The Palo Alto Garage Where California’s “Silicon Valley” Began

California’s “Silicon Valley” is justly known as the technology center of the world. Why here, in this former agricultural valley nestled between San Francisco and its neighbor sixty miles to the south, San Jose? As recently as the 1950’s, this fertile region was covered with apricot, cherry, and plum orchards. Interspersed here and there among the orchards were new, start-up tech companies, but mainly, the region was still about agriculture. Today, the orchards are gone.

Stanford University, in Palo Alto, was the initial catalyst for the chemistry which created Silicon Valley. In a sense, the 9600 acre Stanford campus is where it all started, but a small garage tucked behind a venerable old home just a mile or two from Stanford is where Silicon Valley truly began. A garage?

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Yes, this is where electronics giant Hewlett Packard was born in 1938/39 with a roster of two, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Hewlett Packard, long known as “HP” by the tech community, was merely a pipe-dream of two friends and recent Stanford graduates in electrical engineering (Class of 1934). Stanford was very fortunate at that time to have Fred Terman – a most uncommon individual and educator – as professor of electrical engineering. Terman is rightly considered to be the Father of Silicon Valley and the legacy which ensued, here. Terman had a vision for Stanford and its surrounding environs, one which he proceeded to implement through his prescient encouragement of young engineering grads like Hewlett and Packard. It was Terman who suggested to his two young charges that they go out and start their own business … in this unlikely locale. Up until the 1930’s when Fred Terman’s influence took hold, it was not uncommon for young engineering graduates, here, to pack-up, head east, and take the “safe option” by joining established companies like General Electric, Westinghouse, and that growing company in New York, IBM. Under Terman’s influence, the two recent grads decided to give it a try, right here, in Palo Alto.

Any seasoned “techie” in this region knows of the house and garage at 367 Addison, about a mile from campus and mere blocks from University Avenue, the main drag of downtown Palo Alto. Linda and I often walk in the area and have passed by that house many times, always pausing to reflect upon the little garage at the end of the long driveway. Often, we continue our walk from there to dinner at a favorite downtown Mediterranean Café and on to see classic movies at the Stanford Theatre, located at the campus end of University Avenue.

A few weeks ago, we were walking again, and I said, “Let’s go by the HP garage on Addison!” As we rounded the corner, we saw a group of people going in and out of the house – we had never seen that, before. The house and garage were purchased by Hewlett Packard several years ago, being properly deemed an important historical site both for the company and for the region. The house and garage were given a loving (and first-class) renovation, an effort that reflects the importance of the site.

I asked a man standing in the driveway who appeared to be part of a security detail what was happening. He explained that HP had opened the house and garage for (new?) members of the company’s marketing/sales staff to tour. I explained that I am a Stanford electrical engineering graduate (class of 1963) and a retired engineer, and I added that we often pass by, here, on our Palo Alto walks.

He offered, “Would you like to see the garage?” Would I ever! Would a kid like to be let loose in a candy shop? The green front doors of the garage were wide open; inside, I could see the various treasures that I knew the garage contained, some of them original items that had returned home, but which I never expected to personally see up-close-and-personal inside the garage.

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Two HP 200 audio oscillators (Bill and Dave’s first commercial product) sit on shelves above the workbench (the metal cases with the three dials). In front of the slide-rule and the soldering iron is a vintage photo taken as the two young graduates worked tirelessly to birth Hewlett Packard, today a global giant which, along with its offspring companies, has tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue. In my heyday as a working engineer in this Valley, the R&D development laboratories where I and my colleagues worked were chock-full of HP electrical test equipment – of all types; HP was THE standard in lab equipment – here, across the country, throughout the world.

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 Electrical schematic of the HP 200B audio oscillator initialed “DP” (1939)

I felt privileged having that garage to myself for a while with Linda and the security man in the background. HP has long been to high-tech as Coke is to soft-drinks – practically synonymous. From the humble beginnings before my eyes was born the iconic company that millions of electrical engineers have known like a family member for decades since 1939. In fast-forward fashion, I recalled the countless hours I spent in development labs surrounded by HP test equipment throughout my thirty-seven years as a practicing development engineer.

With those working years of my life as an electrical engineer behind me, walking into that garage was like entering a time-machine which transported me back to the beginnings of so much that I knew and experienced over those years. I have known about the garage and been intimately familiar with the HP legend for a long time, but there is no thrill quite like being there and experiencing it first-hand.

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One of the first capital equipment expenditures made by the two young founders was the purchase by Dave Packard of a Craftsman drill press – present alongside the workbench.

 Before Personal Computers, Came the HP 35 Scientific Calculator

One of Hewlett Packard’s greatest products was introduced in 1972 – the world’s first pocket-sized scientific calculator. The announcement and the product itself created a tidal-wave of excitement…and demand from the engineering and scientific communities. Now, complex calculations, including logarithmic and trigonometric functions, could be completed in seconds with accuracies well beyond the three significant figures of the venerable old slide rule.

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Bill Hewlett, the more engineering-oriented of the two company founders, personally wanted such a device to become a reality and became involved in the program. At $395 in 1972, the price was steep, but sales boomed. As a retired engineer, I can recall no other product introduction that impacted the rank-and-file engineering profession to a greater extent – except personal computers which followed several years later. I still have my HP 35 (and my old slide-rule, too).

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Hewlett Packard engineered the HP 35 beautifully after targeting a ready-made market of engineers waiting to be liberated from the limitations of the slide-rule. Packaging so much capability inside a pocket-sized device with LED display and decent battery life was quite a challenge for the HP engineers.

The technology utilized in the HP 35 anticipated the coming microprocessor revolution which would emanate from the start-up Intel Corporation – also located here in the Valley. Robert Noyce, a legendary engineering genius who co-founded Intel, was, a decade prior to that, a principal architect of the whole semiconductor integrated circuit revolution which began at Fairchild Semiconductor in nearby Mountain View. Prior to that, Noyce was a principal engineer at Shockley Semiconductor, in Mountain View, which was founded by William Shockley who shared the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the transistor at Bell Laboratories, back east.

Such is our history, here, in this Valley! People like these and their companies have largely defined our way of life, today.   

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Humble beginnings from which grew a technology giant!

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 The house on Addison

Dave Packard and his young wife, Lucille, were renting a floor of the house by 1938. Although there were few company “perks” back then, the fledgling founder did have an enviable commute consisting of eight steps out the back door to the garage. Co-founder Bill Hewlett, unmarried at the time, stayed in a very primitive “shack” in the backyard, near the garage. The early years were a struggle. The pair’s first “big” contract came from Walt Disney in the form of an order for eight HP 200 audio oscillators to create the then-revolutionary sound-effects in Disney’s upcoming movie, Fantasia. From that point on, Bill and Dave were on their way.

The Silicon Valley start-up model fashioned by Hewlett and Packard has been followed by countless entrepreneurs, many of whose small companies have blossomed into mighty tech-corporations – right here in this valley.

Have you heard about those two guys in a nearby Cupertino garage named Jobs and Wozniak and that company called “Apple?”

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 This way to the Palo Alto birthplace of Silicon Valley!

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