When World War II ended, Dr. Seymour Koenig, who had been serving in the U.S. Navy for a year and a half, was given a choice to stay in the military or return to civilian life. Having started at Brooklyn College prior to his deployment, he opted to return home and take advantage of the G.I. Bill’s educational benefits. Like thousands of new veterans, he inquired about matriculating at Columbia. Because he had excelled in mathematics at Brooklyn College, his first inclination was to apply to the School of Engineering; however, after reviewing the course offerings, which included building radios and designing transformers and motors, his impression was that he would find studying physics more stimulating.
It was 1947, and the newly formed School of General Studies enabled Koenig to intensely study both physics and mathematics. “GS presented me with the freedom and flexibility to follow what my interests were, so I followed my curiosity,” Koenig said.
While at GS, he took every mathematics course available at the University. After earning his Bachelor of Science in 1949, he subsequently pursued his master’s at Columbia, and eventually earned a PhD in physics in 1952.
“It was an exciting time,” Koenig said, recalling when he defended his thesis in Schermerhorn Hall. “Fifteen people were sitting on the committee, every one of whom went on to receive a Nobel Prize for their work.”
Those scientists included Charles Townes, who is credited with inventing the laser; E. M. Purcell and Felix Bloch, who together discovered a way to measure nuclear magnetic resonance; and his mentor, Columbia professor Polykarp Kusch, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1955 for “his precision determination of the magnetic moment of the electron”—research for which Koenig is credited as a contributor and coauthor.
Upon earning his doctorate, Koenig was recruited for a position at the IBM Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University. Founded in 1945, the Watson Lab was at the forefront of computing technology. Under the leadership of its founder, astronomy professor Wallace Eckert, the lab took on an increasingly important role in the development of computing, eventually developing the world’s first supercomputer, the NORC, in 1954 and the first personal computer, the IBM 610, in 1956. The Watson Lab team sought increasingly powerful scientific computing systems that could predict the navigation of ships and calculate lunar orbits with great precision. The Watson-designed SSEC computer delivered just that, helping ships navigate the seas during the Korean War and guiding the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s.
“Things were very different when I started—the technology was so new. The transistor wasn’t yet invented. We relied on vacuum tubes." - Seymour Koenig '49, '52GSAS
In addition to his research position at the Watson Lab, Koenig served as an adjunct associate professor of electrical engineering from 1957 to 1968, and during the summers, because of his expertise, he consulted for IBM at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of the U.S. laboratories dedicated to classified work with nuclear weapons.
While in New Mexico, Koenig and his wife Harriet, who holds a Master of Arts in anthropology from Hunter College, became fascinated with the Native American populations of the Southwest. During their free time, the two conducted field research where they observed rituals, interviewed locals, photographed people and scenery, and collected tribal art such as rugs, pottery, and dolls. Over time, they accumulated a unique expertise that culminated in co-authoring Acculturation in the Navajo Eden: New Mexico, 1550-1750, Archaeology, Language, and Religion of the Peoples of the Southwest, which was published in 2005. Their research propelled Harriet to serve as an adjunct professor at University of Connecticut at Stamford for 44 years, while Koenig lectured in art history at Columbia, inspiring a number of his students to seek their doctorates in art history and archaeology.
Koenig spent the majority of his career with the Watson Lab, finally acting as its director from 1967 until 1970, when the lab moved to IBM’s headquarters in Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
“Things were very different when I started—the technology was so new. The transistor wasn’t yet invented. We relied on vacuum tubes. Micro- and nanotechnology was only a vision. All of the work we accomplished is a source of great satisfaction,” Koenig said.