Otis Boykin, African American engineer and inventor, was born on August 29, 1920, in Dallas, Texas. He was the seventh of eight children of Walter Benjamin and Sarah Jane (Cox) Boykin. His father served as the pastor of the Old Primitive Baptist Church in Dallas. Otis himself grew up to be a religious person. His mother, who worked as a housekeeper, died in April 1933. He attended the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, where he graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1938. He attended Fisk University, a historically-Black university in Nashville, Tennessee, where he studied physics and chemistry. While attending Fisk, Boykin worked as a “houseman,” a live-in domestic worker, for at least two White families in nearby Belle Meade. He left the school in 1941, without having graduated, and moved to Chicago, where he worked as a clerk for the Electro Manufacturing Company. There, he met Dr. Hal F. Fruth. Fruth was at one point the research director at Electro and went on to work as a private engineering and physics consultant. Fruth hired Boykin as a lab assistant. Boykin later worked as a lab assistant at the Majestic Radio and Television Corporation. He quickly became a supervisor at the facility.
In 1944 Boykin took a job as a research engineer at the P. J. Nilsen Research Laboratories. From 1946 to 1947 he took courses at the Illinois Institute of Technology but withdrew after two terms. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, he explained that he dropped out of the university to focus on his career. In the 1940s, he married Pearlie Mae Kimble. The couple had no children. In 1949 Boykin and Fruth formed Boykin-Fruth, Inc. In June 1952 they filed a patent for an improved precision resistor that was also cheaper to manufacture than existing designs. The patent was granted the following April. When the Monson Manufacturing Corporation was organized in 1954 to produce precision resistors, Fruth joined as vice president of research and Boykin joined as chief engineer.
By 1954 Boykin joined the Chicago Telephone Supply Company, which later changed its name to CTS Corp, in Elkhart, Indiana, where he developed resistors and other electrical components. In 1956 he designed a durable resistor that could withstand substantial changes in temperature. These resistors went on to be used in guided missiles and IBM computers. From 1957 to 1964 he worked as the senior project engineer at CTS. During this time, Boykin developed a resistive element made of cermet (a material composed of ceramic and metal). In cooperation with Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of the implantable pacemaker, CTS developed a trimmer potentiometer (an adjustable resistor), incorporating cermet. Thanks to this device, the “control unit” for the pacemaker, the pulse rate could be adjusted without the need for surgery. Boykin won national attention for his contribution after a pacemaker helped save the life of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower after a heart attack in 1968. After leaving CTS in 1964, Boykin worked as an engineering consultant. His clients included firms in Paris, France. He was also involved in an international effort to advance technological expertise in the South American nation of Guyana in the 1970s. In 1975 Boykin sued CTS and alleged that the company unjustly acquired exclusive control over two of his patents. He also charged libel for a statement by the company that he had used confidential CTS documents for his own purposes. He sought $5 million in damages, but the suit was dismissed the following year, as were the libel charges.
Boykin was a member of the International Society for Hybrid Microelectronics and the Physics Club of Chicago. Otis Frank Boykin died of heart failure in Chicago on March 13, 1982. He was survived by his wife, two brothers, H. L. and David L. Boykin, and his sister, Minnie Lee Kellum. At the time of his death, he held at least twenty-five patents. In 2014 he was inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.