A guided tour through HP’s original garage

As I drove through the streets Silicon Valley, I sat amazed at the sheer size of some of the tech industry’s largest company headquarters and research facilities. Tech giants like Intel, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Google all have massive university-sized campuses that house R&D for some of the industry’s most innovative technologies.

But then I stopped at 367 Addison avenue, and what is widely considered as the birthplace of Silicon Valley. This place was in stark contrast to the massive offices I had just driven past, but arguably far more important than anything I had seen thus far. In fact, it was 4 x 6 metres small and in the form of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s garage.

In a building not much bigger than many office cubicles, the HP pioneers used the garage as a research, development, and manufacturing facility.

It started in 1938, when the two recent Stanford graduates decided to launch their business. Packard left his job at General Electric in Upstate New York, placed his Sears-Roebuck drill press in the rumble seat of his car, and drove to Palo Alto, Calif. to assist Hewlett in looking for a rental home.

They found the garage nestled on a quiet, residential street near their alma mater, situated behind a two-story home and beside a backyard shed. From the outside I was not particularly impressed, but that was only until I realized that from this small garage, a company which last year earned US$91.7 billion in annual revenues was born.

The perfect spot

The Addison avenue property, originally built for early Palo Alto mayor Dr. John Spencer in 1905, was ideal for the HP founders.

“They mainly picked the place because of the garage,” my tour guide, HP archivist Deborah Hudson said. “Because this would give them the opportunity to experience and try out their ideas.” After moving in and having only $538 in working capital, the two got to work.

Inside the garage, which was lit by a single, hanging bare light bulb, were two workbenches, a few stools and chairs, and the aforementioned drill press.

Relics from the past including several boxes of Raytheon radio and television tubes, a Schilling drip coffee container, and a can of Sir Walter Raleigh smoking tobacco could typically be seen lining the garage shelves. I was amazed that two corporate icons could start from someplace so quaint.

I noticed a note on the wall which read “Porter-Hewlett-Packard,” a reference to former Stanford colleague Noel “Ed” Porter, who took a job selling air conditioning equipment in Sacramento prior to HP’s incorporation in 1939.

The story goes that Porter decided to take the job because of the economic climate of the time; however, he did rejoin his friends at HP as a production manager in 1946. By the mid-50s, Porter became mayor of Palo Alto making him the second mayor from the small Addison avenue property. Note to self: If you ever want to be mayor of Palo Alto, try and move in to 367 Addison avenue.

Learning to improvise

Walking outside of the garage, the exterior featured a large stick, which indicates the use of an antenna, as well as a clothesline, which Packard’s wife Lucile used to dry their clothes.

In the garage, the two produced HP’s first product, the model 200A audio oscillator, which was named as such in order to persuade potential customers in believing the company had been in business for longer than they had.

The strategy worked as the two garnered the attention of Walt Disney, who ordered eight oscillators in order to test the sound on their 1940 musical Fantasia.

“Now we’re going to go on one of the shortest commutes in the history of Silicon Valley,” Hudson said as she took me toward the backyard shed. The five second walk from the garage to the shed or the main house would certainly make current Silicon Valley employees very envious.

Both HP founders lived just a few steps from the garage, renting out living quarters from Lone Spencer, Dr. Spencer’s widow, who lived in the second floor of the main house.

Hewlett lived in an unheated 2 x 6 metre backyard shed, where he slept in an army-style cot bunk. I felt a sense of claustrophobia sink in while standing in the tiny living quarters. The only furniture in the shed was a small desk and a bathroom. Without a closet, Hewlett had to be creative with his space.

“Hewlett said he just drove a couple of nails into the wall to hang his clothes on when they weren’t on the floor,” Hudson said.

While the living quarters might seem Spartan today, the U.S. was still in the midst of the Great Depression and Hewlett was just happy to have a place to live.

Packard and his wife moved in to the three-room ground floor of the main house. The living room doubled as a business meeting area and also stored many reference books. Titles such as Machinery Handbook, Radio Engineering, Source Book in Physics, and Electric Circuits are some of the books that sat atop the living room shelves.

The dining room acted as HP’s head office, with all the company’s paperwork and financial information spread across the dinner table. The room also had a typewriter, where Lucile acted as the company’s secretary and bookkeeper, often typing up product specifications and mailing ordering information.

At night, the dining room functioned as the couple’s bedroom, with the dinner table having to be moved out of the way in order to unfold the Murphy wall bed. Packard’s six-foot-four stature didn’t help matters either. I was told that HP holds one or two high-level meetings each year in the dining room, hoping that the legendary house rubs some of its good karma out on them. The only other room of the house was the kitchen, which sometimes substituted as an additional workspace.

In order to paint the sheet metal cabinets for the audio oscillators, the two needed to use heat resistant crinkle paint. The kitchen’s oven was used to cure the paint. “Lucile later recalled that the pot roast and cookies never tasted the same again,” Hudson said.

Growing pains

By the end of 1939, the company had just hired their second employee and Hewlett and Packard realized they had outgrown the garage. The two moved HP to a slightly bigger facility on Page Mill road, where they currently have offices today.

The garage, which was made a California historical landmark in 1987, was purchased by HP in 2000 for US$1.7 million. And last May, the garage was listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service.

The house, shed, and garage were recently restored to nearly its identical appearance from 1939, barring the fire sprinklers and steel infrastructure installed in case of an earthquake.

The tiny Addison avenue garage was not only important for HP, but it also inspired similar success stories. Sixty years after Hewlett and Packard founded HP, two other Stanford students rented a Menlo Park, Calif. garage for US$1,700. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, started Google from the tiny Silicon Valley garage.

And we can’t forget the story of Apple, which started from a garage Steve Jobs rented from his parents’ Los Altos home.

If anybody out there has a spare garage you’d like to rent out, please e-mail me at rruffolo@itworldcanada.com.

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