Original documents from Hewlett-Packard founders destroyed in Palo Alto fire

northern california fires hewlett packard archive
Ken Wolter / Shitterstock
Over the last few weeks, areas of Northern California that were ravaged by recent wildfires have been assessing the damage done to homes and businesses. Now, there’s word that an important chapter in the history of Silicon Valley may have been lost to the flames.

In 1938, William Hewlett and David Packard formed a technology company in a garage in Palo Alto. By 2007, Hewlett-Packard was the world’s leading manufacturer of personal computers, a title that it would hold until 2013.

Keysight Technologies is one of the many companies that can count themselves as a spin-off or subsidiary of HP, and today the firm is headquartered in Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa. When the wildfires hit California earlier this month, two modular buildings on that site were burned to the ground.

Inside these buildings were over 100 boxes containing documents and speeches authored by Hewlett and Packard, as well as personal correspondence between the two men, according to a report from The Press Democrat. In 2005, these materials were appraised at a value of $2.5 million, but their historical value may be even greater.

“A huge piece of American business history is gone,” commented Brad Whitworth, who served as HP’s international affairs manager in the 1980s, overseeing the creation of the archive. Kate Lewis, the archivist who the company brought in to establish the collection, has criticized the storage methods employed by Keysight.

Lewis was hired to produce the archive in the 1980s, in the run-up to the company’s 50th anniversary in 1988. It was so highly regarded – described as a “family treasure” by Whitworth – that it was housed in a specially designed room while it was stored at the company’s Palo Alto headquarters.

This setting had humidity control, and was windowless to reduce any damage that might be caused by sunlight. It was also outfitted with foam retardant to safeguard against the threat of fire. By contrast, Keysight’s protections amounted to damage-resistant boxes and a sprinkler system.

There are still questions to be answered about whether certain materials may have been stored elsewhere, either at another location maintained by Keysight, or by remaining in the possession of HP since before the two companies split.

HP Inc. provided the following statement:

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.

Updated 10/31 with comments from HP Inc.

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