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Hewlett-Packard Company Spotlight

William Hewlett and David Packard were electrical engineering students who spent a lot of time in the Stanford electronics laboratory talking about "someday" having their own company. Upon graduation in 1934, Packard took a job at General Electric in New York. Hewlett stayed on for a year of graduate study with Professor Frederick Terman before leaving for MIT, where he received a master's degree. He returned to Stanford in 1936 to work on a degree in electrical engineering.

Terman began to encourage some of his promising students to start companies near the university. When the "resistance-tuned oscillator" was discovered, Terman thought it had great commercial possibilities, and he told Hewlett that it looked like it could be used to make an instrument that would be a lot simpler and cheaper than anything on the market. However, there were some stability problems that had to be solved to make it functional. Hewlett devised an innovative solution; he designed and built an audio oscillator, a device that generates signals of varying frequencies which took advantage of the nonlinear resistance-temperature characteristic of a small light bulb to remove a serious instability. The addition of one inexpensive component turned a balky laboratory curiosity into a reliable, marketable instrument.

Money was a problem, but by great effort and a bit of luck, Terman was able to get some money together for the project, including a $1,000 grant from Sperry Gyroscope; $500 was spent for materials and $500 for Packard's salary as a research assistant. In the autumn of 1938, Packard took a leave of absence from his job at GE (which paid $110 a month) to return to Stanford University (for $55 a month).

Hewlett-Packard was incorporated in January 1939. The company's first large order was from Walt Disney Productions for four oscillators to be used in making the motion picture "Fantasia." Today, Hewlett-Packard is one of the world's largest producers of computers and electronic measuring devices and equipment. [Not counting spin-off Agilent,Hewlett-Packard Company employed 88,500 people in the year 2000, with sales of $48.8 billion. -- ed]

Written by Carolyn Tajnai, From the Valley of Heart's Delight to the Silicon Valley: A Study of Stanford University's Role in the Transformation

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Last updated 01.25.2001