It all started with an H. G. Wells’ sci-fi story on intelligent machines.
Ralph Gomory, 92, the former IBM Director of Research and this year’s recipient of the National Science Board’s prestigious Vannevar Bush Award, was just a boy when he came across the story. Escaping New York city heat — no air conditioning in the 1940s — he read it at a summer camp.
With the title of the book now hidden deep in memory, Gomory recalls that it talked about a future where machines did all the work — an attractive idea for a kid, he later recalled, sort of like always being at camp.
But young Gomory didn’t want to wait for that future. He realized that the only thing missing in the machines at the time of his youth was the intelligence. Determined to bring the future of intelligent machines — computers — closer, Gomory graduated from Princeton with a PhD in math in 1954. Five years later, he got a job at IBM as a research mathematician, after three years in the US Navy.
“I didn’t join IBM for any other reason,” he said in an interview with the American Physical Society (APS) in 2010. “I mean, it was a big company and it was fortunate they were starting a research arm, but I really joined IBM because I thought computers were really going to be a big, big thing, the missing intelligence.”
He was spot on. Fast-forward to today, when computers armed with artificial intelligence are helping us across nearly all industries and quantum computing is getting ready to follow suit. Gomory’s work at IBM and especially his leadership of the research division for two decades — first as Director of Research and later as Senior Vice President (SVP) — has played a significant role in getting us here. His vision helped to set a standard for many modern industrial research labs. During his time at the helm, the company made several breakthroughs in high–density storage technology, advanced our understanding of memory devices and developed new silicon processing methods.
“Ralph shaped IBM Research into what it is today — and his dual vision of pursuing breakthrough science and applied impact in business helped set the standard for what it takes to be a great industrial research lab,” says Darío Gil, the current Director of IBM Research and SVP.
From theories to applied math
A mathematician, Gomory admits that his journey into math didn’t start off too smoothly. Gomory is now 92 — but at school, he hated geometry and algebra. What interested him most was the connection between what he was learning and the outside world. Once he started studying word problems, he told APS, it all clicked.
“You know, John can mow the lawn in six hours by himself, and Bill can mow the lawn in seven hours or eight hours. How long does it take them to mow it if they can mow together? I couldn’t miss those. So that’s just my thing.”
It was in the Navy that Gomory began using applied mathematics for operations research and linear programming, having realized that operations research was “mathematics applied to everyday problems: problems of a company, scheduling problems, etc.” Gomory was at the forefront of applied mathematics research, later establishing the field of integer programming.
He took his love and appreciation for applied math to IBM Research. In 1964, after five years of working at the company, he became IBM Fellow – the company’s highest technical rank only a small number of outstanding scientists and engineers receive. The same year, he co-won the prestigious Lanchester Prize of the Operations Research Society of America.
That was one of the first of many prestigious awards Gomory would go on to receive, including the Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment.
Three awards have also been created in his honor. The National Academy of Science’s Award for the industrial application of science, established by IBM. The Ralph Gomory Prize of the Business History Conference was established by the Sloan Foundation. And the Ralph E. Gomory Award for quality online education is presented annually by the On-Line Consortium.
The latest recognition is this year’s Vannevar Bush Award. Established in 1980, it “honors truly exceptional lifelong leaders in science and technology who have made substantial contributions to the welfare of the Nation through public service activities in science, technology, and public policy,” the National Science Foundation states on its website.
And this is exactly who Ralph Gomory is.
The organization has decided to present the award to him for “his long and admirable record of mathematical, scientific, technological, and educational achievement, as exemplified by his leadership of IBM Research, setting an example emulated by almost all modern industrial research organizations, personally helping create the field of integer programming as an important component of the discipline of operations research, his leadership of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation […] and his leadership in many arenas of our nation’s and world’s scientific community, helping to make that community even more vital to the welfare of mankind.”
At the helm of IBM Research
In 1970, Gomory got appointed IBM Director of Research, and stayed in this role for 18 years, overseeing the development of a wide range of critical new technologies. At the time of his appointment, the Research division was half of what it is today — but still a significant scientific workforce of 1,500 people. Gomory was responsible for IBM research labs in Yorktown, NY, San Jose, CA, and Zurich, Switzerland. Thirteen more labs joined the division over the next decades.
In 1985, Gomory became IBM Senior Vice President for Science and Technology. Under his leadership, IBM researchers won two Nobel Prizes in Physics. In 1986, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer from the Zurich research lab won the Nobel Prize for inventing the Binnig and Rohrer decided to build their own instrument — the scanning tunneling microscope — something new that would be capable of seeing and manipulating atoms at the nanoscale level. To do that, they began experimenting with tunneling, a quantum phenomenon in which atoms escape the surface of a solid to form a kind of cloud that hovers above the surface; when another surface approaches, its atomic cloud overlaps and an atomic exchange occurs.scanning tunneling microscope, which can image individual atoms.
And in 1987, Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Müller, from the same lab, received the Nobel for Superconducting materials hold a special place in the imagination of scientists. Electrical currents, once set in motion, flow in perpetuity in a closed loop of superconducting material. It is thought to be the closest approximation of perpetual motion found in nature.discovering superconductors of electricity at temperatures far above absolute zero. IBM Research scientists also created the RISC computer architecture and the concept of fractals.
Three years after being named SVP, President Ronald Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Science. According to the IBM Corporate bulletin of 15 July 1988, Gomory received it for “his scientific contributions to the mathematics of discrete optimization and its far-reaching influence on information processing, for bringing to a leading position one of industry’s most significant research establishments, and for his contributions to public and private scientific enterprise.”
The following year, at the age of 60 and after three decades of dedicated work, the renowned mathematician retired from IBM.
“Ralph's contributions to the scientific and technological leadership of IBM are immeasurable,” IBM Chairman John F. Akers said at the time, as reported in the company’s corporate news bulletin from 23 May 1989. “His efforts and the efforts of those he guided have made IBM the envy of the world in its exploration of new frontiers of information technology. We owe him a great debt of gratitude. He can be very proud of the legacy he has left all of us.”
But for Gomory, retirement didn’t mean putting science aside. That same year, he was offered the post of president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. This philanthropic nonprofit organization gives out grants to support original research and education related to science, technology and economics.
Gomory stayed president until December 2007, when at the age of 78 he became president emeritus of the Foundation and joined the Stern School of Business at New York University as a research professor. He also served on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) from 1984 to 1992, as well as from 2001 to 2009, advising three Presidents.