Columbia University Computing History

IBM Watson Laboratory at Columbia University

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Watson Lab #1: 612 West 116th Street
1945-1970.
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Watson Lab #2: 612 West 115th Street
1953-1970.

IBM founded its Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University February 6, 1945, during the final months of World War II, first to provide computing services to the Allies, and then to advance the state of the art of scientific computing throughout the world. Its story is told in The IBM Watson Laboratory at Columbia University: A History, by Jean Ford Brennan, IBM, Armonk NY (1971), and in the Columbia University Computing History website, of which this is a subpage, as well as in Herb Grosch's book, COMPUTER.

The founder and director of Watson Lab was Columbia Astronomy professor Wallace Eckert, who had previously founded and operated the world's first scientific computing laboratory in Pupin Hall in the 1930s, and served as director of the US Naval Observatory's Nautical Almanac Office during the War. Watson Lab was a department of Columbia University, giving academic courses and sponsoring PhD theses. Watson Lab staff held Columbia faculty appointments, and Watson Lab provided access to and training on computing machines for Columbia researchers before Columbia had its own computers. The first computer courses were taught here and on campus by Watson Lab scientists.

Several historic computers were designed and/or built at Watson Lab, including SSEC (1948, arguably the world's first true computer); NORC (1954, the first supercomputer); and the IBM 610 (1956, the first personal computer). Eckert used the SSEC to perform the lunar-orbit calculations that would guide the Apollo moon missions. A great deal of other scientific work, notably in physics, molecular chemistry, and thermodynamics also took place at Watson Lab.

In 1970, IBM moved its Watson Laboratory to Yorktown Heights, New York, and left the two "612" buildings to Columbia; the 116th Street building is now Casa Hispanica, and the 115th Street building has been occupied in whole or in part by the Columbia Computer Center in its many incarnations, name changes, and reorganizations, since 1970.

Also see: Watson Lab Gallery (1945-59)

Last Updated: Wed Dec 11 16:27:22 2013


Frank da Cruz / fdc@columbia.edu / Columbia University Computing History