A Trek through Time
A history of the Addison Avenue property, birthplace of HP and the Silicon Valley
Posted October 20, 2004
Capturing history in print is always tricky business. Beginnings are rarely clear; endings are constantly evolving. In this article, one of a series relating to the HP garage, hpNOW takes a look back through time and focuses on the house on Addison Avenue where the seeds of the electronic revolution took root.
The first recorded owner of the house at 369 Addison Avenue is Dr. John C. Spencer, a prominent San Francisco physician who eventually became a two-term mayor of Palo Alto.
Dr. Spencer, a native Californian, was born to a prominent family in Sacramento and received his education in New York and Europe. He was reported to have pursued his scientific interests in the communication of disease under the guidance of none other than Louis Pasteur, originator of the germ theory of disease. Dr. Spencer returned to California and established a San Francisco practice in 1888.
The 1904 Palo Alto city directory indicates that Dr. Spencer resided at 650 Waverly Ave. with his wife, Ione, and two adult daughters, Martha and Alice. The family probably relocated to a rental as the Addison Avenue house was being built.
The Spencers moved into the two-story, Shingle Style house, and all four were listed as residents in the 1905 city directory. In 1908, Alice married Claude Standish Downing, banker, and son of another prominent Palo Altan, Thomas Downing. The wedding took place in the Spencer’s home.
The modest house at 369 Addison borders a large cluster of handsome homes known as the Professorville district of Palo Alto. The district was so named because many of its homes were built for professors of the nearby Stanford University.
Bird's eye view of the garage from the second floor.
An uncertain transition
The history of the Addison Avenue house and its owners becomes somewhat sketchy after 1920 since many of the city records of the time have been lost. Tax records dating from 1919 and 1920 indicate that Dr. and Mrs. Spencer spent $2,000 for alterations to their residence, dividing it into two flats numbered 367 at the downstairs and 369 at the upstairs.
The couple moved to the upper flat and presumably rented out the ground floor apartment. The garage first appeared on block insurance maps in 1924, although the actual date of its construction is uncertain. Following Dr. Spencer’s death in 1937, his widow remained in Palo Alto and continued to live upstairs and function as the on-site landlady.
Just large enough for one car or two geniuses. Bill and Dave peer into the garage at the 1989 dedication of the garage as a historic landmark.
In April, 1938, Dave Packard, then working at General Electric, married his college sweetheart, Lucile Salter, in Schenectady, New York. With the encouragement of his mentor and former professor, Fred Terman, Dave took a leave of absence from his job with General Electric and returned to California to “make a run for it” in business with his former classmate, Bill Hewlett. Terman had arranged for a fellowship for Dave to help make ends meet. The newlyweds drove back across the country with a Sears and Roebuck drill press, part of the future company’s early working capital, in the rumble seat of their car.
In Palo Alto, Bill took on the job of locating living space for his returning friends. He specifically cast about for properties having a garage that could be used as the partners’ test lab and workshop. Mrs. Spencer’s house on Addison Avenue was an ideal fit. Bill described it in a letter to his friend as “A-number-1,” a term of the time indicating a high degree of desirability. He found it such a good fit for their needs that he paid a full month’s rent for September — $45 — to hold the property even though Dave and Lucile wouldn’t be arriving until the middle of the month.
With its three-room first floor flat for the newlyweds and a 12 x 18 foot (3.7 x 5.5 meters) garage, complete with concrete floor and workbench, the house even offered a bonus feature: a tiny 8 x 18 foot (2.4 x 5.5 meters) shed which Bill could use as a bunkhouse. The shed was just large enough for indoor plumbing and a cot. Bill later recollected that he probably pounded a few nails in the wall to hang his clothes on, “when they weren’t on the floor.”
Launching the dream
Throughout 1938, the two men worked on prototypes for any number of devices they thought might help launch their fledgling company.
One can imagine strolling down Addison Avenue, late on a balmy Palo Alto evening, and glancing down the driveway at the garage. Perhaps you would also have caught a glimpse of the two young men, working into the night on their next design. With only basic hand tools, drill presses, files, vises, screw drivers and soldering irons, the partners were working hard on a dream — one that was about to come true.
Between their days as research assistants in Stanford’s communication and vacuum labs and their evenings in the garage, they leveraged both access to Terman’s considerable scientific resources, and their enormous reserves of youthful enthusiasm and energy.
Soon they had managed to design and sell a diathermy machine to the Palo Alto Clinic; a drive used in the accurate setting of a telescope for the nearby Lick Observatory and controls for an air conditioning company, as well as a plethora of lesser products such as harmonica turners; foul indicators for a bowling alley and an electric eye for automatic toilet flushing. But the crowning achievement of the time spent in the Addison Avenue garage was the 200A audio oscillator - the innovation that spawned HP’s first product line and funded the company’s future.
A granite mission-style marker stands in front of 367 Addison Avenue proclaiming the garage as "Birthplace of Silicon Valley."
Outgrowing the garage
By mid-1939, Hewlett-Packard was a partnership and the 200A audio oscillator was a reality. But Bill and Dave had two silent partners that cannot be overlooked.
During these first two seminal years, Lucile and Flora, Bill’s fiancé and then wife, made crucial contributions to the success of the company as well. With Lucile’s job at Stanford and Flora’s job as an editor of the Annual Review of Biochemistry, the two women became the full-time wage earners. It was largely their incomes that funded the company in the early years and afforded a stable financial base that the assorted part-time jobs Bill and Dave took on could supplement.
