Southwest Research Institute

By: James R. Compton

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: November 1, 1995

Southwest Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit, applied engineering and physical sciences research and development organization, is the United States's third largest applied science center, after Batelle and Stanford. The institute is eight miles west of downtown in the city limits of San Antonio. It was founded in 1947 as a public trust for charitable and educational purposes by Thomas Baker Slick, Jr., a San Antonio oilman, rancher, and philanthropist. The institute began operations on what was then a part of the Essar Ranch, a Slick family holding. The ranch headquarters, a three-story Victorian home, served as the institute's first offices and laboratories. In 1993 the institute grounds consisted of 765 acres, with more than 1.5 million square feet of floor space for laboratories, workplaces, and offices. The staff in 1988 numbered 2,600, composed of about 1,100 scientists and engineers, 1,000 technicians, and 500 administrative support personnel. The institute has program development offices in the Washington, D.C., and Detroit, Michigan, areas and in Houston. It has grown from one building in 1947 to more than 100 permanent structures. In fiscal year 1992 its gross research and development revenues were around $232 million, and its total assets slightly exceeded $187 million.

Early research emphasized improved building construction technologies, engines, fuels, and lubricants research tasks, environmental problems, and agricultural needs. The institute is active in almost all of the engineering and physical sciences. It conducts multidisciplinary research in chemistry and chemical engineering, fuels and lubricants, vehicle technology, applied physics, engineering, and materials sciences, automotive products and emissions, electronics, electromagnetics, space sciences, instrumentation, and nondestructive evaluation science and technology. The institute derives its revenue from contract research. It is composed of ten technical divisions that conduct internally sponsored basic research programs as well as applied research programs for industry and government. Approximately 55 percent of its revenues are derived from industry around the world and 45 percent from government sponsors.

Over the years Southwest Research Institute has gained international recognition for its engines, fuels, and lubricants programs; its fire technology research laboratories are acclaimed among the foremost in the world; and it has done more pre-service and in-service inspection and evaluation of conventional and nuclear power plants than any other organization. Its research and development program includes such areas as automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, expert systems, military electronics, and space sciences. At any given time, more than 1,000 major projects are ongoing at its San Antonio laboratories.

The institute publishes an annual report and Technology Today, a semitechnical journal published three times a year that reports the highlights of selected research investigations. A number of pamphlets and folders are also published that describe the institute's technical capabilities in selected disciplines. The staff also publishes unclassified research findings in the technical literature.

The institute sponsors internal seminar programs by distinguished visiting scientists and engineers; meetings of national and international societies have been held annually in San Antonio with SWRI serving as host and partial organizer. The institute and its sister organization, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, are together known as the Southwest Research Center. TBRI was also founded by Thomas Baker Slick, Jr., in 1941. It is located immediately west of the institute on several hundred acres of land near the junction of Southwest Military Drive and Interstate Highway 410. The two organizations are physically separate, are governed by different boards of directors, and have no legal obligations to each other. Their scientists do, however, cooperate in projects of mutual interest based on agreements by their two presidents. The institute and the foundation, together with the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the University of Texas at San Antonio, compose an organization known as the Southwest Research Consortium, which facilitates cooperation in selected research programs, primarily in biotechnology. The Thomas Baker Slick, Jr., Memorial Library, located at the center of the grounds, houses 50,000 technical volumes, more than 400 technical journals and periodicals, and computerized borrowing and lending services. The Nondestructive Testing Information and Analysis Center, funded by the United States government, is located in the Slick Library and provides nondestructive evaluation information to individuals and organizations authorized to use its services.

The institute has conducted research and development for most of the large industrial corporations in the United States and for many of the world's large firms. The United States Department of Defense is its largest government client. The Belvoir Fuels and Lubricants Research Facility, the United States Army's primary resource for fuels and lubricants research, is located on the institute grounds and is operated for the army by SWRI personnel. For more than thirty-five years the institute has had a close scientific relationship with the Southern Gas Association, an international consortium of seventy oil and gas companies, and has conducted the research program for the SGA's Pipeline and Compressor Research Council. In another discipline, the National Engineering Rehabilitation Center, partially funded by the United States government, is located at SWRI, and institute scientists conduct research necessary to evaluate equipment and devices intended for disabled people. The institute also operates the Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an $80 million project. The institute is managed by a president, two executive vice presidents, and thirteen technical and administrative vice presidents. It is governed by an eighteen-member board of directors, which in turn is advised by a 150-member voluntary board of trustees representing industry, business, science, and academia. The institute's first president was Harold Vagtborg. Martin Goland came to the institute in 1955 and assumed the presidency in 1959, at Vagtborg's retirement. He continued as president in 1993.

San Antonio Express-News, December 24, 1989. Harold Vagtborg, The Story of Southwest Research Center (San Antonio: Southwest Research Institute, 1973).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James R. Compton, “Southwest Research Institute,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995