From Garage to Tech Giant: Bill Hewlett and David Packard Ignited the Tech World
Everyone recognizes the name "Hewlett-Packard" but who were the two halves of the HP coin? From the garage to a tech giant, Bill Hewlett and David Packard shook up early technology.
Though noteworthy as individuals, Bill Hewlett and David Packard built careers as promising engineers before co-founding HP in 1939. How’d they become engineers, how’d they meet, and what key innovations arose from that collaboration?
The Life of Bill Hewlett
Bill (William) Hewlett was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 20th, 1913. His father, Albion Walter Hewlett, was a renowned physician and recent faculty hire at Stanford University, which lead his family’s subsequent move to San Francisco. This move quickly exposed Bill to multiple scientific and cultural influences. This atmosphere—and young Bill’s innate intellectual curiosity—sparked a burgeoning interest in electronics. Hewlett’s love for uncovering how things worked fed into this.
Hewlett in his latter years. Image courtesy of the Hewlett Foundation
Despite dealing with lifelong dyslexia, he followed in his late father's footsteps, who had suddenly passed away when Bill was 12, enrolled at Stanford. He earned his bachelor's degree in engineering in 1934. Following a two-year jump to the east coast and earning his ME from MIT, he returned to Stanford in 1936 to continue his studies.
This action would become a pivotal moment as he'd soon meet and befriend David Packard during this time—and the rest became history after that.
An early image of Bill Hewlett and David Packard. Image used courtesy of Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Valley Historical
The duo would eventually form Hewlett-Packard (HP) in 1939 with their famed professor, Frederick Terman. Despite WWII officer duties called Hewlett away for four years, he committed himself to build HP alongside Packard.
Family life was also important to Bill. He lovingly raised his five children in Palo Alto with his wife, Flora, until her death in 1977. These family values and fostering growth would define his approach to corporate management despite HP's meteoric rise.
Bill and Flora Hewlett. Image used courtesy of the Hewlett Foundation
Employees were viewed as partners, friends, and decidedly critical to corporate success. Bill relished any opportunity to mentor and interact with junior engineers and teams during his 62-year commitment as company head. Instead of remaining within his office bubble, he was known to stroll about and maintain a feel for the company's daily workings.
He served as a board member on numerous scientific organizations and even received the Presidential Medal of Science from Ronald Reagan in 1985. At the time, this was the nation's highest recognition for scientific accomplishment.
Bill built his life upon helping others grow through curiosity and intellectual challenges. The many innovations birthed within HP's walls are a testament to those efforts. His mark on the industry endures following his passing in 2001.
Though Bill's life was eventful and full of innovations, he is just one-half of the HP coin.
The Other Half of HP: David Packard
Born on September 7th, 1912, in Pueblo, Colorado, David Packard's interest in engineering blossomed throughout his early days. Books on science and electricity monopolized his time, and his interests culminated in the building of his first radio. Like Hewlett, he later enrolled at Stanford University, studying electrical engineering during his undergraduate years. David received his bachelor's with honors in 1934.
A picture of David Packard. Image courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium
A few months later, he kicked off a two-year stint within General Electric's Department of Vacuum Tube Engineering. He returned to Stanford in 1938 to further investigate this technology.
With Hewlett and under professor Frederick Terman's tutelage, Packard completed his electrical engineering degree in 1939.
After completing his degree, he continued onward professionally alongside Bill Hewlett—taking wide-ranging, custom device orders. Together, they made an eclectic combination of AC control units, electronic tuners, and even exercise machines.
David was also pivotal in the success and expansion of HP during WWII. While Hewlett served overseas in the US Army, Packard was left to manage the business independently. Like his business partner, David Packard strongly believed in fostering a supportive and stimulating work environment. His management skills—alongside his and Hewlett's technical acumen—gave rise to the "HP Way" of operations.
Beyond HP, Packard's contributions and recognition were immense. He shared many awards with Hewlett, including the 1973 IEEE Founders Medal, the 1973 Industrialist of the Year award, the 1975 Scientific Apparatus Makers Association (SAMA) award, and finally, the Franklin Institute's Vermilye Medal in 1976.
