In a world where those who don’t display bigotry vis a vis foreigners are not seen as real men, The Print has a lovely story on the role of IBM – and the United States more generally – in the creation of IIT Kanpur. And how that elite university has now returned the favour by giving IBM its new CEO.
“The institute in Kanpur, like other IITs, was set up with the help of foreign governments. If the Soviet Union assisted IIT Bombay, West Germany helped build IIT Madras, and the United Kingdom IIT Delhi, the United States provided the technical assistance that helped the Indian government establish IIT Kanpur. Its creation — through a “consortium of nine American engineering institutions” — was among the rare successful outcomes of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s disastrous 1961 visit to the US….
New Delhi too pulled out all stops to woo prestigious American universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for Kanpur. Then-MIT president Julius Stratton was informed “of the willingness of the Indian government to meet almost any conditions to persuade [the institution] to take on this task”. However, if the experts and institutional guidance came from MIT and others, IBM provided the machines on which students of IIT Kanpur could learn computer programming. Historian Ross Bassett’s gripping account of the history of IIT Kanpur narrates how the first computer – the IBM 1620 – was ferried on a chartered DC-7 plane to a military base in Kanpur in July 1963. “Within a year of its delivery,” Bassett notes, “IIT Kanpur had fully utilised the 1620,” ordering a new model shortly thereafter. In fairness, both machines – the 1620 and its successor the IBM 7044 – were on the verge of obsolescence by the mid-1960s. But the IBM machines, and sustained American collaboration, helped attract and probably retain some of the finest engineers in India as faculty members at IIT Kanpur.”
The machines that IBM gifted to IIT Kanpur played a seminal role in the rise of computing in India and did so in ways that no one could have predicted. “IBM no longer offered software support for the computers at IIT Kanpur, which meant the faculty and students not only had to learn coding on their own, but also ‘retrofit’ advanced versions of programming languages into older machines. Dinesh Sharma, in his sweeping history of the outsourcing industry in India, claims this problem of “producing up-to-date software for out-of-date hardware [at IIT-Kanpur] spurred innovation”.
The results of such tinkering were truly fortuitous for India. IIT Kanpur’s computer science department, established later that decade, still enjoys a formidable reputation as one of the best programmes of its kind in the world. V. Rajaraman, who joined IIT Kanpur a couple of months before the IBM 1620 was installed on its premises, wrote his canonical work ‘Principles of Computer Programming’ as primary reading material for students in his class. The book made computer programming mainstream in India, well before the Y2K crisis created the legend of the “Indian techie”. In the late 1970s, when IIT Kanpur decided to set up an undergraduate course in computer science, the demand for enrollments was so high that other IITs “rushed to set [their own CS] departments”.”
As luck would have had it, just as the IITs were coming of age “the US passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — allowing highly skilled immigrants a straight path to American citizenship. The rest is history.
The IITs became feeder institutions for corporations like IBM, which were only too happy to hire their best minds. Of course, India, weighed by the license raj, struggled to incubate private entrepreneurship and left IIT-ians with few incentives to remain in the country…
While India celebrates Arvind Krishna’s appointment — he identifies himself as an electrical engineer — it is a reminder that the country should do more to let a thousand such innovators bloom at home.”

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