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.
“A huge piece of American business history is gone,” said Brad Whitworth, who had been an HP international affairs manager with oversight of the archives three decades ago. He said Hewlett-Packard had been at the forefront of an industry “that has radically changed our world.”
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.
Keysight Technologies spokesman Jeff Weber acknowledged the destruction of the Hewlett and Packard collections, but he disputed the idea that the company had failed to adequately safeguard them.
“Keysight took appropriate and responsible steps to protect the company archives, but the most destructive firestorm in state history prevented efforts to protect portions of the collection,” Weber said in an email. “This is a sad, unfortunate situation — like many others in Sonoma County now. This is a time to begin healing, not assigning blame.”
He added the company “is saddened by the loss of documents that remind us of our visionary founders, rich history and lineage to the original Silicon Valley startup.”
The flames that entered the Keysight campus on Oct. 9 were part of several wildfires that killed at least 23 residents and destroyed 6,800 homes and other buildings in the county.
Among the structures consumed were two beige, flat-roof modular buildings near the Keysight entrance on Fountaingrove Parkway. The buildings, connected by an overhang to a permanent structure, held not only the archives but also a branch office of First Tech Federal Credit Union.
The rest of Keysight’s campus survived with relatively minimal damage from the fire, CEO Ron Nersesian said on Oct. 10. The campus includes four permanent buildings and a recycling storage facility, together constituting nearly a million square feet of office and production space.
The fire and its aftermath have kept the Fountaingrove facility closed for three weeks.