Hewlett-Packard historical archives destroyed in Santa Rosa fires

'A huge piece of American business history is gone,' said a former overseer of the archives.|

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.

The campus is undergoing disaster recovery work and may reopen for business this week with a limited number of Keysight’s 1,300 Santa Rosa employees, Weber said.

Meanwhile, about 100 staff members have shifted to former HP facilities inside Rohnert Park’s Somo Village. That location could be outfitted for up to 900 staff members by early November, Weber said. Another 200 staff are now reporting to a facility in Petaluma.

After their start in a Palo Alto garage, now a historic landmark dubbed “the Birthplace of Silicon Valley,” Hewlett and Packard found early success with the Walt Disney Company. The latter ordered eight audio oscillators to test speaker systems and other sound devices being used in 12 specially-equipped theaters in 1940 showing the animated film “Fantasia.”

Hewlett Packard and other companies went on to produce testing and measurement devices that remain a largely unheralded part of the tech industry. But analysts and historians said the equipment proved crucial to the development of computers, cellphones and virtually every other device that plugs into a wall or uses a battery.

HP later developed the first hand-held calculator and the first inkjet printer. It also expanded into making personal computers.

Hewlett-Packard’s relationship with Santa Rosa dates back to 1972, when the company first began operations here. The company opened the Fountaingrove campus in 1975.

The Sonoma County operations consistently focused on testing and measurement equipment, even as HP and later Agilent became a major employer, with 5,000 workers here by 2001. But after the dot-com bust, Agilent in 2004 shuttered its Rohnert Park plant and transferred most of its manufacturing overseas.

By the time Hewlett-Packard arrived in Sonoma County, it had been in operation almost four decades and had gained a reputation for a less authoritarian management style aimed at unleashing employee creativity - a collegial approach that came to be known as the “HP Way.”

The company and its founders also affected international affairs. Hewlett-Packard in 1985 became the first technology company to enter into a joint venture in China. And Packard, who temporarily left the company to become deputy secretary of defense in the first Nixon Administration, was known during the Cold War as a advocate of increased trade with Soviet bloc countries in order to foster world peace.

Packard died in 1996 at age 83. Hewlett was 87 when he died in 2001.

A few years before Hewlett-Packard’s 50th anniversary in 1988, Lewis was brought in to build an archive out of the boxes of company photos, writings and other materials.

After reviewing the contents, she said, “I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is the history of Silicon Valley ... This is the history of the electronics industry.’”

Raymond Price, a coauthor of “The HP Phenomenon: Innovation and Business Transformation,” said he received limited access to the company archives when researching the 2009 book. But he and coauthor Charles H. House would gladly have delved deeper into the collection of the two founders.

“We would have killed to have had those records and to go through their personal papers,” said Price, a professor emeritus from the University of Illinois. For researchers, he said, the archives contained “such valuable insights into how companies grow.”

“To me it’s just tragic,” he said of the destroyed collections.

In 2005, an appraiser set the collection’s value at $3.3 million and called it one of the most historically significant company archives remaining outside of nonprofit institutions, Lewis said. She recalled that the appraiser had called its primary source material “of the highest possible historical value” for those researching the convergence of technology and business.

Whitworth noted that HP specifically had Lewis oversee the design of a special archive room at the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. The archives, he said, “were a family treasure that was treated that way.”

Lewis said the room was essentially a vault, a receptacle without windows. It was humidity controlled with no ultraviolet light and protected from fire by foam retardant.

The archives, she said, received the same protection when moved to Agilent Technologies facilities and later when stored in a private site owned by a data storage company.

The archives should have gone to Stanford University, where the founders were alumni, Lewis said.

“These records belonged in the public trust,” she said. “They should not have stayed with a private corporation.”

Instead, the archives were transferred in 2014 from a foundation controlled by Agilent to a similar nonprofit of Keysight.

Both Weber and others suggested the archives came to Santa Rosa largely because Keysight considers its electronic measurement work in direct lineage to the original business of Hewlett and Packard. Some of the first HP devices are displayed in a heritage gallery inside one of the permanent buildings on the Keysight campus.

Weber said only part of the total collection of HP materials was held at the Keysight facility.

“A large portion of that collection stayed with HP during the HP/Agilent split in 1999,” Weber said. “Portions of it stayed with Agilent at the Keysight/Agilent split in 2014, and a small portion came to Keysight.”

However, he acknowledged the materials burned included the personal collections of Hewlett and Packard.

Lewis said those amounted to the heart of the archives and were valued by the appraiser together at $1.9 million.

At the Fountaingrove facility, Weber said, “most of the archives were stored on metal shelving in archival quality folders inside damage-resistant archival boxes in a secure building with a sprinkler system.” He called those steps standard practice for archival collections.

Whitworth said he doesn’t know what led to the Hewlett and Packard collections being stored in the modular buildings. “Regardless,” he said, “it was a mistake.”

Those who care about HP’s history will be awaiting word about what key documents and materials remain elsewhere.

“We can hope that something was salvaged,” Whitworth said. “But we’re going to be missing volumes.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com.

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