TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Eugene McDermott, co-founder of TI, UTD
The world is changing fast. Some see that as a reason for fear, while others see an opportunity. The most successful men and women are those who seize what life has to offer and charge ahead into the future. Those most worthy of admiration are those who not only become successful themselves but also open a door for the success of others. One of those Texas builders of the future was Eugene McDermott, co-founder of both Texas Instruments and the University of Texas at Dallas.
Eugene McDermott was born in Brooklyn, New York, in February 1899, a time when cars and airplanes were still only dreams and electric lights and telephones were still distant luxuries for others. He had a sharp sense of curiosity, and as a young man, enrolled at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1919 while still only 20 years old.
In 1923, he started working at Western Electric, an electrical engineering and manufacturing firm that mostly developed telephone wires and components for American Telephone and Telegraph Co. At the same time, McDermott began furthering his own education and earned a masters degree in physics from New York City’s Columbia University in 1925.
After graduate school, he soon began working with Western Electric co-worker Clarence Karcher, who had started a new company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Geophysical Research Corporation. Karcher was using seismographs not just to detect earthquakes but as a promising new tool in oil exploration. Along the way, McDermott used his skills to fine-tune their techniques.
In 1930, McDermott partnered with Karcher and E. L. DeGolyer to form Geophysical Services Inc., continuing their seismographic oil exploration efforts. McDermott picked up five patents for his devices. With World War II, the company began making equipment for the military, making radars and equipment to detect submarines. In 1946, the company developed its own electronics lab. Though there was still a lot of money to be made in oil exploration, McDermott and his partners realized that the future was in electronics. In 1951, McDermott pulled together a team of partners, including J. Eric Jonsson, the future mayor of Dallas, Cecil Green, an English-born geophysicist, and engineer Patrick Haggerty to re-form the company as Texas Instruments.
As they created electronic products, the company began developing ways for these products to run faster and new ways to process information. In 1954, TI engineers developed the silicon transistor, a new type of semiconductor. This was followed by Jack Kilby’s invention of the integrated circuit for the company in 1958, a breakthrough that heralded the beginning of the computer age. Texas Instruments became a runaway success and pushed for steady improvements in computer technology through the 1960s. While the company rewarded innovation, it also strove for efficiency, weeding out waste. It also moved into consumer products, producing the first hand-held electronic calculator by 1967.
Education became a special passion for McDermott. Green and Jonsson also recognized the critical problem that the lack of locally-available engineers posed for the long-term viability of the company. To create the products and breakthroughs of the future, they needed trained professionals. As a result, the three founded the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1961. Not only would this help ensure a steady supply of future engineers and scientists for Texas Instruments, but it allowed countless students to have the skills to be on the cutting edge of developing science and technology.
The school steadily grew, and the three helped fund a new building for the facility in Richardson in 1964. In 1969, Texas reorganized the center into a full university as the University of Texas at Dallas.
McDermott remained an active part of the company as a member of the TI Board of Directors until his passing in 1973. Though he left behind a successful, thriving company with Texas Instruments, he left a legacy for education.
The Eugene McDermott Foundation, established in 1955, gives grants for educational and cultural purposes. With more than $70 million in assets, it has become one of the largest foundations in Texas. One of the UTD libraries is named for him. In 2000, his wife, Margaret, gave $32 million to UTD to establish the Eugene McDermott Scholars Program, which brings together students majoring in engineering, physics, medicine, and the humanities to train not only future minds but help transform them into future leaders. Margaret McDermott has continued generous philanthropy to the university with a new multi-million dollar gift in 2010 to improve and modernize the look of the university and a donation of $10 million in January 2017 to the honors school at the university.
Texas Instruments today is a multi-billion dollar corporation, and UTD boasts more than 26,000 students.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.