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When I was in high school back in the mid-70s, every kid (at least in the circles I traveled in) lusted after the hot gadget of the day, the Texas Instruments SR-50 or SR-51A handheld scientific calculator. These products might never have come into being if it weren’t for the efforts of Mark Shepherd, Jr., former chairman and CEO of TI who died last week at the age of 86. While at the company’s helm, he spearheaded TI’s push into consumer electronics, where it became a leading player.

In a 40-year career with Texas Instruments, Shepherd served as engineer (working his way up to chief engineer), chief operating officer, chief executive, and chairman of TI before his retirement in 1988.

Shepherd, who allegedly built his first vacuum tube at the age of 6, would help preside over the death of the vacuum tube-based electronics while ushering in the age of transistors and semiconductors. He joined Geophysical Services, TI’s predecessor company, in 1948. In 1952, he was one of several TI engineers invited to Bell Labs to learn about the company’s transistor, which it had invented 5 years earlier. TI went on to license it, and Shepherd headed a team that built one in short order. He oversaw the semiconductor team on which Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit in 1958. In the mid-60s, Kilby was part of the TI development team that invented the pocket calculator.

Assuming the company’s helm in 1969, he presided over its glory years, when he helped turn TI, already a leading developer of semiconductors, into a consumer electronics giant as well, expanding into products such as electronic calculators (where it went head to head with HP) and digital watches. (As I remember it at least, by the mid-70s when the aforementioned calculators were the rage, the Texas Instruments name had the same sort of sheen that Apple has today–at least among the geekier set.) He became chairman in 1976, and retired in 1988, but not before seeing the decline of TI’s consumer products might in the face of declining profit margins and the rise of Asian competitors. In his later years, he raised longhorn cattle on his ranch.

I never did get my hands on one of those SR50 or 51 calculators, one of my few gadget regrets. (I had to content myself with a slide rule, not much of a consolation prize.) I suppose I could hunt one down on eBay, but it wouldn’t be the same as having one of these pocketable wonders in their heyday. When I was a kid, the SR-50 and its kin ruled.

Post by Tony Hoffman


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