Something very cool happened at HP HQ this week.
Last week, a loyal HP customer reached out to our Executive Relations team with an exciting offer – he had, in his possession, a HP 200A Audio Oscillator, and he wanted to present it to HP.
Of course it was accepted!
Tech history buff or not, you've probably caught on that this is a very important item to HP by now. So what's the significance? Not only was this HP's very first product, but this specific one that was presented to us is likely from one of the very first batches, and, even more mind-boggling, likely to have been built by William Hewlett and David Packard (who HP employees refer to as "Bill and Dave") themselves in the infamous HP Garage.
It's not every day that such an amazing piece of history lands on your desk, so of course, we had to share.
Talk about blast from the past. How cool is this?!
As you can see, it's currently in quite a delicate state. I wish I could have given it a nice little photoshoot in natural sunlight or some other bright light and give it the supermodel treatment, but alas, we were advised that to preserve such a fragile artifact, we had to keep it in a stable environment (aka, not the the blazing California sun).
The 200A Audio Oscillator came about during Bill's master's thesis while he was a grad student at Stanford in the 1930s. HP's first big sale was to Disney. In 1938, a Disney sound engineer saw the 200A in action and placed an order, but first, they wanted a few modifications – and thus, the 200B Audio Oscillator was born. Eight of the latter were purchased for use in the production of the beloved Fantasia. This helped lend to the development of Fantasound, which was both a revolutionary and pioneering technique for motion picture audio.
Other cool trivia about the HP 200A Audio Oscillator:
- Since HP was just starting out, the 200A was named so to give folks the impression that they were an established company with an established product
- While inferior audio oscillators were going for about $200-$600 at the time, Bill and Dave were selling their 200As for a mere $54.40. There wasn't any sort of elaborate pricing strategy behind this; they named it for the 1844 slogan "Fifty-four Forty or Fight!"
- Being that the first oscillators were built in Dave's garage, to cure the paint on their devices, Bill and Dave would conveniently take it into Dave's kitchen to bake in his oven. Dave's wife Lucille claimed that her roast beef never tasted the same after that
- Bill filed the patent for the Variable Frequency Oscillation Generator on July 11, 1938. Coincidentally, we received this oscillator on July 11, 2017, 78 years to the day after the patent was filed, which is pretty wild:
- At the HP Palo Alto Headquarters, where Bill and Dave's original offices are well-preserved, there lies another homage to them and their very first product: in a 2005 historic assessment of the campus, it writes that the mosaic patterns on our exterior walls "recalls a series of sine waves in the field of electronic background noise". Some on campus believe that the wave pattern actually represent the electrical currents of the oscillators
This oscillator isn't only historically significant to HP, but to Silicon Valley as a whole. On top of being designated a California Historical Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the HP Garage where this oscillator was created and built is widely considered to be the birthplace of Silicon Valley.
It was awe-inspiring to see this oscillator up close and think that Bill and Dave could have built it themselves in that very garage.
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