Jerry Merryman, who helped invent hand-held calculator, dies

Jerry Merryman, who helped invent hand-held calculator, dies
Phyllis Merryman/AP via CNN
Jerry Merryman, right, and Jack Kilby, at the American Computer Museum in Bozeman, Montana, in 1997.

If you’ve ever used an electric hand-held calculator in your life, you can thank Jerry Merryman for helping make your math life easier.

Merryman — who along with two other men invented the little contraption that changed computing forever — has died at age 86.

His wife, Phyllis, confirmed the death to CNN on Wednesday. She said Merryman died February 27 after a brief illness. He had been hospitalized since late December following complications related to pacemaker surgery, the wife said.

In the beginning

Merryman was a young engineer at Texas Instruments in 1965 when he was put on a team that included fellow engineers Jack Kilby and James Van Tassel. They were tasked with creating a small computing device that could fit in a shirt pocket.

At the time Texas Instruments was looking for a head-turning product to showcase its new integrated circuits, recently invented by Kilby (who would win the Nobel Prize decades later for his efforts).

Kilby, who led the team, told the engineers the device they came up with needed to be about the size of a book, it needed buttons for inputting data, it would have to have some kind of digital display and it would have to run on batteries, according to the journal American Mathematical Monthly.

“Not yet using the term ‘calculator,’ the group discussed building a slide rule computer. Van Tassel worked primarily with the keyboard, Kilby himself worked on the power source, and Merryman inherited the logic and output,” the journal says.

What happened next

Soon after, the trio produced a hand-held calculator, called the CAL-TECH. It was about four inches by six inches, featured a paper display instead of a digital one (to save power) and was heavy, weighing almost three pounds. That’s no surprise` because it was made out of an aluminum brick.

“We got a solid brick of aluminum and took a milling machine and hollowed it out,” Merryman told the journal in a 1996 interview.

The first patent for the calculator was filed in 1967.

It was the first mini-calculator to have the same computing power as the larger machines of the time, which were as big as a typewriter, expensive and had to be plugged into a power source. The small calculators became ubiquitous and for a lot of people they were the first hand-held device they ever owned.

The hand-held calculator prototype that Merryman helped invent was eventually donated by Texas Instruments to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington.

The later years

Merryman retired from T.I. in 1994. His wife said he received a call from the company the next morning asking him to come back and consult for them, which he did.

Phyllis Merryman said her husband was content with his role on the team.

“He was brilliant, and very much so humble. He always said that he was in the shadow of Jack Kilby, she said.

“Other people would have told you that (Jerry) was much smarter than anyone. After his retirement, friends were still calling him to ask him questions, because he was the guy with all the answers. We’re now all asking, ‘Who are we going to ask now?'”