Erik Jonsson, cofounder of Texas Instruments, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 6, 1901, the only child of John Peter and Ellen Charlotte (Palmquist) Jonsson. His parents were naturalized citizens, having independently immigrated to the United States from Sweden in the 1890s. In 1912 the family moved to Montclair, New Jersey, where at age sixteen Jonsson graduated from Montclair High School. He completed a mechanical engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 1922. On February 8, 1923, Jonsson married Margaret Fonde in Knoxville, Tennessee; they had three children. Jonsson began his career at Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) as a rolling-mill apprentice in 1922, and advanced to manufacturing superintendent of the Aluminum Index Company (an Alcoa subsidiary), a position he held from 1923 to 1927. After a brief departure into the auto business, 1927–29, he returned to Alcoa as a sales engineer. During Jonsson's last year at Alcoa, John Clarence Karcher, the husband of Mrs. Jonsson's cousin, occasionally asked Jonsson's assistance with expediting materials orders for his start-up company, Geophysical Service. In June 1930 Karcher offered Jonsson a job managing the manufacture of seismic instruments at the company lab in Newark, New Jersey, and in July Jonsson again left Alcoa. After spending a few months becoming familiar with the business of manufacturing equipment, Jonsson went to Texas to meet some of the seismic crews and to learn more about how the instruments were used. Many years later, Jonsson would say that his first impressions of Dallas were of fresh, clean air, white buildings, and clean, neatly dressed people who were unfailingly courteous and kind. He returned to New Jersey to tell his wife that he had found the place he would like to live and raise their family. In 1934 he moved to Dallas as secretary of Geophysical Service. The new position gave Jonsson responsibility for all of the personnel, legal, manufacturing, purchasing, warehousing, international, accounting, and banking activities of the company.
Geophysical Service had been formed in 1930 by Karcher and Eugene B. McDermott to commercialize a new technique for finding underground oil reserves with reflection seismography. The company was a success and grew rapidly by conducting exploration for others. When crews would otherwise have been idled between contracts, the company began to explore on its own behalf and became the owner of producing oilfields. In 1938 the exploration activities were separated. A Delaware subsidiary, called Geophysical Service, Incorporated, was established under the management of McDermott to continue seismic exploration for others. Exploration for the corporate account was conducted under the leadership of Karcher, by separate crews. The name of the parent corporation was changed to Coronado Corporation in January 1939, completing the separation of the businesses. The GSI subsidiary was sold to Cecil H. Green, J. Erik Jonsson, Eugene McDermott, and H. Bates Peacock on December 6, 1941. World War II spurred the growth of new uses for the seismic and electronic capabilities of GSI, and Jonsson was key to opening new markets for company technology. By the end of 1941 he had obtained the company's first United States Navy contract for submarine-detection equipment, and by 1942 he had obtained contracts from the United States Army Signal Corps and the United States Navy for additional electronic work. By 1950 the manufacturing and seismic operations of GSI had each grown so large that separating them for administrative and operating purposes had become desirable. In 1951 the company was renamed Texas Instruments, Incorporated, and GSI became a wholly owned subsidiary of Texas Instruments. The restructuring gave responsibility for the seismic operation to Peacock and Green, while McDermott and Jonsson led the military-contracting and fledgling electronics business. Again, the businesses flourished. Jonsson's work assignments for GSI included secretary, 1934–39; secretary-treasurer, 1939–42; and vice president and treasurer, 1942–51. His Texas Instruments assignments included president, 1951–58; chairman of the board, 1958–66; and honorary chairman, 1966–77.
At a time when many retire, Jonsson was increasing his civic and community involvement. He was a tireless advocate for education, serving or leading the boards of nearly a dozen educational institutions and forming partnerships to improve local educational facilities. Jonsson was also a founder of the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, from which the University of Texas at Dallas was created in 1969. Jonsson served as the mayor of Dallas from 1964 to 1971, and worked to improve the image and morale of the city in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. He was a key leader in the development of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, serving as chairman of the project from 1968 to 1976. Jonsson proposed a pioneer urban goal-setting program, Goals for Dallas, in 1964, and he served in the positions of chairman of the board (1965–76) and chairman emeritus (1976–92). He also participated in a wide range of community organizations, holding leadership positions in the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the Dallas Citizens Council, and the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. Jonsson received numerous honors and awards during his life, including ten honorary doctorates between 1959 and 1973. He was the recipient of the Gantt Medal (1968) and Hoover Medal (1970), presented by technical societies; the Horatio Alger Award (1968); and the Founders Medal of the National Academy of Engineering (1974). He was also inducted into the Hall of Fame for Business Leadership (1975). He received the John Ericsson Award from the American Society of Swedish Engineers, and the Great Swedish Heritage Award from the Swedish Council of America (1980); the J. C. Penney Lone Star Lifestyle Visionary Award (1989); the UCLA School of Medicine Lifetime Achievement Award (1990); and the Southwestern Medical Foundation Community Service Award (1993). Jonsson died on September 1, 1995, in Dallas.