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Icons of Progress

The Origins of Computer Science

IBM100 The Origins of Computer Science  iconic mark

IBM’s role in the birth of computer science began with an awkward meeting between two starkly different individuals. One of them, IBM Chief Executive Thomas J. Watson Sr., the son of a farmer and lumber dealer who grew up near remote Painted Post, NY, only graduated from high school. The other, Benjamin Wood, was a professor at Columbia University and head of the university’s Bureau of Collegiate Educational Research.

Yet when Watson granted Wood a noon meeting at New York’s Century Club one day in 1928, Wood quickly perceived that Watson respected the quest for knowledge and might respond favorably to his request for tabulating machines that could replace the laborious hand-scoring method for grading large-scale testing programs. Wood explained to Watson that IBM’s machines could be used to measure anything represented by mathematics, including not just business activities but physics, biology, astronomy or any other scientific discipline. For Watson, this came as a mind-bending revelation.

Careful with his time, Watson had earlier arranged for an assistant to interrupt the meeting at the end of one hour. Instead, he shooed away the assistant and the two men talked until 5:30 p.m. Watson was hooked. In the end, he not only donated the machines that Wood had asked for, he eventually became a Columbia trustee. Ultimately, the close relationship between IBM and the university was instrumental in the emergence of a new scientific discipline, with Columbia offering one of the first academic-credit courses in computing in 1946. “They helped catalyze the teaching of computer science,” says Henry Chesbrough, executive director, Program in Open Innovation, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley.

Other universities were also at the cutting-edge of computer science. IBM worked with Howard Aiken, a professor at Harvard University, to design and build the first running programmable computer, the Harvard Mark I, which was installed at the university in 1944. Aiken set up a computing lab at Harvard and in 1947, established a degree program there. Maurice Wilkes, director of the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge University in Britain, also established a computer degree program in 1953.

Today, computer science is a well-established field of study in universities around the world. In the United States alone, nearly every undergraduate college offers a major in the discipline, and more than 190 universities offer PhD programs. IBM’s efforts have had a lot to do with that.

The relationship between IBM and Columbia developed gradually. In 1933, Watson helped set up a lab at Columbia dedicated to using tabulating machines in astronomy. Later, IBM set up its own basic scientific research lab on the edge of the campus—so its scientists could easily interact with those of Columbia and other universities. At the time, few scientists of any discipline understood how to use computers. So in 1947, IBM created the “Watson Laboratory Three-Week Course on Computing” and, over time, thousands of academics and high school science and math teachers took the course. IBM researchers designed and taught regular courses at Columbia, training graduate students to apply computing to various scientific disciplines, including astronomy, engineering and physics.

In addition to becoming an academic discipline, computer science also began to take root as a vocation. Every profession requires an association, and 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—who arranged for the use of the space, and a handful of IBM researchers.

Because there were so few university courses in computing in the early days, IBM set up the Manhattan Systems Research Institute in 1960 to train its own employees. It was the first program of its kind in the computer industry. The three-month program included courses in computer engineering, software programming and designing systems to solve particular customer problems.

The first computer science departments in American 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 in the field. 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.

The popularity of computer science as an academic major has waxed and waned over the years. Enrollments in the United States dropped significantly in 2004 and 2005 after analysts predicted that many computer science programming jobs would migrate to India. But since the financial crisis of 2008, computer science has re-gained popularity. The excitement these days is about interdisciplinary programs combining computer science with biology, medicine and business. “The discipline is still young enough that it’s not tradition-mired. Changes are happening,” says Brooks, who remains a professor at UNC.

IBM remains at the confluence of computing and academia. Since 2004 it has been advocating a new field of interdisciplinary study that blends computing, business and social science—called service science. Read more in The Invention of Service Science , an Icon of Progress. The IBMers who developed the concept were more highly educated than Watson Sr., but their impulse was the same: to help build an academic foundation for an industry, and for the future.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Ben Wood Head of Columbia University’s Bureau of Collegiate Educational Research
  • Howard Aiken Harvard University Professor and Computer Pioneer
  • Frederick P. Brooks Jr. Former IBMer and former chair of the Department of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill