Hewlett-Packard historical archives destroyed in Santa Rosa fires
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.