Home history Origins of IBM Research The origins of IBM Research
From its earliest days, IBM has provided its scientists and engineers the freedom to explore and discover solutions to the greatest problems in industry and society
Night view of IBM's Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Designed by Eero Saarinen, opened in 1961.

The Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory opened on the campus of Columbia University in 1945 with an unusual mandate for company-funded research: explore science, forget profits. This was the first corporate, pure-science research facility in the United States. It was concerned simply with advancing knowledge through collaboration, educational opportunities and the applied computational muscle of IBM’s machines. It would eventually become IBM Research, the largest corporate research organization in the world.

For IBM President Thomas J. Watson Sr., the lab was the next stage of a decades-long commitment he had made to academic cooperation. At Columbia in particular, he had partnered with the university on a series of initiatives using IBM equipment, first establishing the Columbia University Statistical Bureau in 1929 and then, in 1937, setting up the Astronomical Computing Bureau with his future Watson Lab director, Wallace Eckert.

The company had considered launching the Watson Lab in its own corporate buildings, but it placed a high value on proximity to the university. The idea was to lay roots for a more open and expansive collaboration with physical and social scientists, regardless of affiliation. In appearance and spirit IBM went to great lengths to preserve this open-minded ethos that was so essential to scientific freedom and the objectives of the lab.

“This is our fundamental principle: Problems will be accepted because of scientific interest and not for any other considerations,” Eckert, an astronomer, outlined upon his arrival as the first director of the Watson Lab in 1946. 

This is our fundamental principle: Problems will be accepted because of scientific interest and not for any other considerations Wallace Eckert First director of the Watson Lab
The IBM-Columbia University partnership

Watson Sr. was deeply committed to the idea of stakeholding, or paying society back for the benefits it conferred on his corporation. One part of this was supporting the fine arts throughout the western hemisphere. Another was championing education. The partnership with Columbia would include opportunities for graduate students to work at the lab and receive course credit.

After assuming temporary quarters on campus, IBM bought a five-story former fraternity house nearby and filled half of the bottom three floors with state-of-the-art computational equipment. A small machine shop occupied the basement. It staffed a team of 20, all of whom were free to explore science topics of their choosing without commercial pressure from corporate headquarters.

As a professor of celestial mechanics at Columbia, Eckert arrived at IBM with an academic pedigree that proved an immediate draw in the lab’s recruiting efforts. Eckert had done groundbreaking work calculating lunar orbits, which further established his bona fides and would later guide all of the Apollo missions to the moon.

“It is truly remarkable how Eckert not only recognized the great future of scientific computation, but how every problem which was treated by him in the ’30s has taken on greatest significance with the advent of the exploration of outer space,” a Watson Lab biography said of him in 1969.

A growing commitment

Eckert appreciated the importance of creating the right culture for his scientists inside the lab. He understood that academics were a heterogenous and wholly different breed of professional. He embraced nonconformists, the idiosyncratic and the offbeat, and created a casual atmosphere in which free thinkers could do their best work.

Over time, support for research would grow. In 1956, IBM created an independent research division, bringing the administration of the Watson Lab and three other small labs together. A new building was to be constructed in Westchester County, New York. In 1961, this research center at Yorktown Heights, now known as the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, became the headquarters of IBM Research.

In the late 1950s to early 1960s, many lab employees left for positions at IBM scientific and engineering management jobs, seeding well-regarded creatives and admins into business-centric departments. “There are about 50 people ... who are fairly well thought of, and all started here,” Eckert would say. “Our people have almost invariably made good elsewhere in the company.”

Arvind Krishna ran IBM Research in the five years before being named the chairman and CEO of IBM in 2020. There have been just 12 directors of IBM Research since its founding.

Global footprint, Nobel prizes, prolific invention

IBM Research has maintained the same spirit of partnership and scientific exploration that defined the prototype lab all those decades ago, enduring even as other great corporate research centers closed. The institution has grown persistently over the decades, now featuring a truly global footprint with laboratories on six continents. 

IBM researchers have won six Nobel Prizes and six Turing Awards, and authored more than 110,000 scientific publications. The company has been granted more than 150,000 patents, including one filed in 1968 by IBM and Robert Dennard for his single-transistor dynamic random-access memory (DRAM), which today powers everything from laptops to videogames to smartphones. A team led by Rey Johnson of IBM Research in San Jose, California, invented the hard disk drive system in 1956.

Where it once championed breakthroughs in areas such as information storage and semiconductor tech, Research is increasingly pushing the boundaries in artificial intelligence, hybrid cloud and quantum computing. Thousands of scientists and engineers around the globe are driving rapid breakthroughs in materials science, chemistry, healthcare and automation, to name just a few fields.

IBM researchers’ achievements 6 Nobel Prizes won 6 Turing Awards won 110,000 Scientific publications authored >150,000 Patents granted
Creating the future of computing

As with any company navigating dramatic transformations over the decades, IBM has continually reevaluated the mission of its Research division. During the tumultuous early 1990s, it reaffirmed its commitment while shifting activity toward that which is “vital to IBM’s future success.” The confluence of technologies IBM is building today, it believes, will exponentially alter the speed and scale at which it can find solutions to complex problems, delivering on the goals Watson had set for the department decades earlier — now, even faster.

Quantum computing, for example, seems destined to be one of those technologies to lead the way. IBM was the first company to build a small quantum computer and make it available on the public cloud for anyone to run experiments — encouraging scientific collaboration much like it did in 1945 — in an effort to dramatically transform the world. 

“There’s not a doubt in our mind that as difficult as this quest is, it has that potential,” says Dario Gil, IBM senior vice president and director of IBM Research. “It’s one of those things that answers the equation of what is possible to do with technology. It is one of these things that will definitely be in the history books in terms of information and computation and what it means.”

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Wallace Eckert

He created new machines to support science and explore unknown territory