Robert B. Barnhill Sr., 86, founded NASDAQ-listed electronics business

October 19, 2003|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Robert Bell Barnhill Sr., a Towson electronics business owner who saw the potential of wireless technology, died Thursday of a stroke at his Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., home. The former Dulaney Valley resident was 86.

Born in Marshall, Mo., he began working at a young age to help his family during the Depression. After a year at Missouri Valley College, he went into management training at J.C. Penney, and later worked at Sears Roebuck and Carpenter Paper.

He joined the Navy in 1942 and became an aviation radio technician while studying electronic communications at Texas A&M. He was assigned to a Baltimore-made Glenn L. Martin seaplane and flew on anti-submarine patrols in the South Atlantic.

"During his patrols he discovered that radar could be used to detect thunderstorms as well as to hunt other aircraft and submarines," said his son Gregory Hurd Barnhill of Stevenson. "He rarely spoke of his time in the war, but he talked at length about his experiences as a sub hunter. He saw the thunderstorms on the radar and he envisioned this as a precursor to modern navigational systems."

After the Navy, he joined Aireon in Kansas City, Kan., where he adapted a two-way radio for use on Santa Fe Railroad trains. He moved to Towson and joined Bendix Corp., where he worked on early car phones that used radio technology. He engineered a 12-volt power supply in them after he recognized that 12 volts would deliver twice the power as six volts at the same cost.

"He was always thinking about how to make things work better," his son said.

In 1953 Mr. Barnhill founded his own firm, Barnhill & Associates, and later started TESSCO, which stood for Towson Engineering Sales & Service Co., in a York Road building.

He was a manufacturers' representative to the then-fledgling electronic component industry and sold wire, capacitors and other parts to local manufacturers.

In the early 1970s, he saw the potential of computer memory chips and was an early Intel representative and investor.

"I was with [my father] at one of the early organizational meetings on Intel when [Intel founder] Dr. Robert Noyce was describing the impact" of memory chips, said his son Robert Bell Barnhill Jr., who lives in Baltimore. "My father saw the opportunity immediately" and invested in Intel.

Mr. Barnhill sold TESSCO in 1975 to his son Robert. Now a NASDAQ-listed firm, it is located in Hunt Valley and is a supplier to the wireless communications industry.

Mr. Barnhill was a past president of the Kiwanis Club of Towson. He was a member of the Baltimore Country Club, the Masons and the American Legion. He was formerly active in PTA at Towson Elementary School and Towson High School.

He belonged to the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. He was a founder and past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the Electronics Representatives Association.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Towson United Methodist Church, Hampton Lane, where he was a member, former president of Methodist Men and had served on the church's building committee.

In addition to his two sons, survivors include his wife of 61 years, the former Margaret Katherine Hurd; another son, Jay Edgar Barnhill of Towson; a daughter, Nancy Ann Barnhill Wallace of Tequesta, Fla.; a brother, Paul Pendleton Barnhill of San Antonio; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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