When Tom Slick Jr. launched Essar Ranch in 1947 to apply scientific breeding methods to livestock production, Harry Truman was president of the United States, a gallon of gas cost less than a quarter and Ted Weems’ “Heartaches” was playing on the radio.

Seventy-five years later, the Southwest Research Institute, as it’s now known, has become a lynchpin of Texas’ scientific research community and a major employer in the San Antonio region.

The institute observed its 75th anniversary Monday with several ceremonies at its 1,500-acre campus on the city’s West Side.

Since its establishment, the institute has played crucial roles in scientific research related to space exploration, establishing better manufacturing processes and optimizing clean energy use, the institute’s President and CEO Adam Hamilton said.

Today, the institute is working to advance machine learning and artificial intelligence, build the world’s largest mobile robotic system and reduce carbon emissions.

“Our headquarters are here in San Antonio … [and we] operate much like the San Antonio culture does — we’re a very collaborative organization, building collaborations amongst industry competitors,” Hamilton told the San Antonio Report. “We’re uniquely positioned both geographically and culturally to take advantage of [international] relationships and to continue to build these types of collaborations.”

In a press release commemorating the anniversary, Hamilton said the spirit of the institute’s founder lives on at the institute in its scientists.

Slick “challenged a small team of scientists and engineers to use its skills to accomplish revolutionary advancements that benefit humankind,” Hamilton said. “As one of the oldest, largest and most diverse independent nonprofit organizations in this country, SwRI continues to rise to Tom’s challenge of pursuing research that makes our world a better place.”

Slick’s vision

Slick, a Texas oilman, inventor and philanthropist, named Essar Ranch after a phonetic abbreviation of the first initials of the phrase “scientific research.”

In 1947 oilman, inventor and philanthropist Tom Slick launched Essar Ranch, dedicated to scientific livestock production.
In 1947 oilman, inventor and philanthropist Tom Slick Jr. launched Essar Ranch, dedicated to scientific livestock production. Credit: Courtesy / Southwest Research Institute

Then located on the edge of west San Antonio, Essar Ranch was known for its innovations in livestock nutrition and its success with artificial breeding. At this point, Slick had already founded what is now the Texas Biomedical Research Institute and the Mind Science Foundation, both of which still operate in San Antonio.

“Slick saw that the scientific advances achieved by the military during World War II could benefit a peacetime America, but the momentum needed to be sustained in a postwar economy,” the institute said in its press statement. “He sought to place San Antonio alongside other cities where independent research and development organizations were being created.”

In its first five years, the institute grew from 64 projects to 600 and gained national prominence for its work in the automotive, environmental and radio direction-finding industries. All these technologies remain active research topics at the institute.

Expanding research capabilities

Today the institute employs nearly 3,000 people across the U.S., most of which are San Antonio residents. While headquartered in San Antonio, the institute has also satellite offices in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.

Since its founding, the institute has expanded its research capabilities to explore space research, energy, ocean engineering, emissions, and materials research, according to the press release.

The institute considers itself a leader in many research areas, including fuel and energy efficiency, geosciences, turbomachinery, automated driving systems, hypersonics, fire research and testing, advanced power cycles, energy storage, and many more, the release noted.

Hamilton told the San Antonio Report that the institute also acts as a gateway of science between the United States and Central and South American countries.

“We’ve recently signed a collaborative research agreement with Monterrey Tech University [in Mexico], and are really hoping to foster those relationships,” he said.

Its engineers have played a part in improving the deep-diving capability of the Alvin research submersible and isolating the cause of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, the press release noted.

The institute’s scientists lead numerous NASA space endeavors, including the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, the Juno mission to Jupiter, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, the recently launched Lucy spacecraft and the upcoming PUNCH mission.

While he and his staff express pride at where the institute is today, Hamilton said he is also optimistic about the institute’s next 75 years.

Hamilton said he hopes to see the institution continue to thrive as a nonprofit and hopes contributors continue to see the value in the institute’s work.

“[I hope] that the value of the nonprofit is really recognized and celebrated,” he said. “As a nonprofit organization having no owners, it’s really our responsibility to make sure that we’re able to provide the expensive and costly infrastructure that can benefit all different industries, to help them accelerate the development of technologies to solve the most challenging problems for humanity.”

Texas Biomedical Research Institute is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.