David was also quite active in the political realm. Not only did he serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1969 to 1972, but he also chaired President Reagan's Blue Ribbon Committee Commission on Defense Management over a decade later. He influenced science and technology trade matters between the US and, at the time, the USSR. David even chaired the US-Japan Advisory Commission. Even towards his later years, he joined the President's Council of Advisors on Science in Technology for five years before his death in 1996.
From Humble Garage to Electronics Goliath
The forerunners of garage-based engineering—predating both Jobs and Wozniak—Hewlett and Packard ran many business operations from Packard's carport. For one year, this is where both men would fulfill their custom component orders—traversing many avenues before occupying a formal office space. Until then, this area housed HP's corporate offices and laboratories.
The famed Hewlett-Packard garage remains today as a National Historic Property in Palo Alto, California. Image courtesy of Adam Jacobs Photography
However, Hewlett's Stanford laboratory would produce the company's first viable product one year prior: the audio oscillator. Once deputed in 1938, the device generated controlled signals at specific frequencies—useful for performance testing broadcast transmitters and amplifiers. They're also known for producing unique sounds. The duo's oscillator functionality even caught the eye of Walt Disney, who used the device for the studio's 1940 Fantasia film.
HP's first product: an oscillator. Image used courtesy of Hewlett-Packard
The garage has also gained acclaim as the birthplace of Silicon Valley as we know it. HP, even in its residential infancy, was the first significant startup company in the area. Hewlett and Packard routinely punched above their weight—eventually amassing an electronics empire with over $50 million in annual sales, with 90,000 employees spread across 120 countries.
Leading a Technological Expansion
The move from the garage to the office catalyzed a business shift within HP. A larger space and workforce meant the company could focus on mass production as opposed to custom orders. This shift opened many doors in the five years that followed.
Accordingly, the company won an assortment of electronics-based defense contracts—notably for the production of antenna servo systems, microwave signal generators, and radar jammers. HP also produced the following:
- Wave analyzers
- Distortion analyzers
- Vacuum tube voltmeters
- Electronic testing equipment
Both Hewlett and Packard realized the war's end could bring a downturn in demand (and it did), thus focusing on microwave technology. The 50s, 60s, and specifically 1971 brought the launch of many new products to the marketplace. A few of these included the fast frequency counter, HP's premier oscilloscopes, the frequency synthesizer, spectrum analyzer, and the world's first single-enclosure cesium beam atomic clock. These advancements helped redefine time-keeping accuracy and portability for decades.
A block diagram for HP’s 5060A cesium beam atomic clock. Image courtesy of Hewlett-Packard
After 1972, the company officially entered the business computing realm by building calculators before launching its first PC in 1980. After this, it brought a flurry of EE advancements:
- The first handheld computer and desktop mainframe in 1982
- The advent of the touchscreen PC in 1983
- The move into laser jet printing, which exploded in popularity by 1993 (plus an all-in-one by 1994)
- The Omnibook 300 personal computer in 1993, plus the first rack-mounted server
The company also tapped into its diverse roots by developing the world's brightest LED at the time. This LED was used in vehicles, traffic signals, and digital messaging signs.
However, 1995 would bring an even more significant development: HP's entrance into the home-computing world. This development kicked off several PC releases and innovations in the years since, including the move from 32-bit to 64-bit computing alongside Intel.
Finally, HP even dipped its toes into the quantum computing field long before the solution became commercially viable. By investing in nanotechnologies, an interdisciplinary team created the highest-density accessible memory to date in 2002. The demo circuit could fit within a square micron, meaning 1,000 could fit on the end of a human hair.
With each technological improvement, the foundation laid by Hewlett and Packard becomes more evident.
The Hewlett-Packard Legacy
Under the pair's guidance and continuing beyond, HP has evolved into one of the top manufacturers of PCs worldwide. By investing in several experimental-and-diverse technologies, the company has moved the engineering needle time after time. The support and cultural revolution led by Bill Hewlett and David Packard have produced one of the world's preeminent computing powerhouses as we know it.
Featured image used courtesy of Hewlett-Packard