Jerry Merryman, 1932–2019
The engineer who taught us how to count on a pocket-size machine
In 1965, Jerry Merryman was asked to develop a plan for the world’s first handheld calculator. The device, he was told, should be the size of a small book—and ideally fit into a shirt pocket. Merryman, a young engineer at Texas Instruments, mapped out the circuitry using about 4,000 transistors, a shocking number then to fit on one circuit board. He delivered the design in three days—and, as he liked to point out, “nights”—and created a ubiquitous device that paved the way for desktop computers. “Silly me,” he later said. “I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution.”
Born near Hearne, Texas, in 1932, Merryman showed such youthful brilliance that Texas Instruments hired him in 1963 without a college degree, said The Wall Street Journal. The company’s president, Patrick Haggerty, was searching for a “killer application” to fuel demand for its new microchips, which Merryman’s Nobel Prize–winning supervisor, Jack Kilby, had invented in 1958. The calculator project was code-named “CAL-TECH” and kept so secret that Merryman did not tell his wife.
By the end of 1966, Merryman, Kilby, and a third colleague, James Van Tassel, had a prototype, said The Times (U.K.). It was “a black aluminum box” roughly 4 inches by 6 inches that weighed less than a pound, with 18 keys and 11 batteries that had to be recharged every four hours. It could add, subtract, multiply, and divide—and was a vast improvement on earlier calculators, which were as large as a typewriter and had to be plugged into a socket. Today, that prototype sits in the Smithsonian between Alexander Graham Bell’s and Thomas Edison’s work—an honor Merryman described in 2007 as “overwhelming.”