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Icons of Progress

The First Corporate Pure Science Research Laboratory


It was a strange setting for what was apparently the first corporate pure science research laboratory in the United States. The year after Thomas J. Watson Sr. established the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory in temporary quarters at Columbia University in 1945, IBM researchers moved into a former fraternity house near the campus. Here, a handful of the world’s top young scientists were busy using advanced computers to investigate everything from atomic fission to the orbit of the moon. “For the industry, the lab’s unique coupling to Columbia marked a new way of tapping into university talent and tightening connections with academe,” says Robert Buderi, author of Engines of Tomorrow, a book about the evolution of corporate research in America.

Watson’s move marked the humble yet supremely ambitious beginnings of what was to become IBM ® Research. The organization is now a premier corporate scientific research institution, with 3000 professionals in nine laboratories scattered worldwide. In the years since 1945, IBM scientists and engineers helped invent the Information Age, producing breakthroughs in fields such as information storage, semiconductor technology, database software and computer systems. Along the way, IBMers won Nobel Prizes in physics for the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope—essential for the development of nanotechnology—and for the discovery of high-temperature superconductivity, which has the potential to vastly improve the performance of electricity grids.

Other companies, such as General Electric and AT&T, had well-established corporate research and development departments when IBM announced the lab at Columbia on February 6, 1945, but they focused mostly on applied science and product development. The Watson Lab’s first director, Wallace J. Eckert, gave researchers license to pursue their interests without concerning themselves with business imperatives. “Eckert provided a wonderful degree of what I call academic freedom, even though it wasn’t technically academic,” says Gardiner Tucker, who joined the lab in 1952, and later became a director of research at IBM.

Since then, IBM has pioneered one approach to research after another. The company set up an independent research division in 1956, incorporating small labs at Columbia University in New York City and in Poughkeepsie, New York; San Jose, California; and Zurich, Switzerland. At first, IBM Research was funded primarily by corporate management. Over time, a portion of its work became more closely coordinated with and funded by the company’s product development organizations. In recent years, scientists have increasingly worked directly with clients. These so-called first-of-a-kind projects bring the latest research breakthroughs to bear on clients’ problems.

The second half of the twentieth century gave rise to a handful of great corporate research labs in the United States, including AT&T Bell Laboratories and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. IBM has remained committed to investing in research, even during difficult times in the mid-1990s. Since then, the goal of IBM Research has been to be vital to the company’s success. It does so by providing a dynamic mix of long-range scientific research with work that feeds cutting-edge innovations to the company’s business units.

The labs have also begun collaborating aggressively with government and university research labs worldwide. With nearly a dozen “collaboratories” in the United States, Australia, China, India, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Taiwan, IBM Research can stretch its budget and gain access to some of the best minds on the planet. “The world is our lab now,” says IBM Research Director John E. Kelly III.

These days, IBM Research continues to set the technology direction for IBM and contributes to long-range corporate strategy. Through the annual Global Technology Outlook exercise, which identifies key emerging technologies, research leaders help recognize the growing importance of data analytics to businesses, governments and society. That’s one of the insights that gave birth to the IBM Smarter Planet™ agenda, which harnesses the capabilities of instrumentation, interconnectivity and intelligence to improve understanding and management of all things digital. “It was an aha! moment. We saw that analytics could allow us to take advantage of knowledge events, so we could get deep insights, be predictive and make better decisions,” says Mark Dean, an IBM Fellow who is in charge of research strategy and operations. Now, research scientists are taking the lead in discovering new technologies that are turning the Smarter Planet vision into reality.