IIT Kanpur, considered in the top 20 prettiest campuses in India, was established by an Act of Parliament in 1959. The institute was started in December 1959 in a room in the canteen building of the Harcourt Butler Technological Institute at Agricultural Gardens in Kanpur. In 1963, the institute moved to its present location, on the Grand Trunk Road near the village of Kalyanpur in Kanpur district.

During the first ten years of its existence, a consortium of nine US universities helped set up IIT Kanpur’s research laboratories and academic programmes under the Kanpur Indo-American Programme (KIAP). The first Director of the Institute was P.K Kelkar (after whom the Central Library was renamed in 2002).

Under the guidance of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, IIT Kanpur was the first institute in India to offer Computer science education. The earliest computer courses were started at IIT Kanpur in August 1963 on an IBM 1620 system. The initiative for computer education came from the Electrical engineering department, then under the chairmanship of Prof. H.K. Kesavan, who was concurrently the chairman of Electrical Engineering and head of the Computer Centre. Prof. Harry Huskey of the University of California, Berkeley, who preceded Kesavan, helped with the computer activity at IIT-Kanpur. In 1971, the institute began an independent academic program in Computer Science and Engineering, leading to M.Tech. and Ph.D. degrees.
From its very inception, IIT Kanpur has been striving to develop itself into an institution of excellence in education and research in consonance with the contemporary and future needs of India. In meeting this challenge, the Institute has always been making special efforts to recruit talented faculty on a world-wide basis and to admit brilliant students from all over the country by a careful selection process. Continuous efforts have been made to provide the faculty with well-equipped facilities to enable them to participate in national endeavors in Science and Technology in a major way. In addition to offering formal Undergraduate and Post-graduate Programs, the Institute has been involved in Continuing Education and Research & Development in areas of value to both the Industry and the Government. In a very short span, the Institute has attained recognition as a major centre of learning in Engineering, Science and several Inter-disciplinary Areas. The Institute has been served by illustrious Directors. Not only, has the Institute acted as the breeding ground for ideas and talent, it also has recognised and honoured scholars of distinction.