Computer giant had humble beginnings

What is now Hewlett-Packard Co. started out in a garden shed in suburban Palo Alto, Calif., with US$538 and an engineering university thesis project.

Dave Packard’s project, a resistance-capacity audio oscillator used to test sound equipment, was later modified with the help of his neighbour Bill Hewlett and sold to Walt Disney for use in the movie Fantasia. This was the beginning of a very lucrative partnership between Hewlett and Packard. In 1939, they made it official, deciding on the specific company name with the toss of a coin.

In 1966, the first computer produced by the company, the HP 2116A, was developed as a controller for test and measurement instrumentation, HP’s main business at the time. The unit had not originally been developed for resale, but proved popular and HP later sold several of the 8KB machines for about US$21,000 a piece.

Today, test and measurement makes up less than 10 per cent of HP’s revenue. The majority of products produced by the company are business devices such as desktop computers, servers, notebooks and printers.

According to Rich Marconi, manager of technical communications at HP Labs, the idea for HP’s patented thermal ink jet printer technology came from an engineer named John Vaught who was addicted to coffee.

“He always had one of those little tin pots of coffee brewing on his desk. One day he noticed that the coffee always made a perfect circle when it dripped inside the percolator.” From this, he got the idea that heating the ink in printers using pulses of energy could control the size and uniformity of the dots used in printing, Marconi said.

Currently at the lab, a researcher named James Conway is working with luminescent display phosphors to generate different colours of light emitting diodes (LEDs), which may eventually replace more expensive incandescent lighting.

Another researcher, Paul Hubel, is helping to develop a high-quality digital camera that will rival film-based images. The barrier to this goal is developing a system that will work in different conditions and compensate for how colours should appear, he said.

“Starting next year, resolution will not be as important as colour balance. This is where digital cameras have a big advantage over film, because all [film has] to work with is chemical reactions. Digital cameras rely on computational algorithms to do a statistical analysis on the light source at the time of exposure,” he explained.

In the enterprise server area, HP is developing its latest 9000 server series to run with Intel’s new Merced chips based on that company’s IA-64 processors. The servers incorporating the new Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) technology will be available with IA-64 chips as early as 2000, said Dan Glessner, director of marketing for HP 9000 enterprise servers.

“Back-end infrastructure is what’s really exciting,” he said. “‘What can get me access to the Internet?’ There’s a lot of variety in how you get access, but you really need a powerful system driving all that.”