Loss of Hewlett-Packard Archive a Wake-Up Call for Computer Historians

The Wine Country fires destroyed an irreplaceable piece of Silicon Valley history

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A black-and-white photo shows Hewlett Packard founders William Hewlett and David Packard in a factory.
Photo: Jon Brenneis/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Some 100 boxes of correspondence, speeches, and other documents created by William Hewlett and David Packard as they built the company considered to be the grandfather of what we think of as Silicon Valley were burned to ash by the recent Sonoma County fires.  

The collection, stored in a modular building on the Santa Rosa campus of Keysight Technologies, was considered to be the heart of the Hewlett-Packard historical archives. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which first reported the destruction on 29 October, indicated that this collection had been valued at $2 million in 2005, part of a total archive worth $3.3 million at the time. The company papers dated from 1937 to 1995, included, says Karen Lewis, the archivist who first assembled the collections in the mid-2000s, “records that reveal company strategy and its evolution from the beginning of the electronics industry.” Historians were shocked to learn that it had landed in such a vulnerable location.

Lewis told the Press Democrat that it had been irresponsible to put the archives in a building without proper protection. It earlier had been housed in special vaults with fire-protection safeguards.

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.

House recalls that he and Raymond Price, the coauthors of the book, The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation, tried multiple times to see the full archives in the late ‘90s and mid-2000s, but were only given limited access to collections held in the company’s Palo Alto and Santa Clara facilities. The particular documents lost in the recent fires were never made available, and House and Price relied in large part on private collectors for their research. This experience led House to donate his personal collection of 15 or 16 boxes of documents to an archive in Australia.

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?”

When learning some two weeks ago that the fires had reached the Keysight campus, House recalls being deeply concerned about the toxins that could be released if main buildings were damaged. When reports indicated that only two modular outbuildings (the other housed a bank branch) were destroyed, he was relieved—and never thought about the contents of those buildings until the Press Democrat’s report.

The loss, he says, involved acts of omission, that is, not consolidating this collection into a more professional archive, and an act of commission, that is “putting it in a stupid place.”

House holds out hope that Packard’s predilection for insisting that a carbon copy (an actual carbon, not, as technology evolved, a second print or Xerox copy) be made for every document he was involved in creating might mean that copies for some of what was lost exist among Packard’s personal papers.

But, he points out, this is among a few recent wake-up calls for the industry—and a particularly loud one.

A few years ago, he says, the Computer History Museum got a call from someone in Texas who had a bunch of boxes of documents from the early days of Fairchild Semiconductor that were going to be thrown away if nobody wanted them—the Computer History Museum grabbed them, and it turned out to be a treasure trove, including original engineering notebooks, that have since spawned at least three books and two documentaries.

“In that case, we saved something important circumstantially. In this case, we lost something,” he says. “Shouldn’t this change the behavior of historians, and make us more proactive?”

Personally, House plans to reach out to significant people in computing history who have recently contributed their oral histories to the museum’s collection, and ask them to turn over all their papers, so they can be properly preserved. “We don’t have to release them,” he says. “We can lock them up for 20 years. But these are national—or even international treasures. We can’t lose any more.”

Update 30 October 2017:

HP Inc., a company that formed in 2015 out of Hewlett-Packard’s computer and printer businesses, has released an official statement on the loss of the archives held on the Keysight campus. (In the 2015 division, enterprise products and services became HP Enterprise; the instrumentation-related businesses had previously been spun out as Agilent.)  This statement does not  contradict the Press Democrat’s report that the 2004 split in the archives  sent the biggest trove (as measured by value) to Agilent and later to Keysight, but rather explains where the documents retained by HP at the time of the Agilent divestiture are now housed. According to archivist Lewis, these documents include records related to the computer and printer businesses, along with duplicates of journals and magazines, and copies of oral histories and photographs. Other documents from founder William Hewlett were donated to Stanford, she says, but these do not include documents from his HP career.

Says HP Inc.:

At the time of the separation of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP Inc., archives were established to ensure the 75+ year history was preserved. These archives are housed in Atlanta, Georgia. During the recent Santa Rosa fire, archives owned by Keysight Technologies (a company spun off from Agilent Technologies; once part of HP) suffered damage. Reports that HP founder archives burned are misleading. HP’s sites were not impacted and archives remain intact in both physical and digital formats.  HP’s archives contain hundreds of items related to HP’s founders including many examples of speeches, personal correspondence, writings and other materials. In addition, many other materials from the founders are part of public collections, such as the William Hewlett papers (1907-2010) held by Stanford University. The HP Garage where the company was founded is a historical landmark noted as the birthplace of Silicon Valley and serves as a private museum.”

Update 31 October 2017:The details on documents lost were updated in the main text and the 30 October note.

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