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Thursday, May 5, 2016

One of the area's outstanding historical figures - 'Cousin Tom'

Friday, January 29, 2010

I have recently received requests from two different long-time county residents asking for information or an article about a man who grew up in Aurelia and subsequently played a big part in the evolving technology of the late 20th Century, their thinking being that more people should know about the important historical role this area native played. I was approached because, number one, I'm from Aurelia and, number two, I have the same surname as the man in question.

(Photo)
Tom Whitney ...
Thomas M. Whitney was the second of William E. and Katherine "Kitty" Whitney's three sons, and he grew up in Aurelia, where his dad owned and managed Whitney Elevator in the 1960s. Bill also served in the Iowa State House of Representatives in the 1950s.

Tom was very active at Aurelia High School. He played the trumpet in the high school band, played basketball, and was a member of an outstanding sprint relay team. He was also an outstanding student, especially in math.

Cousin Tom, whose father and my grandfather were half-brothers, graduated from Aurelia High School in 1957 and attended Iowa State University, where he would earn three degrees - BSEE in 1961, MS in 1962 and Ph.D in 1964. Tom married his "high school sweetheart," Donna Peterson, daughter of John and Sylvia Peterson on Aug. 27, 1963 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Aurelia.

In 1973, Tom was named the Outstanding Young Alumnus of the Year by the ISU Alumni Association, largely because of the key role he played in developing the world's first hand-held calculator, the HP-35, while he was employed as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard, where he went to work in 1967. During his years at Hewlett-Packard, Tom also served as a lecturer at Santa Clara University.

In 1968, Bill Hewlett directed his engineers, including Tom, towards a project to develop a scientific calendar "so small that it would fit in a shirt pocket."

(Photo)
... and his pet project, the HP35
Four years later, on July 1, 1972, the HP-35, called "the one single product that forever changed the whole image of the computer industry," was born ... and slide-rules (if you remember them) were no more.

The HP-35 used the new chips developed by their Santa Clara neighbors at INTEL, and also chips manufactured by AMI and Mostek, another young company - founded in 1969- which played an important role in the early development of calculators and microcomputers. It combined the LSI (Large Scale Integration) IC (Integrated Circuits) technology with the LED (Light Emitting Diode) displays. It had one microprocessor chip, one I/O control chip, three ROM (Read Only Memory) chips, and one clock chip. It was powered by 3 AA battery cells, and also had an AC adapter.

The HP-35 was the first handheld electronic calculator ever to perform logarithmic and trigonometric functions. When the tiny powerhouse reached the prototype stage, HP asked a local market research firm to do a market study. They did, and determined that the HP-35 Scientific Calculator would never sell because it was too expensive. Bill Hewlett said, "We're going to go ahead anyway," and the product was so popular that HP couldn't make them fast enough. Hewlett remembered, "We figured, in the first year, if we could sell 10,000 calculators, we'd break even. We sold 100,000." The user's manual for the HP35 stated, "Our object in developing the HP-35 was to give you a high precision portable electronic slide rule. We thought you'd like to have something only fictional heroes like James Bond, Walter Mitty or Dick Tracy are supposed to own."

By the time the HP-35 Scientific Calculator was discontinued in 1975, just 3 1/2 years after its introduction, more than 300,000 had been sold.

The original model was manufactured in the United States (later models were made in Singapore), and had just the label "Hewlett-Packard" on the front plate (the "35" was added after the HP- 80, a business model, was introduced on February 1 1973). This model also had a small hole with an "on" red light close to the on/off switch, which was removed in later models because it was obviously redundant. The labels for the special functions were printed above the key, not on the key-tops

Its original price was $395, which was later decreased to $295 when the HP- 45A was introduced in May of 1973. The price dropped to $225 when the HP-65, the first programmable model (the "Superstar"), was introduced on January 19, 1974. Later, when the HP-55A was introduced on January 1st of 1975, the HP-35 was still available in the market and its price dropped to $195. Soon after, it was discontinued.

As for Cousin Tom, his wife Donna and their children, Suzanne and Tom, they were rewarded rather handsomely. As I recall, they enjoyed a year's paid vacation at Lake Tahoe, Nevada as a reward. Tom also presented an original HP-35 to his old high school in Aurelia.

The market of pocket calculators exploded from 1972-1974. Dozens of manufacturers and hundreds of models appeared around the world during that period, most of them being standard four operation units. Texas Instruments was HP's main competitor in the field of scientific calculators. Soon after the introduction of the HP-35, in 1973, Texas Instruments launched the SR-50 Slide Rule Calculator for $170, well below the HP-35's price.

When my son Aaron and I attended the Engineering School's orientation at Iowa State University in the spring of 1993, we were stunned when the presenter mentioned that the slide rule was "made obsolete by an Iowa State graduate, Tom Whitney."

A few years after the HP-35 came to be, a small company near Tom Whitney's home in what came to be nicknamed "Silicon Valley," California, was started by a couple of young guys named Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The company was called Apple Computers. When Apple started, they just had a group of eight engineers, who were working together to develop the Apple and Apple II personal computers.

According to Donna Whitney, Apple management decided they needed a "head" of engineering, and that they wanted a "Hewlett-Packard type" manager. They were looking at an HP employee who was at a lower level than Tom when one of the Apple employees, who was an Iowa State graduate and knew Tom, suggested that they might want to contact Tom and see if he was interested in the Apple position.

Tom was very interested, said Donna, and took a pay cut to go to Apple, but also got stock options in lieu of salary, which turned out to be a very good deal for him and his family. At the time, though, as Donna points out, it was also a risk, as one never knew if Apple would be successful.

Tom joined Apple Computers as employee # 15 of the company , the Executive Vice President of Engineering, working directly with Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin on the Macintosh project.

Apple, under the direction of Steve Jobs, has, of course, continued to blaze a path in the electronic world of the late 20th Century and early 21st Century, with the introduction of the i-Mac computer, i-tunes, i-pod, i-phone, and now the iPad.

Cousin Tom, unfortunately, did not live to see or experience all of these wonderful things which followed in the wake of the HP-35. He died from cancer in 1986, at the age of 47.

His story, though, is more proof that even kids who are born and educated in small-town Iowa can accomplish great things. Long may his memory and legacy live.


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I remember Tom and his older brother, Bill, very well indeed! They were great as young men. I am sorry to hear that Tom died young. Hopefully Bill is still going strong. I have a feeling that you might find another great story by checking out his career!

-- Posted by jimnel on Mon, Feb 1, 2010, at 10:19 PM
Response by Cherokee:
Thanks for the response.

I hope to include Bill, who is now retired from his position at the Wharton School of Business at Pennsylvania University, as part of a continuing series featuring outstanding alumni from all of the towns in our paper's coverage, but thought maybe I'd better include a few people who are NOT related to me before I get to Bill's story.

Thanks again,

Dan Whitney

Thanks, Dan. How wonderful to finally get the story straight in my head by seeing it in print. You are doing a wonderful service to us all with articles that highlight our local brilliant people. Ya gotta wonder why we lose these geniuses too early....

Keep up the great work!

-- Posted by TimesReader2 on Thu, Oct 13, 2011, at 3:01 AM


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