Landauer was born on February 4, 1927, in Stuttgart, Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution of Jews, graduated in 1943 from Stuyvesant High School, one of New York City's mathematics and science magnet schools, and obtained his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1945. Following service in the US Navy as an electrician's mate, he earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1950.
He first worked for two years at NASA, then known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and at the age of 25 began a career in semiconductors at IBM. As part of the two-man team responsible for managing IBM's Research Division in the mid-1960s, he was involved in a number of programs, including the company's work on semiconductor lasers. In 1969, he was appointed an IBM Fellow.
Much of his research after 1969 related to the kinetics of small structures. He showed that in systems with two or more competing states of local stability, their likelihood depends on noise all along the path connecting them. In electron transport theory, he is particularly associated with the idea, taken from circuit theory, that electric flow can be considered a consequence of current sources as well as applied fields. He also pioneered in the area of information handling. His principles have been applied to computers and to the measurement process and are the basis for Landauer's own demonstration that communication, in principle, can be done without minimal unavoidable energy use.
The range of his work has been recognized in special issues of two journals, 10 years apart. They are the IBM Journal of Research and Development (January 1988) and the Superlattices and Microstructures (March/April 1998).
Dr. Landauer died on 27 April 1999 at his home in Briarcliff Manor, NY, USA from brain cancer.