The appointment of Arvind Krishna as the CEO of IBM Corporation may seem like yet another instance of an illustrious Indian-origin engineer ascending to the top job at a global multi-national company. But it is a development of enormous historical significance too: it is once again a reminder of how the IIT Kanpur and IBM are joined at the hip.
In fact, with the elevation of Arvind Krishna, an alumnus of IIT Kanpur’s 1985 batch, the history of International Business Machines (IBM) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, and indeed India-US technology cooperation, has come full circle. If IBM aided IIT Kanpur’s pioneering effort to introduce computer science to Indians, the institute has handsomely repaid its debt: by offering its best and brightest to lead the American technology giant.
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. It helped, of course, that the Soviets had rolled up their sleeves and got to work on IIT Bombay, providing nearly $5 million worth of equipment and 15 experts to boot. The Cold War ensured its protagonists were falling over each other to offer support to the “non-aligned” like India. The IITs, like India’s fledgling space and nuclear programme, benefited from fractious geopolitics. Indeed, within its first decade of operations, the IIT at Kharagpur had managed to secure assistance from the Soviet Union, Germany, the UK and 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 IBM machines at IIT Kanpur were responsible for the rise of computer programming in India. 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”.
It is not just in India that IIT Kanpur popularised the instruction of computer science. In 2014, IIT Kanpur ranked among the top 10 international institutions that sent the most computer science faculty to the US. Among those professors was Rajeev Motwani of Stanford — a contemporary of Arvind Krishna in the BTech programme at IIT Kanpur — who tragically passed away in 2009. Motwani was a mentor and guide to Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. “Whenever you use a piece of technology,” Brin wrote at the time of his death, “there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.”
Beyond the institute
Outside the academy too, IIT Kanpur made its presence, thanks to the expertise gained from coding for IBM machines. IIT Kanpur was responsible for programming (in FORTRAN and COBOL) the TDC 312 and TDC 316, the first computers manufactured by the Electronics Corporation of India. Meant for the enterprise market, the TDC 316 never caught on, thanks to its high price tag. But a customised version was subsequently deployed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, among others, to build the country’s Air Defence Ground Environment System.
Why then, despite all these achievements, has IIT Kanpur (and other vaunted computer science departments in the country) been unable to create IBMs or Arvind Krishnas in India? As Bassett himself notes, the first batch at IIT Kanpur graduated just as 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. Norman Dahl, MIT professor and first chairman of the Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP) to develop IIT Kanpur, would later lament that the institute “was an irrelevant factor in the industrial and social progress of India… a kind of isolated island of academic excellence but not part of the mainstream of India’s development”.
Dahl’s criticism is perhaps harsh and not entirely accurate. IIT Kanpur in the 1960s also produced alumni like Anil Agarwal, who went on to become one of India’s foremost environmentalists, and a founding member of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. Admittedly, it is true that IIT-ians like Agarwal are few and far between. In just over half a century, IIT Kanpur was able to produce a graduate who would go on to lead the same company that was responsible in large part for its success.
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.
Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. His book, Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India, was recently published by Penguin RandomHouse. Views are personal.
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