Saving the history of Silicon Valley’s first tech leader

HP is preserving the original products and documents that launched the company 80 years ago — one oscillator and type-written letter at a time.

By Garage Staff — July 3, 2018

It was a project done with a precision worthy of the treasures being preserved. For four days in August 2016, six employees from Heritage Werks, specialists in archival services, descended on HP’s Palo Alto, California, headquarters.

Their mission: gather up every piece of HP’s archives from a half-dozen locations across the U.S., including Corvallis, Ore., and San Diego, so that all historical records would be in one place.

The Model 200A audio oscillator was HP's first product.

Courtesy of HeritageWerks

The Model 200A audio oscillator was HP's first product.

The prizes they collected, including an original 1939 HP Model 200A audio oscillator — HP’s first product — and an HP branding iron from a ranch that was owned by HP’s co-founders, Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, were carefully wrapped by hand.

Boxes and boxes filled with paper records, including technical drawings for a bowling alley foul line indicator, another early product, were piled onto pallets that were then loaded onto tractor-trailers for a nonstop trip to Atlanta, where another team waited to usher everything into Heritage Werks’ climate-controlled vault, designed to be as secure as the National Archives. The offices that Hewlett and Packard used from the 1960s on at the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto have been preserved in their ‘60s splendor as a living legacy for the public to visit.

A fire that raged through Santa Rosa in October 2017 shows why this level of care was so important. More than 100 boxes containing a different archive of Hewlett and Packard’s writings, letters, and other items were destroyed when the modular buildings storing them burned. They were on the campus of Keysight Technology, the world’s largest electronics measurement company, explains Karen Lewis, who was HP’s first archivist. Those documents stayed with Keysight when it was spun off from Agilent, once part of HP.

After the fire, Keysight released a statement acknowledging that part of the archives were lost, but other historic items and archival materials were undamaged, and that some of the burned archives had been digitized.

Protecting history after the HP separation

When HP separated into two businesses in 2015, the companies wanted to ensure that their collective history was protected. In October 2015, they created a joint venture called Hewlett Packard Company Archives LLC (HPCA) to oversee the shared collection. In 2016, the joint venture hired Heritage Werks and its professional staff to collect assets, manage the physical and digital collections, and help make them more accessible to wider audiences.

Nearly 2,000 linear feet of archival materials were moved to Heritage Werks’ vaults. HP’s digital archives already contain 10,000 assets, with Heritage Werks expanding it as it digitizes more paper records.

The seriousness of protecting the history of HP is about more than tracing the evolution of the company that Hewlett and Packard founded nearly 80 years ago in their iconic Addison Avenue garage. It is also the history of the founding and growth of Silicon Valley itself.

“HP has a rich and wonderful heritage from the company that was founded all those years ago by Bill and Dave that they wanted to maintain and be able to access,” says Ashley Townsend, an account director at Heritage Werks who now manages a joint repository of the collective history of HP.

A searchable treasure trove for scholars

At Heritage Werks’ vault, the HPCA collection is managed by a team of highly trained archivists and protected by a disaster-preparedness-and-response plan. Many of the assets are already digitized, or “born digital,” so the Heritage Werks team created four levels of redundant backups to protect them.

HP’s digital archives already contain 10,000 assets, with Heritage Werks expanding it as it digitizes more paper records.

The firm also maintains the original HP garage in Palo Alto — the simple one-room wood structure where Hewlett and Packard founded their company in the 1930s.  While the HP garage is not open for public tours, individual visitors and small groups may view and photograph the property from the sidewalk and driveway.

One of the major goals for the newly collected archives is to make them accessible to creative programmers, museums and scholars. The first big step toward achieving that rolls out in August or September, when every HP employee will be able to tap into the digital archives using their employee credentials.

Much of the HPCA collection is devoted to the founding and evolution of the printer and computer businesses, which were built on the foundation of the company’s initial measurement-and-testing devices. The collection houses copies of the HP-01, the first wristwatch calculator, in gold and stainless steel hard cases; the 1,000th HP 9100A, the first scientific calculator, by modern definition; and an HP Sprocket, the handheld printing device the company launched in 2016.

The stored documents include technical and architectural designs, product brochures and company publications, such as Measure Magazine, “the voice of HP employees and associations,” and the Hewlett Packard Journal, which covered industry trends and HP innovations from 1949 to 1998, including a “Special Sputnik Supplement” in 1957. 

Among the thousands of photos and videos are images of the founders, pictures of the company’s famous picnics and photos of iconic Hewlett-Packard products — from those early audio oscillators to the iconic inkjet line of printers, including the ThinkJet, HP’s first inkjet printer for personal computers, and the DeskJet, the company's first mass-market inkjet printer. 

Heritage Werks also has hundreds of items related to HP’s founders, including many speeches, writings and personal correspondence. One bundle has Hewlett's letters to Packard — with rent checks, dated 1937 to 1940.  

Unfortunately, Heritage Werks doesn’t have a full inventory of what was lost in the Keysight fire, but so far it has inventoried hundreds of items related to Hewlett and Packard, including a 1936 MIT paper written by Hewlett entitled “A History of Application of Wave-Filters,”  a 1956 letter from Hewlett to the duo’s mentor Dr. Fred Terman at Stanford claiming “no personal knowledge of computers” and a 1959 speech by Packard entitled “Personnel — The Heart of Management.”

Through the HPCA, HP is intent on preserving and sharing the history of the “birthplace of Silicon Valley.”


Learn more about the original HP Garage.