TI's first handheld calculator is now a museum piece

Smithsonian honors pioneering device; co-inventor remembers 'progress on a daily basis'

In 1965, the consumer electronics revolution that would result in PCs, iPods, smart phones and myriad other electronic devices was still years off. And the predecessors of the integrated circuits that would power such products were being used mostly by the military.

But inside Texas Instruments, an effort began to change that.

Jerry Merryman was part of a small team at TI given the task that year of creating a handheld calculator. Numerous problems arose, according to Merryman. The calculator had to work at low power, and it required a reliable keyboard and a chip with thousands of transistors. Nevertheless, a working model was delivered 18 months later, in 1967 -- giving TI the world's first electronic handheld calculator.

Merryman was asked at a ceremony held here on Tuesday if he thought the device would have the impact that it did. "No, really," he said. "I thought a few accountants might use them. I thought some engineering students might get them as presents. It was only later that I realized we were kicking off [the electronics] revolution.

TI's calculator became commercially available in 1970 and already is a part of the IT collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The museum also has the original 1967 prototype, which weighed 3 pounds, was encased in aluminum and ran on batteries. At the time the calculator was developed, existing models were heavy desktop devices -- not handhelds.

At yesterday's ceremony, the Smithsonian expanded its collection to include two of the first programmable calculators, the TI-58 and TI-59.

"Think about how these innovations affected our lives," said David Allison, a curator at the museum who called TI's calculator a unique device that "touched the lives of all Americans."

Whether Allison's standards for inclusion in the museum will apply to some of today's headline-grabbing devices, such as the iPhone, remains to be seen. The calculator was developed with the "goal of creating the killer application for the integrated circuit," said Melendy Lovett, currently the president of TI's educational technology business unit.

Despite the sweeping ambition of the original handheld project, Merryman said the calculator was developed without a set budget. "It was just work that we did in our spare time," he said. Merryman was joined at the Smithsonian's ceremony by another member of the team, James Van Tassel.

A third member, TI engineer Jack Kilby, died in 2005. Kilby invented the integrated circuit at TI in 1958 and later won the Nobel Prize for his work, which included holding 60 U.S. patents.

During the 18-month development process that resulted in the calculator prototype, problems were attacked in parallel, Merryman said.

"Once we got started and I surrounded myself with some comrades, we saw progress on a daily basis," said Merryman, who retired from TI in 1993. "It was a pretty comfortable and fun project. There was always the anticipation of problems, and we sort of took the attitude that we were going to solve whatever it was."

The initial calculators could handle basic math functions only. Nonetheless, Merryman believes that the devices helped students tackle more difficult problems. And math education is essential, he added.

Lovett said that technical jobs are growing at a double-digit rate in the U.S. But only 17 percent of undergraduates leave their schools with a math or science degree. In China, that percentage is 52 percent,he said, and in South Korea, it's 41 percent.

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Patrick Thibodeau

Computerworld
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