Garages have mythic power in Silicon Valley

By : |December 7, 2005 0

Duncan Martell

PALO ALTO, Calif.: Garages are a thing of lore in Silicon Valley. Tucked away down a narrow driveway on a leafy, quiet street here is perhaps the most famous garage in the valley and, arguably, in all of the technology industry.


It is the garage in which David Packard and William Hewlett launched Hewlett-Packard Co., now the world’s second-largest computer maker and the biggest printer maker, which they founded in 1939 and named with a coin toss.

Long considered the birthplace of Silicon Valley, the 12-by-18-foot garage was the initial spark for the now-thriving technology business in a region that has given way to business parks, corporate campuses, suburbs and malls from the fruit orchards of the early 20th century.

After HP came other household tech names such as Intel Corp., the world’s biggest chipmaker (though not started in a garage), Sun Microsystems Inc. (again, no garage founding here), online media giant Yahoo Inc. and many others.

But other garages did follow. A short drive from the HP garage at 367 Addison Ave. is the Los Altos garage of the parents of Steve Jobs, where he and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer Inc., which helped popularize the PC in the 1980s.

“It’s kind of a humbling thing,” HP Chief Executive Mark Hurd said on Tuesday at a small ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Addison Avenue garage to celebrate the completed restoration of the HP garage and the house with which it shares the lot. HP now has nearly $90 billion in annual revenue and some 151,000 employees. Its current headquarters are a 10-minute drive from the house that Hewlett, then a bachelor, Packard and wife Lucile, rented for $45 a month in 1939.

Hewlett slept on a cot in an 8-by-18-foot shed in back of the unassuming Shingle Style house – built in 1905 – that was split into two flats, one downstairs, one upstairs. Packard and his wife lived in the first-floor flat and Lucile Packard paid the bills and did the accounting from the living room for the fledgling business the two men started with $538.


The garage, lit by a single, overhanging bare lightbulb, served as the research lab, development workshop and manufacturing plant for HP’s early products, including the Model 200A audio oscillator used to test sound quality in radio and TV. Walt Disney Co. was one of HP’s earliest big customers. It bought eight oscillators to fine tune the soundtrack for Disney’s landmark animated film Fantasia.

The Silicon Valley garage start-up story was apparently powerful enough to motivate HP to buy the Palo Alto lot, house, garage and shed in 2000 for a reported $1.7 million, at the tail end of the dot-com boom and early in the tenure of now-ousted Chief Executive Carly Fiorina.

The garage – designated California Historical Landmark No. 976 in 1987 – needed work. Much of the Douglas fir panels had rotted, so workers removed the decayed pieces and filled the holes with an epoxy. Fire sprinklers and steel beams were added so the garage could withstand an earthquake.

HP restored the house, shed and garage to their appearance in 1939. Inside the garage are two workbenches, three stools, a couple of stacked chairs, a drill press, an HP Audio Oscillator Model 200B, and other tools of the day. The garage, shed and house will not be open to the public but will be used for private corporate functions.

The legacy of the Silicon Valley garage story that got underway with Stanford University graduates Hewlett and Packard lingers still. The founders of Google Inc., Larry Page and Sergey Brin, rented a garage in which they started their company, now the biggest Internet search firm and considered by many the hottest place to work in the valley.

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