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How the Thomas J. Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory Shaped History, By Ira Smolev

February 1, 2013

Founded in 1945, the Thomas J. Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory played a major role in the development of the modern computer. Used by both Columbia University faculty and IBM researchers, the Watson Laboratory housed classrooms, a reference library, and equipment rooms laden with heavy computing machinery. Additionally, such industry pioneers as Herb Grosch, Eric Hankam, and Wallace Eckert maintained offices in the building. These renowned scientists collaborated with their Watson colleagues to design the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC), which is considered by many to be the first true computer. Laboratory researchers also developed the first personal computer, the IBM 610.

Furthermore, the Watson Laboratory offered the world’s first computer training course, a three-week program taught by Eric Hankam. This class drew more than 1,500 students from nearly two dozen countries and provided an introduction to large-scale computing methods. The Watson Laboratory continued to operate and educate until the mid-1960s when IBM moved onto its own site and Columbia University opened a computer center on campus.

About the author: Trained as a mechanical engineer, Ira Smolev launched his career as a Systems Engineer at IBM in the mid-1960s. After writing a critical conversion utility program for the company, Smolev joined a leading software company and eventually started his own marketing firm.

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