Jerry Merryman, who helped invent the handheld calculator, dies at 86
Jerry Merryman, one of the inventors of the handheld electronic calculator that changed computing forever, has died. He was 86.
Merryman had been hospitalized since late December after experiencing complications during surgery to install a pacemaker, his stepdaughter, Kim Ikovic, said. He died Feb. 27 at a Dallas hospital from complication of heart and kidney failure.
Merryman was one of the three people credited with inventing the handheld calculator while working at Dallas-based Texas Instruments. The team was led by Jack Kilby, who made way for today’s computers with the invention of the integrated circuit and won the Nobel Prize. The prototype built by the team, which also included James Van Tassel, is at the Smithsonian Institution.
“I have a PhD in material science and I’ve known hundreds of scientists, professors, Nobel Prize winners and so on. Jerry Merryman was the most brilliant man that I’ve ever met. Period. Absolutely, outstandingly brilliant,” said Vernon Porter, a former Texas Instruments colleague and friend.
“He had an incredible memory and he had an ability to pull up formulas, information, on almost any subject.”
Silly me, I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution.
Another former Texas Instruments colleague and friend, Ed Millis, said, “Jerry did the circuit design on this thing in three days, and if he was ever around, he’d lean over and say, ‘and nights.’”
Merryman told NPR’s “All Things Considered” in 2013 that Kilby approached him in late 1965 and presented the idea of building a calculator.
“He called some people in his office. He says, we’d like to have some sort of computing device, perhaps to replace the slide rule. It would be nice if it were as small as this little book that I have in my hand.”
Merryman added, “Silly me, I thought we were just making a calculator, but we were creating an electronic revolution.”
The Smithsonian Institution notes that the three had made enough progress by September 1967 to apply for a patent, which was subsequently revised before the final application in June 1974.
Merryman, who was born on June 17, 1932, grew up in Hearne in central Texas. By the age of 11 he’d become the radio repairman for the town.
“He’d scrape together a few cents to go to the movies in the afternoons and evenings and the police would come get him out ... because their radios would break and he had to fix them,” said Merryman’s wife, Phyllis.
Merryman attended Texas A&M University but did not graduate. He went on to work at the university’s department of oceanography and meteorology and before long was working on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico measuring the force of hurricane winds. He was hired by Texas Instruments in 1963 and worked there more than 30 years..
His friends and family said he was always creating something. His daughter Melissa Merryman recalled him making his own tuning fork for their piano. She said she asked him how he made it out of that “hunk of metal” and he told her: “It was easy. I just took away all the parts that were not an F sharp.”
Gaynel Lockhart, a former Texas Instruments colleague, recalled a telescope mounted in concrete at Jerry Merryman’s home with a motor attached that would allow it to track a planet through the night.
“He always said that he didn’t care anything about being famous,” his wife said. “If his friends thought he did a good job, he was happy.”
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