Solow received a B.A. (1947), an M.A. (1949), and a Ph.D. (1951) from Harvard University. He began teaching economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1949, becoming professor of economics there in 1958 and professor emeritus in 1995. He also served on the Council of Economic Advisers in 1961–62 and was a consultant to that body from 1962 to 1968.
In the 1950s Solow developed a mathematical model illustrating how various factors can contribute to sustained national economic growth. Contrary to traditional economic thinking, he showed that advances in the rate of technological progress do more to boost economic growth than do capital accumulation and labour increases.
In his 1957 article “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function,” Solow observed that about half of economic growth cannot be accounted for by increases in capital and labour. He attributed this unaccounted-for portion—now called the “Solow residual”—to technological innovation. From the 1960s on, Solow’s studies helped persuade governments to channel their funds into technological research and development to spur economic growth. A Keynesian, Solow was a witty critic of economists ranging from interventionists such as John Kenneth Galbraith to free marketers such as Milton Friedman. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1999.