William “Bill” Hewlett (May 20, 1913 – January 12, 2001) was an American engineer and a true pioneer of modern computing in every sense of the word.
Best known as one half of the founding duo behind Hewlett-Packard, Bill Hewlett’s expertise as an engineer still influences modern technology today. In fact, Hewlett has been involved with many world-renowned brands and influential people. These include working on movies during the golden age of Disney animation in the 30s and 40s, and even taking a chance on another young engineer years later — a man by the name of Steve Jobs.
There’s no question that Bill Hewlett’s legacy lies in Hewlett-Packard (or HP for short).
But Bill Hewlett’s skillset extended way beyond computers. In fact, his earliest work actually had more to do with a cartoon mouse and one of history’s first motion pictures: the 1940 classic, Disney’s Fantasia.
How does Hewlett connect to Disney?
It was Bill’s invention, the HP200A audio oscillator, that sealed the deal. Walt Disney Studios’ chief sound engineer, Bud Hawkins, bought eight audio oscillators from the burgeoning Hewlett-Packard, to test sound equipment for Disney movies. This made the HP200A audio oscillator the first financially successful product produced by HP.
Bill Hewlett also served as a signal corps officer during World War II. Here he utilized his expertise in electrical engineering to head up the electronics section of the development division. After the war, Bill continued his work with HP, becoming president of the company from 1964 to 1977, and serving as CEO from 1968 to 1978.
Hewlett’s impact on a young Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, is well worth a mention, too.
12-year-old Jobs found Hewlett’s phone number in the phone book (those were the days!) and asked him, quite directly, for parts to use in a project he was working on. Hewlett was so impressed by the young engineer’s enthusiasm that he gave him a job assembling frequency counters. And who knows where Apple would be today if he hadn’t!
Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded one of the most successful computer companies in the world. Let’s revisit some of their shared histories:
Early 1930s: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard met while studying electrical engineering at Stanford University in Palo Alto, where they both graduated in 1935.
1938: As part of a fellowship with a professor from Stanford, Hewlett and Packard began working — now iconically — from a garage in Palo Alto.
1939: The duo decided to found a company together. Famously, to decide on the name of the company, they tossed a coin to decide the order of their names. And thus Hewlett-Packard was born. 1939 was also the year the company secured its first financial success with their audio oscillators contract at Walt Disney Studios.
1939 - 1945: During World War II, the company worked on anti-radar technologies and fuses for artillery shells. This meant that Packard was allowed to skip the draft, but Hewlett was not.
1960s: After World War II, Hewlett-Packard became pioneers of the semiconductor — a move that would eventually lead to the foundation of Silicon Valley as we know it today. In 1968, Packard actually became the US deputy secretary of defense, under President Nixon, passing the CEO position to Hewlett.
1970s: Throughout both the 60s and the 70s, HP continued to produce cutting-edge computer products for home and business use. Originally sold as "desktop calculators", these would eventually evolve into modern-day desktop computers.
1980s: HP introduced the inkjet and laser printer, as well as the concept of the scanner. In 1986, HP registered their website, HP.com, becoming the 9th "dot com" ever created.
1990s - 2000s: HP continued to produce home computing products to great success. Although the software capabilities of new kids on the block, Apple or Microsoft, took some of the limelight. Notably, both original founders, Bill Hewlett and David Packard stepped down from the board of directors in 1992.
2010s - today: HP acquired a couple of well-known brands, including Compaq and Palm. After some turbulent times on the stock market, the company eventually rebranded as "HP Inc" in 2015.
We can’t speak of Hewlett or Packard without also mentioning a defining characteristic of their business: the "HP Way".
You can learn much more about the "HP Way", Bill Hewlett, and the Hewlett-Packard story in the 1995 book The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, but if you’re new to the concept, these are the "CliffNotes".
The "HP Way" refers to the ethos and philosophy by which Hewlett and Packard ran their company. From day one, they wanted to build a business that was focused on its people first — not its products or its customers. The result was a workforce who truly cared about the business, their coworkers, and, by natural extension, the product.
It was also the "HP Way" that inspired Steve Jobs to "think different" about the way he ran his own business. Steve often referred to HP as one of the few companies that were "built to last, not just to make money".