The Original Pioneers of Silicon Valley
From two men, a vision, and spare garage emerged the definitive success story of American technology innovation and entrepreneurship.
The history of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise is intertwined with the history of Silicon Valley—a fertile stretch of land north of San Jose, California. Today the area is known worldwide as a center for innovation, where companies have changed the world through technological advances. But when Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard met in the 1930s at Stanford University, the valley was largely agricultural, with orchards and farms dotting the hills. Bill and Dave’s success transformed the landscape and the culture of the area, so much so that the small garage on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto where the two first cemented their partnership has been designated a historical landmark, the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley.”
Bill and Dave became friends when they were both engineering students at Stanford. After graduation, Dave took a job with General Electric and moved to Schenectady, New York, where he married his college sweetheart Lucile Salter in 1938. But he and Bill stayed in touch. The two were encouraged by their former professor Fred Terman to start a technology company of their own.
Taking a leave of absence from his job at GE, Dave and his new bride drove to California with a used drill press (an important piece of equipment for the new venture) in the rumble seat. Bill scouted for places where the newlyweds could live. He found the ideal rental at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto for $45 per month. Dave and Lucile would live in the downstairs flat, while Bill would bunk in a tiny backyard shed where there was indoor plumbing and just enough room for a cot. But what made the property truly perfect for their needs was the small garage that the landlady told them they could use as a workshop.
The humble one-car garage had little more than a concrete floor and a workbench. It measured only 12 by 18 feet, but it was enough space for Bill and Dave to develop prototype products. They produced a diathermy machine (a medical device that produced heat) that they sold to a Palo Alto clinic. Another device helped astronomers at the nearby Lick Observatory set a telescope accurately. And there were other inventions, too, some of them a bit more prosaic: a harmonica tuner, a foul-line indicator for a local bowling alley and an electric eye for automatic toilet flushing.
Professor Terman had arranged a Stanford fellowship for Dave, and Bill was working as a research assistant. During this time, steady income for the Packards came from Lucile, who returned to her job as secretary for the Stanford registrar. They pulled together in other ways as well. Lucile offered her oven as a paint-baking station, and the Packard family table became home base for the company’s paperwork and record keeping. After Bill married Flora Lamson, his old bunkhouse in the back became the company’s office, where Lucile and Flora shared the office work in their off hours.
Bill and Dave believed in making products that would make a difference for their customers. They found their stride with a device to measure sound frequencies: the resistance-tuned audio oscillator, which spawned HP’s first product line. In Professor Terman’s laboratory at Stanford, Bill had done graduate work on applying the new concept of “negative feedback” to an audio oscillator (a test instrument used to generate frequencies). Bill had the innovative, elegant and practical idea to add a small light bulb to act as a negative feedback element in the oscillator circuit. This solved the problem of how to regulate the output of the circuit without causing distortion.
Together in the garage, Bill and Dave produced the Model 200A audio oscillator (a name they thought would make them look like an established company with a robust product line). The 200A was the first practical, low-cost method of generating high-quality frequencies. Other oscillators available at that time were costly–around $500–and unstable. By the clever use of the light bulb, Bill was able to simplify the circuit, improve the oscillator’s performance and reduce the price to just under $55–considerably less than competitive equipment.
Sound engineers used audio oscillators to test audio frequencies, and the HP 200A caught the eye of an engineer with Walt Disney Studios. After making some modifications to the original design–thus creating their second product–Bill and Dave sold eight Model 200B oscillators to Disney, which needed new ways to monitor sound for its landmark movie Fantasia, to be released in 1940.
Flush with their success, the two men pooled their resources of cash and equipment (to a grand total of $538) and formalized their partnership on January 1, 1939, deciding the company name on a coin toss.
For the next year, Bill and Dave worked together until, with the addition of two employees, they finally outgrew the cramped garage and moved to new headquarters on Palo Alto’s Page Mill Road in 1940. Dave and Lucile, who were expecting their first child, moved to a house in another neighborhood.
After the Packards left, the house at 367 Addison was eventually subdivided and changed hands several times. In the early 1980s, after a series of owners and various house remodels, a group of Palo Alto citizens, HP employees and company management worked together to protect the garage and give it landmark status.
In 1987 the garage was registered as California Historical Landmark No. 976 and officially declared the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley.” In 2007, the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
HP acquired the property in 2000 and later launched a full-scale preservation effort to save the aging structure and preserve it for future generations.
Although the garage isn’t open for public tours, anyone is welcome to stop by and view it from the street–and imagine Bill and Dave there, tinkering and inventing late into the night.