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RIP: Texas Instruments founder, Manchester lad

From oil to chips

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The British-born founder of Texas Instruments, Sir Cecil Green, died last week aged 102.

Green's career traces a path from pioneer-era mineral excavation to modern semiconductors, in a fascinating story that the newswire releases have surely failed to capture. Green joined a Texan oil exploration firm Geophysical Service in the thirties, and maintained an interest to the end.

He later attributed his discovery of reflection seismology to surviving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake as a child:

"We finally made it out with whatever personal belongings we could carry and weren't allowed back in. Like thousands of others, we wound up in Golden Gate Park, living in a tent. We watched the whole city burn. It was a terrible thing. There was martial law. I can still remember a soldier breaking in a store window to get me a pair of shoes," he said later.

Geophysical Service later provided military electronics during the second world war, and subsequently produced radar systems for military use.

In 1951 Geophysical became Texas Instruments, with Geophysical retained as a subsidiary. TI entered the semiconductor business by licensing Shockley's work at Bell Labs, putting it at the forefront of the chip business. Where it has remained, give or take a few hiccups, ever since. (And we can only wonder how much of this crucial period in the development of IT has gone unrecorded, and how many great stories remain untold).

Green attributed TI's rapid early learning process to an awareness of international markets, and something of that spirit remains at TI today. Green discovered that foreign competitors were far smarter at adopting TI's innovations than US competitors:

"Our aggressiveness, in effect, set the Japanese up in business," he noted, and early on, ensured that European and Asian representatives filled TI's advisory committee.

But TI's success is also a credit to the now unfashionable policy of investing in R&D.

Widely regarded as a busted flush at the turn of the 1990s, TI's pioneering work in digital signal processors has enabled it to build the dominant position in smartphones: Nokia, SonyEricsson, Palm and Handspring all use TI's platform.

Green was six when he moved to Canada, and he subsequently studied at MIT. He was given an honorary knighthood in 1991.

But Green was born "near Manchester" in Whitefield (thanks to readers Mike Morrison, Mark Akrigg and Karen Wadrop for that) - close enough to the orbit of what George Orwell called "the belly and guts of the nation"; England's first city, which by the time Texas Instruments had been founded, had already given the world capitalism, communism and the first computer. Perhaps the city's fathers should find a spot for Green. ®

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