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Silicon Valley historians saddened over loss of Hewlett Packard archive in fire


More than 100 boxes containing letters and other documents from Hewlett-Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard were incinerated when the Tubbs Fire tore through one building on the campus of Keysight Technologies headquarters in Santa Rosa. — Reuters

More than 100 boxes containing letters and other documents from Hewlett-Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard were incinerated when the Tubbs Fire tore through one building on the campus of Keysight Technologies headquarters in Santa Rosa. — Reuters

The North Bay fires have destroyed an irreplaceable part of the early history of the Silicon Valley. 

More than 100 boxes containing letters and other documents from Hewlett-Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard were incinerated when the Tubbs Fire tore through one building on the campus of Keysight Technologies headquarters in Santa Rosa. 

Corporate historians say the loss goes far beyond the estimated US$2mil (RM8.46mil) value of the collection. That's because it contained thousands of pages of history documenting the firsthand thoughts and strategies of the two tech pioneers who formed the electronics company in Palo Alto. 

"It's heartbreaking," said Karen Lewis, a former HP archivist who pored through each of those boxes in the 1980s, cataloging each document to help preserve that rich record for future researchers and historians. 

"I am disappointed and I'm angry," Lewis said Monday. "I'm more angry than sad because it could have easily been prevented." 

The boxes were stored in one of two modular buildings at Keysight's Fountaingrove headquarters, which burned in the Tubbs Fire. 

Keysight was the original testing and measurement business founded by Hewlett and Packard in 1939. In 1999, Hewlett-Packard spun it off into Agilent Technologies, which then spun off Keysight in 2013. 

The lost archive doesn't represent all of HP's legacy. A spokeswoman for HP Inc. said other documents are stored elsewhere, and there's still the original Palo Alto garage, now a museum, where the company was born. 

"Reports that HP founder archives burned are misleading," HP spokeswoman Dana Lengkeek said in an email. HP archives elsewhere include speeches and personal correspondence from HP's founders, she said, and public collections hold other documents (Stanford has the William Hewlett papers). 

Keysight's visitors center still has early products, like an early oscillator, Lewis said. 

However, documents tied to the company's early history of electronics testing products over the years shifted from HP to Agilent and then Keysight. 

Lewis said the archive included papers that documented:
– Hewlett and Packard planning for the establishment of a West Coast electronics trade group, which later became the American Electronics Association, to raise their visibility in Washington, D.C.
– Notes for creating Stanford Industrial Park, which in 1951 became the first collaboration between tech companies and a university.
– Hewlett asking engineers if they could create a calculator that could fit in his shirt pocket, which in 1972 became the HP-35, the company's first direct-to-consumer product.
– The evolution of HP's first joint venture with the People's Republic of China.
– Ideas for an open office floor plan to encourage creativity and exchange among employees, a model that became standard throughout the valley. 

The boxes were originally stored in an HP vault protected against ultraviolet light and with fire-extinguishing equipment. Digitizing the archives would have been an expensive and laborious operation, since some of the documents were on thin, fragile carbon paper, Lewis said. 

Of the companies involved in the archive over the years, "none of them saw fit to come up with the money to digitize them," Lewis said. "They had other things to spend money on." 

She said she had lobbied for the archive to be donated to Stanford University Libraries, as Apple Computer did with its historical documents in 1997. 

Instead, the boxes found their way to Keysight and were stored on metal shelving in "archival-quality folders inside damage-resistant archival boxes in a secure building with a sprinkler system," said Keysight spokesman Jeff Weber in an email. 

The company "met and exceeded the strictest standards for archival protection," according to UN and Library of Congress guidelines, Weber said. He said the burned buildings are still red-tagged, so it hasn't been possible yet to get close to see whether any documents survived. 

"It took the most damaging fire in state history to thwart the appropriate and responsible steps we took to protect our company archives," he said. "The heat from the Tubbs Fire was so intense that many fire-resistant safes were melted and destroyed in this unprecedented firestorm." 

He also said other historic products, product catalogs, manuals, research collections and other correspondence by Packard survive because they were housed at other Keysight locations. 

But Lewis said Keysight could have done more to protect the collection. 

"It's such a loss for business, and the technological history of the Silicon Valley, for the Bay Area," she said. "This was a fabulous collection." 

Bruce H. Bruemmer, former archivist with the Charles Babbage Institute for the history of computing at the University of Minnesota, said in an email that while the collection wasn't as "robust" as other early tech collections, "Hewlett and Packard were the Edison and Bell of their time. We have some archives from the likes of Xerox, Control Data, Burroughs and many others, but historians of science, technology and entrepreneurship cannot afford a loss as big as this." — San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service

   

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