As It Happens

Man who helped invent pocket calculator was a whiz-kid who repaired radios at 11

Jerry Merryman, co-inventor of the portable calculator at Texas Instruments, died last week at 86.

Jerry Merryman, co-inventor of the portable calculator at Texas Instruments, died last week at 86

This 1997 photo Jack Kilby and Jerry Merryman, inventors of the handheld calculator. Merryman died on Feb. 27 at the age of 86. (Phyllis Merryman/Associated Press)
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Transcript

The man who helped invent the world's first portable calculator is being remembered as a technological wunderkind, a hilarious storyteller and an excellent friend. 

Jerry Merryman of was one of three men credited with inventing the handheld calculator in 1967 while working at Dallas-based Texas Instruments. He died Feb. 27 at a Dallas hospital from complications of heart and kidney failure. He was 86. 

His former Texas Instruments colleague and lifelong friend Ed Millis spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about Merryman's life and legacy. Here is part of their conversation. 

All the comments being made about Jerry Merryman are that he never sought the limelight, he didn't want a lot of attention, he was quite modest about all this. Is that your memory?

Not only modest — he was one of the funniest people you'll ever hope to meet.

I had occasion to write a little bio piece for one of the TI newspapers some years back and ... I never had so much fun in my whole life as talking to Jerry. I was rolling on the floor before I finished the thing, and he'd take an incident and just make it sound terrific.

You know, he started off at the age of 11 repairing radios at the local appliance store [in Hearne, Texas].

And apparently another story is that he was so good at it that ... he'd be in seeing a movie and [the police would] come in and get him because their squad car radios weren't working.

I'd never heard that story, but I'm not surprised. Hearne is a small town and I think they knew who repaired radios the best.

There was one other story. When Jerry was working at the appliance store repairing radios, he'd walked into the boss's office and there on the boss's table was a book called Terman's Radio Engineering. It's the same book I used in college, as a matter of fact.

And Jerry was about 12 at the time and he looked and he says, "You know, if I could learn everything in there, I'd be pretty smart."

Well, the boss came in and saw him and talked to him and gave him the book. And Jerry, I guess, proceeded to learn everything in the book, because he darn sure turned out smart on electrical stuff.

The world's first portable calculator — the Cal Tech from Texas Instruments — hit the market in 1967. (education.ti.com)

He did attend Texas A&M University. Never graduated, but he did make quite an impression there, didn't he?

When he interviewed with TI ... for engineers, you know, you've got to have at least a bachelor's and up to a PhD and stuff.

In fact, I know the guys that interviewed him and they were pretty smart, and TI was flexible enough that they said, "I think we need this guy" even though he didn't have a degree — and, boy, were they right.

I understand at school, the first day he was there, he got into a slide-rule competition and smashed the record.

Yes, that's right. [Laughs] Yes, he scored 279 out of 280. 

And then he proceeds to destroy the slide-rule business a few years later with a pocket calculator. There's some kind of irony there, I think.

He invented, he got some kind of a telescope he had at home to monitor the planets, and he figured out how to make a tuning fork for the piano in their house.

Yeah, well, that's nothing compared to his big one. 

There was an English scientist name of Henry Cavendish back in the late 1700s ... that put together a collection of lead spheres about the size of croquet balls in this incredibly complex system to measure the gravitational constant.

Jerry decided that he ought to repeat this experiment, and he made the equivalent, the same thing that Cavendish did in the 1700s.

That, to me, was the highlight of the things that I've seen him do kind of off the cuff and not even bother telling people about it.

What is his legacy that he leaves behind, do you think?

He was such a nice guy. Just the kind of guy you want to be around. 

In fact, I invited him to my birthday party a year ago ... and sitting on the table here, I can see it right now, he brought me as a birthday present  ... a model T Ford spark coil.

He has a little note taped on the front of it, says ... "You may need a little more spark in your life."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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