When deadly flames incinerated hundreds of homes in Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood earlier this month, they also destroyed irreplaceable papers and correspondence held nearby and once belonging to the founders of Silicon Valley’s first technology company, Hewlett-Packard.
The Tubbs fire consumed the collected archives of William Hewlett and David Packard, the tech pioneers who in 1938 formed an electronics company in a Palo Alto garage with $538 in cash.
More than 100 boxes of the two men’s writings, correspondence, speeches and other items were contained in one of two modular buildings that burned to the ground at the Fountaingrove headquarters of Keysight Technologies. Keysight, the world’s largest electronics measurement company, traces its roots to HP and acquired the archives in 2014 when its business was split from Agilent Technologies — itself an HP spinoff.
The Hewlett and Packard collections had been appraised in 2005 at nearly $2 million and were part of a wider company archive valued at $3.3 million. However, those acquainted with the archives and the pioneering company’s impact on the technology world said the losses can’t be represented by a dollar figure.
Karen Lewis, the former HP staff archivist who first assembled the collections, called it irresponsible to put them in a building without proper protection. Both Hewlett-Packard and Agilent earlier had housed the archives within special vaults inside permanent facilities, complete with foam fire retardant and other safeguards, she said.
“This could easily have been prevented, and it’s a huge loss,” Lewis said.
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Charles H. House, former HP corporate engineering director and now a trustee for the Computer History Museum, was part of the team that initially hired Lewis in the mid-80s to preserve HP’s history. And he is furious. He said that HP hadn’t made the existence of this cache of documents widely known, and indeed, had been restrictive in access to all of its archives.
The chain of events that led to such an important collection as HP’s to land in a portable building in Sonoma County involved the multiple splits and spinoffs that shattered the once monolithic company. Hewlett-Packard in 1999 shed its test and measurement division, which became Agilent Technologies, then in 2014 Agilent split off the electronics and radio groups as Keysight.
“I’m baffled why Keysight would wind up with the collection,” House says. “It was one of the least significant spinouts, and clearly had no idea of the value of the papers. Why weren’t they given to the Computer History Museum?” he wonders. “Or Stanford (to whom Hewlett donated his personal papers)? Why weren’t they digitized?”