Benefiting government, industry and the public through innovative science and technology
Seventy years ago, when robots and space exploration were still largely science fiction, Southwest Research Institute began as a small, unlikely research organization on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Since then, we’ve grown to be an international center of science and engineering excellence with nearly 2,600 staff members and a research volume in excess of half a billion dollars a year. From developing nanoparticle technology to probing the vastness of space, SwRI applies science and engineering to advance human progress and scientific achievement.
It all started when 31-year-old Texas millionaire Thomas Baker Slick Jr., son of an oilman known as the “King of the Wildcatters,” opened a new research institute on his sprawling cattle ranch in September 1947.
Before joining the Navy in 1942, Slick already had established what today is known as Texas Biomedical Research Institute. He had also begun putting together the 4,000-acre Essar Ranch (phonetic for “SR,” an abbreviation of “Scientific Research”), known for champion purebred cattle and innovative livestock nutrition and animal husbandry techniques.
Slick agreed with those who believed that the rapid scientific advances achieved during World War II could benefit a peacetime America, and that non-military institutions should sustain the momentum. A number of independent research and development organizations had sprung up in several parts of the country; he chose to plant SwRI on the edge of the Texas Hill Country.
Our founder may be considered an early version of “the most interesting man in the world.” Not only a successful oil man and businessman, he invented lift-slab construction technology, helped develop the Brangus breed of cattle, and conducted cloud seeding experiments, flying a private plane across South Texas skies. This real-life adventurer led expeditions in the Himalayas to search for Yeti. He started a freight airline, Slick Airways, with his brother and even wrote books about world peace.
Although Slick perished in a plane crash in 1962 at the age of 46, his legacy has continued to benefit our clients and the business and research communities. Today, SwRI is one of the largest independent, nonprofit research and development organizations in the country.
From its earliest years, SwRI performed research in wide- ranging areas to solve our clients’ most challenging problems. In the early days, that included developing direction finding antennas for U.S. and allied warships, fire technology, oil and gas transmission research, and microencapsulation of foods, medicines, and industrial products. All these technologies remain active SwRI research topics today.
Another long-standing research area is the development and testing of fuels, fluids, and lubricants for automotive, military, and off-road vehicles, as well as locomotives. Since the 1970s, SwRI also has performed emissions research that has grown to include everything from chainsaws and lawn mowers to cars, trucks, and trains. Today, two of the Institute’s nine technical divisions are devoted to engines, fuels, and lubricants testing and development as well as powertrain and emissions research.
Early work in experimental road materials, construction techniques, and information technology paved the way for self-driving vehicles, sophisticated industrial robots, and next-generation automotive engines, as well as spacecraft and science payloads. SwRI scientists and engineers have improved the deep-diving capability of the Alvin research submersible, isolated the cause of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and led NASA space missions to Jupiter, Pluto, and beyond.
With projects from deep sea to deep space and everything in between, innovation and exploration are in our corporate DNA. What comes next will depend — as always — on what clients need. It’s been that way since the beginning. After recruiting talent from across the nation, Tom Slick challenged his team of scientists and engineers to make the world a better place through advanced science and applied technology. SwRI’s mission today remains unchanged.
Subscribe to Technology Today.