Road Trip kickoff: The garage where the HP legend began

Before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak got Apple started in a Silicon Valley garage, another pair of entrepreneurs used a humble workspace to launch a tech company.

The garage where David Packard and William Hewlett started their new company in 1938 as recent Stanford University engineering graduates. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks
(Editor's note: This post serves as a starting point for Daniel Terdiman's Road Trip 2009, which kicks off Sunday. See below for more details on his trip.)

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Sometimes, when things are huge, it's easy to forget that they come from the most humble of backgrounds.

Such is the case with Hewlett-Packard, one of the biggest technology companies in the world. It has a massive headquarters in this central Silicon Valley town, but like the stuff of legends, it got its start 71 years ago in a tiny garage in the middle of an otherwise nondescript residential neighborhood here.

Today, that garage, and the house it sits behind, belong to HP. In front of the house is a plaque declaring the location the "birthplace of Silicon Valley" and noting that it was recently added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

But back in 1938, the garage--significantly renovated in 2005--was the affordable rental workshop secured by William Hewlett and David Packard, two Stanford University engineering graduates who, after going back east for stints at MIT and General Electric, respectively, came back to Palo Alto to start a business.

According to HP archivist Anna Mancini, "the boys," as their landlady called Hewlett and Packard, rented the space there because in addition to living there--Packard lived with his wife in the lower floor of the house, and Hewlett lived the bachelor life in a spartan shed out back--they were allowed to set up shop in the garage.

The HP Garage is not open to the public as it is located in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood that would be unable to handle the traffic that would come from hosting such an attractive tourist destination.

The two set out to start their company with a business plan that was famous, Mancini said, for having everything in it "but a product." At the urging of their former Stanford adviser, Fred Terman, however, the two decided to build audio oscillators.

Already an established product, Hewlett and Packard found a way to improve upon what the competition was selling by adding a small light bulb to the equation, an innovation of Hewlett's that compensated for fluctuations in the current, and which allowed their oscillators to hold frequencies longer and test more frequencies than the competition's offerings.

Beginning to send out letters soliciting customers, the two entrepreneurs soon began to see results. "'We started getting (back) these letters and some of them had checks in them,'" Mancini quoted them as having said about their first sales.

In the early going, they charged $54.40 for the oscillators, but soon found they were losing money on the devices. Deciding to raise the price to $71.50--competitors were charging as much as $500, but Hewlett and Packard had low overhead since they were making the oscillators themselves--they quickly became profitable.

At first, they used nothing but parts from the hardware store. "They tried to contract out the sheet metal," Mancini said, explaining that their business was too small to support such an endeavor, "and the guy was like, 'no.'"

Still, the nascent Hewlett-Packard was making about 200 oscillators a year, and before long, they had outgrown the garage. In all, Mancini said, they were there for just 18 months. By the spring of 1940, they'd moved on to a larger space in Palo Alto.

Though HP is now best known for its computers and printers, the company actually continued making the original oscillators until the 1960s, Mancini said. And today, those devices fetch upwards of $300 on eBay. And she should know, because she's been buying them for HP's archives for quite some time.

"I drove the price up," she said, "because I was buying a lot and people figured it out."

In 2000, HP bought the house--and the garage--in order to convert them to somewhat of a museum piece. And while the interior of the garage now looks much like it's thought Hewlett and Packard had it when they worked there, it's in fact entirely a re-creation.

To be sure, the garage itself is authentic. But everything inside it was placed there by Mancini in a bid to make it seem like the space where the young Hewlett and Packard created the company that became HP.

And she's done a good job. While it obviously undercuts the authenticity, the re-creations feel right. Everything in the garage is from the right era, and the space is practically littered with original oscillators.

These days, some might argue that the garage's claim to the "birthplace of Silicon Valley" honor neglects the fact that there were several technology companies in the area prior to the founding of HP. But Mancini said that the title likely has more to do with the fact that HP ended up becoming so key to the development of the region as a technology powerhouse. She explained that there have been a long history of spin-offs from HP, and that the company's technology was considered key to the American World War II effort.

After the war, she continued, HP cherry-picked many of the best minds from the military and began to build a technology powerhouse in earnest. And today, as everyone knows, it is one of the leaders in the industry, and, in Palo Alto, an anchor that ties the small city irrevocably to Silicon Valley.

But there was a time, back in 1938, when it all began in a 12-foot by 18-foot garage. And a couple of legends were just two guys trying to get a start-up off the ground.

On June 21, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.

 

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