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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: HP's Rise in Tech


Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard
Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard (photo credit: www.cnet.com)

On January 1, 1939, in a modest garage in Palo Alto, California, HP began its rise. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard's venture would evolve into a tech giant, embodying innovation, resilience, and foresight.

Early Beginnings and Founding Vision. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, destined to become iconic names in technology, first crossed paths at Stanford University. They met in 1934, in a class taught by Professor Frederick Terman, who encouraged practical application of classroom concepts. Terman's mentorship was pivotal; he not only urged them to start their own electronics company but also provided them with initial financial support. Their early experiments included a failed bowling foul line indicator and the successful design of an audio oscillator, the latter setting the stage for HP's first major breakthrough with Walt Disney Productions.


One of HP's first contracts - Disney for its Fantasia movie
One of HP's first contracts - Disney for its Fantasia movie (photo credit: www.hparchive.com)

HP's Disney Breakthrough. HP's first major client, Walt Disney Productions, purchased eight audio oscillators for "Fantasia." Hewlett and Packard did not invent the audio oscillator itself; however, they did significantly innovate and improve upon existing designs. The HP Model 200A's unique approach to achieving a stable output frequency at a relatively low cost was a key innovation, making it attractive to clients like Walt Disney Productions. The contract with Disney, involving the use of eight of these oscillators for the groundbreaking movie "Fantasia," was a major coup for the young company. It was crucial for testing the sound systems in theaters, thus ensuring that audiences could enjoy the film's innovative animation with high-quality sound.

Wartime Innovations. As the world entered a period of conflict, HP's focus shifted dramatically. During World War II, HP adapted its focus to meet the needs of the military. This period was marked by Hewlett's service in the Army Signal Corps, where he worked on various projects related to communications and electronics, crucial for wartime efforts. Packard received a draft exemption, as his work at HP was considered essential to the war effort. During this time, HP was engaged in manufacturing products that were vital for military use. This included the development of counter-radar technology and advanced artillery shell fuses. HP's work in counter-radar technology and artillery shell fuses significantly contributed to the war effort and technological advancement.

The launch of the HP 9100A
The launch of the HP 9100A (photo credit: www.hpmuseum.net)

HP: A Silicon Valley Pioneer. HP, initially not focused on semiconductors, became instrumental in the birth of Silicon Valley. Introduced in 1968, the HP 9100A marked a pivotal shift in computing, breaking away from the era of large, room-sized machines with its compact, all-in-one design. This innovation brought computing power into offices and laboratories, making it accessible to individual users. The 9100A was not just about size; it also featured a built-in keyboard and display, offering a user-friendly interface that was far more interactive than its predecessors, which often required intricate programming skills. This ease of use positioned the HP 9100A as a forerunner to the personal computers that would later dominate the market.

The HP 9830, launched in the 1970s, was among the first desktop computers to feature a BASIC language interpreter, significantly simplifying programming and making it accessible to a broader audience. This innovation broadened the use of computing beyond specialized fields. Additionally, the HP 9830 included a full alphanumeric keyboard, built-in printer, and connectivity to external devices, enhancing its versatility. Its introduction represented a move towards more integrated computing solutions, bridging the gap between complex systems and user-friendly personal computers, and setting the stage for the transformative impact of personal computing in both professional and personal spheres.

The Missed Apple Opportunity and Recovery. An intriguing chapter in HP's history unfolded in the early 1970s with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, then an HP employee. In 1976, Wozniak developed the Apple 1 computer, a groundbreaking design that would later revolutionize personal computing. However, when he presented it to HP, they declined the opportunity, adhering to their focus on business and scientific markets. This decision inadvertently paved the way for Wozniak to join forces with Steve Jobs, leading to the creation of Apple.


The HP 85 personal computer
The HP 85 personal computer (photo credit: www.hpmuseum.net)

Despite missing this monumental opportunity, HP remained undeterred. In 1980, they entered the personal computer market with the HP-85. This machine was unique for its integration of a computer, keyboard, printer, and various software packages all in one unit, representing a significant shift towards more user-friendly personal computing solutions. Although the HP-85 was primarily targeted at the technical and scientific communities, its introduction signaled HP’s growing interest in the broader personal computing market. This period marked a strategic expansion for HP, which began to balance its established scientific and business focus with the burgeoning field of personal computing, setting the stage for their future as a key player in the tech industry.

The Founders' Later Years. During the latter years of their active involvement in Hewlett-Packard, both Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard gradually transitioned away from day-to-day operations, but they did not witness a significant change in ownership during their tenure. Dave Packard, after serving as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1971 under the Nixon administration, returned to HP but stepped down as CEO in 1978, remaining as Chairman of the Board until 1987. Bill Hewlett continued to be actively involved in HP and served as CEO until 1978, after which he transitioned to the role of Vice Chairman of the Board, continuing in this capacity until his retirement from the board in 1987.

John A. Young succeeded Bill Hewlett as CEO in 1978, marking a significant leadership change. Young, who had been with HP since 1958, played a crucial role in the company's expansion into the computer market. Under his leadership, HP developed its first personal computer and made significant advances in the field of computing. Young's tenure as CEO was marked by a focus on innovation and expansion, continuing the legacy of Hewlett and Packard while steering the company through the rapidly evolving tech landscape of the 1980s and early 1990s.


The HP Way
The HP Way (photo credit: www.goodreads.com)

A Legacy of Corporate Responsibility. Beyond technology, Hewlett and Packard were pioneers in corporate responsibility. Their commitment to creating a positive work environment and showing respect for employees became deeply ingrained in HP's culture. This ethos, encapsulated in the "HP Way," emphasized trust, respect, teamwork, and flexibility within the workplace. It was a management philosophy that prioritized employee welfare and open communication, setting a high bar for corporate culture. This approach was revolutionary at the time and has had a lasting impact, influencing business practices globally.

Did You Know?

The Birthplace of Silicon Valley. The HP garage in Palo Alto is recognized as the "Birthplace of Silicon Valley," now a California Historical Landmark, symbolizing the humble beginnings of a tech revolution.

The Coin Toss. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard decided their company's name by a coin toss, a simple act that determined whether it would be Hewlett-Packard or Packard-Hewlett.

NASA and HP. In the 1960s, HP developed a high-speed frequency counter, which NASA employed during the Mercury space missions, showcasing HP's contribution to space exploration.

The HP Way. Dave Packard's management approach, known as the "HP Way," emphasized an open-door policy and innovation, a style that has influenced corporate management practices.

HP's First Computer. Introduced in 1966, the HP 2116A, HP's first computer, was initially designed for controlling test and measurement devices, marking a significant foray into computer technology.


The garage where Hewlett-Packard was founded in 1939
The garage where Hewlett-Packard was founded in 1939 (photo credit: www.cnet.com)

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