Your garage holds more than just your cars and rarely-used power tools. It holds the potential for greatness. The wide-open floorplan and separation from the rest of the house mean that the garage is the perfect room for making noise, as countless hobbyist handymen or teenage bands have discovered. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the greatest companies in the world got their starts in garages.
Join us as we explore these achievements through a running blog series, updated every Monday. We’re interested in learning all there is to know about the creativity produced in the most pivotal garages in history, and we’ll bring all of our findings straight to you.
Welcome to Garage Greatness.
The Hewlett-Packard Company, usually called HP, is one of the largest information technology companies in the world. They produce a variety of hardware components and software that are used all around the world. HP employs over 300,000 employees and earned more than 110 billion dollars of revenue in 2014. Needless to say, HP is a big deal in the world of electronics, but the company has one high honor that has nothing to do with their commercial success. In 1989, around fifty years after HP’s founding, California named the garage in which HP first operated “the birthplace of Silicone Valley” and added it to the list of California Historical Landmarks. Yes, that’s right – Hewlett-Packard started in a garage, and for over seventy-five years since then they have been one of the preeminent names in information technology.
The home that sits in front of the garage that is today known as “The HP garage” was first built in 1905 and lived in by Dr. John Spenser and his family. Spenser became the first mayor of Palo Alto in 1909. It was several years later, in 1935, after the property had been divided into two residences (367 and 369) and was being used as a rental property, that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard both graduated from Stanford’s electrical engineering program. Although the two were college friends, they separated for some years after graduation, pursuing different dreams. In time, however, they met back up and had their first business meetings.
Packard had been disenchanted with the opinions of his General Electric coworkers, who believed that heavy equipment, not electronics, was the future of the company. When he met with Hewlett in 1937, they decided to pursue their earlier dream of starting a company together. At the start, the two were high-skill workers in search of a product to sell. Packard and his wife Lucile moved in to 367 Addison Ave, and Hewlett moved into the shed behind the property – a shed which, purportedly, contained only a bed, toilet, sink, and table sitting on the dirt floor. Their rent was only $45 a month, so they spent the rest of their savings on start-up capital. Their $538 allowed them to buy the components and equipment to produce audio oscillators – specialized machines used for testing by sound engineers. Hewlett and Packard were able to sell them for a tenth what the competitors were charging since they had so little overhead – and an innovative change to the design put them head-and-shoulders above the competition.
One of their first customers was Walt Disney Studios, who purchased eight oscillators to use in the production of Fantasia. Business continued to trickle in, mostly from letters that the duo sent out soliciting customers. They were sent many letters in return, most containing an order and some containing a check. They tried to contract out the sheet metal part of their business, since they were building all of their product themselves from supplies purchased at the hardware store, but the company they contacted refused to take on such a small operation. All told, Hewlett-Packard made about 200 oscillators in their first year.
All of this, from the 12 x 18 garage behind their rental.
On January 1, 1939, Hewlett and Packard agree to formalize their partnership and incorporate more seriously as a company. To decide the name of their company, they flipped a coin to see whose name would go first. Obviously, Hewlett won. They remained in that garage until 1940, although Hewlett and his new wife Flora moved off the property after their marriage and the shed was converted from bedroom to company office. During that time, the two continued to produce their machines on-site, although they used the machinery of their friend Charlie Litton, during the times when he wasn’t working. The paint on their first oscillators was baked on in the kitchen’s over, a practice that would certainly be against safety code today.
HP purchased the property, house, garage, and shed in 2000 for historical restoration. Since then, the property has been mostly off-limits for visitors, since it is situated in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable Palo Alto neighborhood that isn’t designed to handle the kind of tourism that the property might bring. Instead, HP went to some lengths to restore the property back to the condition it was in while the company’s founders worked inside, while still bringing it up to modern building codes. The renovation maintained as much authenticity as possible, while still preserving the garage for generations to come.
HP continued to make oscillators into the 1960s, but today the company is better known for making computers and printers. HP archivist Anna Mancini has been buying up the old oscillators for HP’s company archives, and because of her increasing the demand, the price of the old equipment has risen to around $300 – still less than HP’s competitors were originally charging for their less-effective machines.
Today, the property (including the garage) are visible from the sidewalk and have been restored to match their original appearance. Silicone-valley enthusiasts and residential homeowners alike drive past the property every day, gazing at the green barn doors visible at the end of the driveway. The HP garage is one of the great testaments to American engineering and innovation, and the fact that HP remains at the forefront of their field now, 75 years later, is a testament to what can be achieved inside a garage.
This is not an isolated story; great companies and inventions seem to naturally find their starts in garages. Next Monday, Garage Greatness will look at the origins of Fisher Research Labs. Dr. Gerhard R. Fisher, a noted inventor and engineer, formed Fisher Labs in his garage and now Fisher is the oldest metal detector business in the world. Fisher patented to the handheld metal detector and worked on improving on his original design for the next thirty five years. Fisher is a made-in-America success story that begun in a small garage, and you can read all about it next week, on Garage Greatness!