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IBM's unique position


IBM: background and policies
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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IBM research was founded - I think the name IBM Research Division was created in 1956 or 1957, but there was a research activity before but a very, very small one or two people. But when they created this activity it was very shortly before Sputnik went up, and suddenly everybody in the US or anywhere in the world who had a good degree from a good school and looked good had more offers than they could even want to hear. Bell Laboratories was growing by the day, MIT, everybody was growing. At that point IBM came on the scene under what were actually extraordinarily unfavourable circumstances. IBM was for all practical purposes founded by Thomas J Watson Senior who was the present chairman until approximately 1950; then his son, Thomas J Watson Junior replaced him in various ways as president and as chairman. The passage from one to the other was quite an interesting phenomenon, which is well documented in Thomas Watson Jnr's autobiography, but it is not part of my story. He then found himself having an army of very successful salesman, a way of handling business, but the technology was changing totally. Before the technology consisted in mechanical machines that usually just lasted forever. IBM's was more like sewing machines by Singer or Lakers, or Mercedes cars of the classic period: they went on and on and on, but they were not sophisticated in any real sense, they were just very well built, and everybody knew that their time was up and IBM had to become an electronics company. So an effort was made, to replace them and it was growing also, - to fill this very successful structure with people totally different from the previous people. Whereas before they were having college degree meant to be from local colleges or maybe from the Rencil (?) Technical Institute, which is a very good engineering school in Upper New York State, but they never even thought of having MIT or Caltech or Stanford or whatever graduates. They're too sophisticated. Suddenly, they became necessary, and a very brilliant man was put in charge of that. Again in Thomas Watson Jnr's autobiography, he describes how lucky he was to get this man to do it, because he had first followed, well, "Central Casting". The dean of some engineering school, who was very personable and so on, was chosen as Director of Research at IBM, and then someone told him that this dean was going to fail because he had not been at any of the crucial places during the war: he was not at Los Alamos, he was not at the Rad Lab, he wasn't at Washington; and that in order for this extraordinary change that IBM was being subjected to - to succeed - one needed somebody who knew everybody. And Emanuel Piore was chosen. Now I knew Piore reasonably well and every so often he would say modestly, "When I created NSF?" "When I created the Office of Naval Research?" This man during the war had been one of the leaders of research, and he made the Office of Naval Research become an agency for research. He was the one who founded the philosophy and the powerful National Science Foundation. The third of his great achievements was the IBM Research Centre. Now it became very clear very shortly after I was there that it was a place of total disorder - I wouldn't say chaos; chaos can have order in it - well, maybe it was chaos! The main idea was very difficult to gather, but then Piore called meetings of staff and said, "Look, I'm told that you people wonder why we got you in here. There's no secret. I'm going to tell you. There's no secret." And so he went on saying that "we need endless numbers of engineers, bright people, we need endless number of people to staff all these structures that are just empty, and, well, we are going to offer all of you very good conditions for applied research. Many of you think that you would like to spend your life finishing their thesis and competing with your Ph.D. adviser, but in fact there can be an easier life with better rewards." Then he proceeded by saying that IBM also needed a research centre proper and because we're isolated we had to do many things which otherwise would have been sort of borrowed from neighbouring institutions, those that IBM could afford to have, well, either he said a few, or several, or some great scientists, at IBM had a way of having deadwood not interfere with the functioning of the institution. The man was Mr. Shrewdness in person, he was a very brilliant fellow. At that point I realised that I could escape, by staying at IBM, this difficulty- am I a mathematician because my degree says so? Am I an engineer because I'm interested in things? Am I a social scientist because I don't think there's a difference between the turbulence in stock markets in terms of unpredictability? At IBM I wouldn't have to worry about that. The names of departments were totally strange and totally meaningless, so it looked like a promising situation for a short time. As it turned out I was going to spend thirty-five years and twelve days at IBM, almost from the beginning to the day when IBM decided that successful research was no longer going to be carried on in that division. I think that this was a great fortune, because the kind of uncertainty, the kind of lack of 'fitting', the kind of personal exclusion from all kinds of negatism about what I was doing did not have to apply there.

Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010) discovered his ability to think about mathematics in images while working with the French Resistance during the Second World War, and is famous for his work on fractal geometry - the maths of the shapes found in nature.

Listeners: Daniel Zajdenweber Bernard Sapoval

Daniel Zajdenweber is a Professor at the College of Economics, University of Paris.

Bernard Sapoval is Research Director at C.N.R.S. Since 1983 his work has focused on the physics of fractals and irregular systems and structures and properties in general. The main themes are the fractal structure of diffusion fronts, the concept of percolation in a gradient, random walks in a probability gradient as a method to calculate the threshold of percolation in two dimensions, the concept of intercalation and invasion noise, observed, for example, in the absorbance of a liquid in a porous substance, prediction of the fractal dimension of certain corrosion figures, the possibility of increasing sharpness in fuzzy images by a numerical analysis using the concept of percolation in a gradient, calculation of the way a fractal model will respond to external stimulus and the correspondence between the electrochemical response of an irregular electrode and the absorbance of a membrane of the same geometry.

Duration: 6 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008