After the Fire: HP Archivist Pledges to Rebuild What She Can

Little was digitized, much was lost, but some copies of Hewlett-Packard’s key historical documents may remain in the wild

The October fires that tore through California's wine country burned a trove of the Hewlett-Packard Co.'s historical documents, housed in modular buildings on the campus of Keysight Technologies in Santa Rosa
Credit: Ben Margot/Associated Press
The October fires that tore through California's wine country burned a trove of the Hewlett-Packard Co.'s historical documents, housed in modular buildings on the campus of Keysight Technologies, in Santa Rosa.
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In October, some 100 boxes of correspondence and other documents that detailed the origins, evolution, and strategic thinking that turned a little garage startup into the grandfather of Silicon Valley were burned in the Sonoma County fires.

These documents—the papers of Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett that represented the records of the Hewlett-Packard Co. going as far back as 1937—were assembled before HP began the first of several splits starting in 1999.  In recent years, the collection was stored in a modular building on the campus of Keysight Technologies in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Keysight got custody of the documents when it spun out of Agilent, which had previously split off from HP.) The collection was hard to access by historians, had yet to be digitized, and was, as we now know, vulnerable to fire. 

Much of the collection had been indexed by archivist Karen Lewis, hired by HP in 1987 originally to dive into a few unorganized boxes to prepare for the 50th anniversary but who eventually spent more than 20 years with HP and later Agilent Technologies, figuring out what needed to be saved for posterity and collecting and organizing those documents and artifacts.

So, Lewis says, we mostly know what was lost. Perhaps the most heartbreaking, she points out, are the carbon copies of all of David Packard’s outgoing correspondence, stored with the replies he received. 

“Packard was obsessive about that,” she says. “He had copies of everything. As a result, we could see his strategic thinking, for example, his correspondence with Leon Sullivan discussing the Sullivan principles,” which were used to put pressure on South Africa to end apartheid.

Other correspondence, Lewis says, traced the development of Packard’s thoughts on what it would be like to eventually do business in China and other Communist countries, reflecting his belief “that technology was for the greater good of mankind, it wasn’t just about business.”

It isn’t particularly surprising that these documents, no matter their historical value, were never digitized. “Many archives of that age and size don’t get digitized because the papers are of different sizes and thicknesses. It is expensive, and it is difficult to make sure you have the necessary accuracy. So it’s not uncommon to just store them safely and securely in the proper environment for preservation.”

While historians, former HP staffers, and other members of the tech world are mourning what is lost, Lewis is thinking about how to rebuild the historical narrative, even without the original documents.

The oral histories are not lost, she says. “I have a full text of them on my computer, and they also exist in the HP [Inc.] archives.”

“I hired someone to do a full-text inputting of Packard’s speeches at one point, so we’ve got that,” she says.

Putting the rest together is going to be like making a patchwork quilt out of scraps. Fortunately, annotated indexes of the Packard and Hewlett exist—box by box, folder by folder—with copies stored on a variety of computers, both personal and corporate. Some of the papers collected from other key HP executives are also indexed—but not all of them.

Lewis shared the index of David Packard’s papers with me. With 238 pages to review, I confess I’ve barely made a dent—but it’s a fascinating exploration. A few examples from the first 20 or so pages (“DP” is David Packard; “WRH” is Bill Hewlett):

  • 8/12/37 DP memo on interview with Terman who “felt with me that we might do fairly well with merchandising radios if we located somewhere on the peninsula”
  • 4/25/42 DP to L.H. Lynn, GE concerning lack of delivery of voltmeters, also “the lack of engineers and the problem of trying to work 50 people in a space designed for 15, all confronting us at once, it is rather difficult to promise anything definite.”
  • Undated, WRH to DP saying he rented a place with a cabin for himself.  He will pay $15 for the small house and part of the shop (garage) which “is concrete floored and has a work table in it already.”
  • 12/8/47 DP told Michigan State student “the best preparation for work in an organization such as ours is provided in the general college courses which cover the more fundamental aspects of engineering training”; suggests they avoid too much specialization
  • 4/30/48 DP expresses interest in Cal St Poly College’s new engineering major
  • 10/18/49 legal agreement between HP and M.P.H. Industries concerning development of machinery for thinning row crops, commonly known as “Marihart Crop Thinner”
  • DP memo re labor difficulties at Lynch with unions; DP handwritten comments about unions including: 
    • If you want union you can have it. Think you will get a better deal - should join
    • New employees - check with older people - talk to Bill & me about it 
    • Good organization - don’t think they will try any rough stuff. Try hard - too much money in dues
    • If you don’t want union we can operate without it - will require little help & cooperation
    • Any evidence of pressure or threats report to foreman or to Bill & me
  • Hewlett-Packard Company Directors; James L. Jenks, Jr. 1961-69    - Jenks was upset over HP’s willingness to trade with communist countries; [Archivist’s note: may have led to Jenks’ retirement]
  • 6/26/45  Coffee time and coke time:  “It has been noticed that the rule of ten minutes for coffee time in the morning and ten minutes for coke time in the afternoon has not been strictly observed...It is requested that as our contribution to the war effort we return to work promptly at the end of these rest periods.”

With these indexes as a skeleton, the rebuilding begins. “I have some stuff on my computer,” Lewis says, “and other people have copied things.”

People have started coming forward “who did research in the archives in days past, and who copied some of those papers. There will be some letters, and some planning papers.”

“I plan to get together with people at Agilent.  We will put together what remains and get it to a safe and secure place that is open to researchers like Stanford or the Smithsonian,” she says.

“I’ll be doing this as a labor of love,” she says, “I don’t have funding at this point, but that’s okay. I had a whole career as an archivist—at Harvard, at HP, at Agilent, at Apple. It’s time for me to give back.”

Anyone with copies of the kinds of documents described can contact Lewis at karenrlewis@gmail.com.

An abridged version of this post appears in the February 2018 print issue as “Labor of Love: Re-creating the Burned HP Archives.”

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