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Slide Rule Whiz Kid Helped Invent Calculator That Made Slide Rule Obsolete



(p. B12) Jerry Merryman, a self-taught electrical engineer who helped design the first pocket calculator, died on Feb. 27 [2019] in Dallas.


. . .


In 1965, two years after he joined the electronics maker Texas Instruments without a college degree, the company asked Mr. Merryman and two other engineers to build a calculator that could fit into a shirt pocket.

He designed the fundamental circuitry in less than three days, and when Texas Instruments unveiled the device two years later, the moment marked a transformational shift in the way Americans would handle everyday mathematics for the next four decades.

"Silly me, I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution," Mr. Merryman told the NPR program "All Things Considered" in 2013.

With this device, Mr. Merryman and his collaborators, Jack Kilby and James Van Tassel, also pioneered rechargeable batteries and "thermal printing," which used heat to print numbers onto a special kind of paper. Speaking with NPR, Mr. Merryman said he was reminded of their work whenever he used a cellphone or was handed a thermally printed receipt by a grocery store cashier.


. . .


After a stint with the railroad -- he packed ice into refrigerator cars carrying bananas -- Mr. Merryman worked as an engineer at a local radio station. Then, in the late 1950s, he enrolled at Texas A&M University in nearby College Station. He left without finishing his degree.


. . .


Mr. Merryman immediately joined a team that was developing what were called integrated circuits, the breed of microchip that would later drive personal computers. His boss was Mr. Kilby, who had helped build the first integrated circuit in 1958. (Mr. Kilby, who later shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work. died in 2005.)

Seven years later, these microchips had yet to find their market niche, and Texas Instruments' president at the time, Patrick E. Haggerty, decided that the company needed to prove its worth with a consumer product. He called for a pocket calculator.


. . .


During his brief stint at Texas A&M, Mr. Merryman entered a contest alongside 600 other students. They competed to see who was best at using a slide rule, the wood and plastic device that helped with multiplication, division, trigonometry and other mathematical calculations.

After buying a used slide rule for $6, Mr. Merryman won the contest with a nearly perfect score. "Hearne Student 'Pulverized ′em' in A&M Contest," the headline in the local paper read.

Just a few years later, he helped make the slide rule obsolete.



For the full obituary, see:

Metz, Cade. "Jerry Merryman, 85, Co-Creator Of Calculator That Fit in Pocket." The New York Times (Saturday, March 9, 2019): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 7, 2019, and has the title "Jerry Merryman, Co-Inventor of the Pocket Calculator, Dies at 86." The online version says that the page number of the New York edition was D6. I cite the page number in my National edition.)


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