Columbia University Computing History

612 West 115th Street

Watson Lab

Left Photo: IBM's Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University, 612 West 115th (1953-1970), from Bashe, et al, IBM's Early Computers [4]. Designed by Neville & Bagge and built in 1905 as an apartment building called Duncan Hall [12]. Later the Parnassus Club, a women's residence [11]. Broadway and the Columbia campus are a half block to the left (east), Riverside Drive, Riverside Park, and the Hudson River are half a block to the right (west).

This was IBM's second "Watson Lab"; the first was one block away in the townhouse at 612 West 116th Street (1945-53). IBM moved to the larger building in 1953 (mainly because of the space requirements for construction and installation of the NORC) and remained until 1970. Upon taking over this building, IBM gutted and completely rebuilt the interior, installing a new heavy-duty automatic elevator capable of lifting heavy equipment (replacing the original genteel operator-attended lift), as well as bringing in massive amounts of power. No trace of the Parnassus club remains inside the building.

Both Watson Lab buildings were turned over to Columbia University when IBM left them. The first Watson Lab now houses Columbia's Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Watson Lab #2 (above) is still called Watson Laboratory (or Watson Hall), and has housed the Columbia University Computer Center / AcIS technical staff and administration since 1970 on floors 6-9, with other departments moving through the lower floors over the years (Controller's Office, ADP / AIS, and most recently Visual Arts studios). (In August 2002, AcIS expanded into the 4th floor.) The 9th floor is the penthouse on the roof (black door visible in the right photo). Perched atop the penthouse (not visible) is the once-ubiquitous wooden New York City water tower.   

Many "firsts" and "biggests" were achieved during IBM's tenure at Columbia, incuding the first computer course (1947), the founding of the ACM (1947), the first "personal" computer (1948), and the first supercomputer, NORC (1954), which was constructed in 115th Street building.

Right Photo: Frank da Cruz, April 2002 (CLICK HERE for a larger version). The origin of the flagpole on the 3rd floor over the main entrance is not known; evidently IBM didn't put it there. It was snapped off by the remnants of Hurricane Frances on September 9th, 2004. Adjoining the Watson building on the right is the elevated playground of Saint Hilda's and Hugh's School (1967).

Note the gargoyles between the 7th and 8th floors; here's a closer view (2003 photo by Walter Bourne):

(Click for larger image)

Most recent update: Fri Sep 10 10:34:13 2004

Frank da Cruz / / Columbia University Computing History