The history of the Davidson Laboratory is closely intertwined with the nation's history, and the history of maritime commerce and national defense.

Experiments at Stevens began in May 1931. A professor of mechanical engineering with a passion for sailing, Kenneth S.M. Davidson, would use the Stevens swimming pool at to study scale models of ships. At the time, there were only two tow tank facilities available in the entire U.S. where scale models of maritime vessels could be evaluated.

Davidson and his Stevens colleagues determined to create a third. The first Stevens towing tank was constructed and opened in 1935 as the Experimental Towing Tank. Measuring 101 feet long, with a semi-circular cross-section with a surface width of 9 feet and 4½ feet of depth, it was primarily used to evaluate yacht designs. In April of 1936, the tank was used to support the design of a racing yacht that would begin the facility’s long history of achievement in the America’s Cup race: the J boat Ranger, which won the America's Cup in 1937, bringing national attention to Stevens.

That victory led to a string of commissions testing vessels ranging from ferry craft and seaplane hulls to large, destroyer-type ships.

The Experimental Towing Tank later proved critical during World War II, when the lab was almost entirely devoted to supporting the American war effort. As a result of U-boat attacks on merchant vessels, Professor Davidson submitted a proposal to the National Defense Research Committee of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for construction of a maneuvering basin on Hudson Street, at the western edge of the Stevens campus.

Construction on this basin was completed in June of 1942. Attention then turned to the need to better understand seaplane dynamics. That need, coupled with the fact that the first towing tank was now in almost continuous operation, led Stevens to propose the construction of the world’s most advanced and highest-speed towing tank. This facility, measuring 313 feet long, 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep, was completed in less than 9 months, opening in November 1944.

When the war ended, work at the lab continued — sometimes even including research on land vehicles. Davidson was a primary player in the design of the first modern submarine (the Albacore), as well as continued testing on sailing yachts and other maritime craft. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Lab's facilities were even used to test NASA's lunar rover.

Today, the laboratory also works closely with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on projects including sophisticated modeling and forecasting of wind, tide, current and wave conditions to better assist preparation for and response to storms, floods, accidents, and other emergencies on water.