Demonstrating true cooperative spirit, the Packard’s sturdy Wedgewood kitchen stove was offered up to be used as the paint baking shop. Their living room served as the meeting hall and their dining room to double as the first office. During these early days, the dining room table held all the company paperwork, financial ledgers and a typewriter, crucial tools for Lucile, who was also doubling as HP’s first secretary and bookkeeper.
That same year, when Bill and Flora married, HP’s business office expanded from Lucile’s kitchen table to Bill’s former bunkhouse. It was just large enough for a used desk - Lu’s parents had given it to Dave as a gift - and a file case. Lucile and Flora worked together and shared office work to be done when they weren’t working at their day jobs.
Harvey Zieber was soon added to the company salary, and with the hiring of a second employee, Bill Girdner, the company outgrew the garage. Operations were moved to a rented building at 481 Page Mill Road (currently an AT&T Wireless store).
Preceding the arrival of Dave and Lucile’s firstborn, the Packards departed the three-room flat on Addison Avenue and moved to Barron Park, another Palo Alto neighborhood.
Rehabilitation Kit - Archival records and photographs play an important role in recreating the Addison Avenue property much as it would have been in 1938-1939.
Sometime after 1942, possibly in response to a severe housing shortage created by the second World War and the influx of post-war students, the house was renumbered 367 (369 was dropped) and was further divided into four or possibly five apartments. Mrs. Spencer departed Palo Alto to live with daughter, Martha, in Washington state just a few months prior to her death in 1944.
County tax records list Maud J. Tupman and H.E. Brown as subsequent owners. A series of remodels in 1952, 1956 and 1957 enclosed the porches, replaced original windows, and added walls, bathrooms and kitchens. With each remodel, the house’s original character was muddled, damaged or further obscured, and it continued to deteriorate.
In the late 1960s, as the Palo Alto Clinic - a physician partnership founded in the 1930s and one of the country’s first group medical practices - grew, and “old” Palo Alto declined, all of Block 25 seemed fated for the wrecking ball. The clinic bought up the entire block and was planning to erect a multi-story hospital that would loom over the surrounding residential area. Fortunately - and due in no small part to the foresight and efforts of concerned Palo Alto citizens - the project failed to win city approval and was abandoned.
The garage and property once again changed hands in the early 1970s when William Reller acquired them and undertook yet another remodel to comply with city zoning. This time, Reller reduced the number of apartments and created a duplex. Once again the 367 and 369 numbering appeared on the mailboxes.
In 1984, the future of the house and garage were once again in question. A tenant in the house contacted HP to tell them that a change of owners might once again be afoot and the garage might be in danger. Concerned Palo Alto citizens, along with HP employees and management, spearheaded an effort to landmark the property and ensure the permanent protection of the now famous garage in its original location.
By 1985, the garage, house and shed were named Category I City landmarks by the Palo Alto Historic Resources Board. It took another two years and substantial effort for the garage at 367 Addison Avenue to be granted California State Historic Landmark status. The house and shed went along for the ride, so to speak, although they do not have state landmark status. The house remained a rental until HP acquired the property from Reller in 2000.
Bill and Dave briefly returned to the garage in 1989 for its official dedication as California Historic landmark No. 976. The garage was slightly spruced up with a coat of new paint for the occasion. A mission-style plaque proclaiming the spot as “Birthplace of Silicon Valley” was unveiled on the same day.
A photograph of the lifelong friends peering back into the humble garage where it all began is one of the more touching and beloved images captured on that occasion. Characteristic of the two partners, their response to the fanfare was modest. It was, after all, just a garage.
The view from space - Tucked back from the lush, tree-lined surroundings is the humble garage where a revolution took root.
Finally, in 2005 - as the house enters its centennial year - the little garage on Addison Avenue and its surroundings will receive the tender loving care that symbols of HP’s heritage so richly deserve.
The garage where Dave and Bill helped to set a revolution in motion will be structurally reinforced, period windows will be restored, and sidings and roof will be repaired and replaced. The little shed, where Bill dreamed his dreams of innovation and contribution, will get an extreme makeover and will look much as it did when he was there. The house, to the degree that it can be, will be rehabilitated to capture the look and feel of the days when Dave and Lucile trod its hardwood floors.
A Snapshot in Time Markers of culture 1938-1939
Playing at theaters
- “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn
- “Gone With the Wind,” with Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable
- “The Wizard of Oz,” with Judy Garland
- “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” — Disney feature animation
Stanford student slang
- “Fave” — shortening of the word favorite
- “Hep cat” or “hipster” — an enthusiast of jazz and swing music
- “Moola” – money (something in short supply in the height of the economic depression)
- “Snit” — state or agitation or being of bad temper
- Superman, the Man of Steel, makes his debut in Action Comics in 1939
- The Saturday Evening Post is delivered to subscribers’ doorsteps. Cost: Five cents
- The New York Yankees win the World Series
- Robert Kane introduces the Batman comic character
Science and technology
- Ernest O. Lawrence wins the Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of the cyclotron
- General Motors begins mass production of diesel engines
- DuPont promotes its first nylon product — a toothbrush
- Dave and Bill launch their fledgling enterprise based in a garage on Addison Avenue