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Whitney, Thomas Michael

Published onNov 08, 2021
Whitney, Thomas Michael

(January 7, 1939 - November 1986)

Quick Facts

Alumnus, inventor and entrepreneur, best known for his pocket calculator invention.


Thomas Whitney was born in Waterloo, Iowa to William Eugene Whitney and Katherine Anna Whitney. Later, the family moved to Aurelia and Whitney graduated from Aurelia High School in Iowa in 1957.  

Whitney attended Iowa State University where he received his BS degree (1961), MS degree (1962) and PhD (1964) all in electrical engineering. During his time at Iowa State, Whitney was also a member of Acacia fraternity.


Whitney is best known for his pocket calculator invention. In 1967, Whitney joined Hewlett Packard, where he led a team of engineers to invent the first handheld electronic scientific calculator, the HP 35. Named for its 35 buttons, the HP 35 was the first pocket calculator able to perform trigonometric functions. Before this invention, handheld calculators could only perform addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

In 1978, Whitney became one of the earliest employees of Apple Computer. There, he served as the executive vice president for engineering. Whitney worked alongside Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin to develop the Apple II, the world’s first accessible personal computer.

Whitney became an entrepreneur in 1981, launching several companies in Silicon Valley, California.

Whitney received the Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from the ISU Alumni Association and the Professional Achievement Citation from the Iowa State University College of Engineering. In 1986, Whitney passed away at the age of 47.

Since Whitney’s death, his wife, Donna, has been active with Iowa State. She established the Thomas M. Whitney Professorship of Electrical and Computer Engineering, a program that supports research within Iowa State University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

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