thousands of academics and high school science and math teachers had taken the course. IBM researchers designed and taught courses at Columbia, training grad students to apply computing to astronomy, engineering and physics. Meanwhile, computer science began to take root as a vocation. The Eastern Association for Computing Machinery was founded in 1947 during a meeting at Columbia of 60 computer enthusiasts, including Wallace Eckert, the first director of the IBM Columbia Laboratory.

IBM also worked with other universities at the front edge of computer science, including Harvard University, where it collaborated with Professor Howard Aiken to design and build the first running programmable computer, the Harvard Mark I. It was installed at the university in 1944. Aiken set up a Harvard computing lab and established a degree program in 1947. Maurice Wilkes, director of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University in Britain, also established a computer degree program with IBM’s assistance in 1953.

The first computer science departments in US colleges came along in the early 1960s, starting at Purdue University. Frederick P. Brooks Jr., an IBM executive with a love for teaching, was one of the pioneers. Brooks, who managed the development of the IBM System/360 mainframe and operating system, had been a volunteer teacher at Columbia and IBM’s Systems Research Institute, and in 1963 he accepted the job of setting up the computer science department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

With so few university courses in computing in the early days, IBM established the Manhattan Systems Research Institute in 1960 to train its own employees. It was the first such program in the computer industry. The three-month curriculum included courses in computer engineering, software programming and designing systems to solve particular customer problems.

From computer science to STEM and beyond

Today, computer science is a well-established field of study around the world. In the US alone, nearly every undergraduate college offers a CS major, and more than 190 universities have PhD programs. Universities typically offer interdisciplinary programs that combine computer science with biology, medicine and business. “The discipline is still young enough that it’s not tradition-mired,” said Brooks. “Changes are happening.”

The need for talent in CS-related fields is acute. Careers related to computer and information science are projected to grow 22% between 2020 and 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s nearly three times the rate of all occupations. And the median pay for computer science jobs is, likewise, three times higher than the median for all jobs — with good reason. 

IBM has an obvious interest in developing technical aptitude and lately has focused on fostering computer science skills at a younger age and in historically overlooked communities. The company is actively involved in developing STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula in secondary education and spends tens of millions of dollars a year to fund K-12 education programs. It also pioneered a new kind of school centered on science and technology instruction. Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), now a part of IBM's Skillsbuild initiative, is a public-education model that provides high school students from underserved backgrounds with academic, technical and professional skills.

Each P-TECH is a partnership between a high school, a community college and a company. The model combines rigorous courses with workplace experiences, including mentoring, jobsite visits, paid internships and first-in-line opportunities for industry positions. P-TECH schools are no cost to students and their families and offer open enrollment, with no testing or grade requirements.

While the broad applicability of information-processing machines across science and academia may have once surprised Watson, he quickly realized the power of the idea. His pivot set IBM on the path that it continues to travel today, and created opportunities for millions of computer scientists to combine their curiosities and abilities to help improve our world.

The discipline is still young enough that it’s not tradition-mired. Changes are happening. Frederick P. Brooks Jr. Computer science education pioneer at IBM
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