Any electronics engineer or technical person you speak to will know about Hewlett-Packard (HP) test equipment. And many of them will talk nostalgically of a certain item they have owned or worked with. I’m certainly like that. Whenever I see or hear of HP test equipment I get a kind of warm fuzzy feeling. When you used a piece of HP gear, you knew it would do its job superbly, and usually be easy to get to grips with. And most techie tragics like me will know the story of how Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started off in a garage in Palo Alto in California. There’s even been a book about it: Bill and Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company by Michael S. Malone. Max Maxfield has done an excellent review of it. I’m ashamed to say I have not read it yet, but it is on my “must read before I die” list.
Anyway, I saw an article recently with a link to the Antiques Roadshow website, about a guy who picked up an original HP 200D audio oscillator, one of HP’s first products, for $25 at a Santa Cruz flea market – it doesn’t say when but must have been the early ‘90s. He had worked at HP and managed to get it signed by both the great men. There’s a couple of pics and a video of the show segment (in 2009) where he had it valued – at $7000 to 9000. Not a bad return, if he wanted to sell it, though it does not say whether he did. I don’t think I would have done. Although some of the screws are showing a bit of rust, you can see the legendary build quality of HP equipment in this simple oscillator. The knobs are all solid and the frequency scale and switches look as if they were custom made for it.
There’s another interesting site which has a bit of a “potted history” of HP, along with a photo and a circuit diagram of the original 200A oscillator. Bill Hewlett came up with the idea of using an incandescent light bulb in the feedback path as a variable resistance to stabilise the output amplitude of the oscillator, a technique which you can see used in almost any audio oscillator circuit you can find now.
HP’s line of engineering calculators in the 80s were also legendary. I had the good fortune to own a 45 and later a 33E programmable. In true HP fashion they did things differently, using Reverse Polish Logic (RPL) to enter and operate on numbers. But once you got used to it, you realized how powerful it was, and how easy it made some tricky calculations.
I was recently given an HP RF signal generator model 8640B. It goes up to 512 MHZ and has a built in frequency counter which can either read the generator or an external frequency. When I fired it up everything appeared to work perfectly but it had no output. I suspect someone has transmitted into it in the past. It’s in my list of things to fix on rainy days…
Another one of my favourite HP stories is about a guy who worked at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and found a 50-year old HP counter in a dumpster in the rain. He dried it off, powered it up….and it worked! The counter is of 1963 vintage, almost entirely made with discrete transistors, and yet has a plug in that enables it to work up to 3 GHz, and BCD outputs for interface to a computer. In 1963! Nothing illustrates HP quality, reliability and innovation better than this story I think. There are plenty of pictures for those of you who (like me) get off on stuff like this (one included below). And if you are, be warned, this guy is a tinkerer and has a very distracting web site…. I did post this link in Max’s book review as a comment, so forgive me if you have seen it before.
Max’s “That was tricky:” series recently had an article about two guys who managed to get the use of the faculty’s HP logic analyser for their undergraduate project. This had a touch screen based on x-ray finger detection!
Max’s article also has a story about his first contact with HP, and some comments from people who worked at HP. It sounds like it would have been a great place to work. Bill and Dave’s style of Management by Walking Around (MBWA) is a far cry from today’s lean mean enterprises run by greedy idiots with MBAs. And HP itself is a different company now from the one that built all that great test equipment. HP now makes computers and the test equipment is now made by Agilent. Nice stuff, but “Agilent” doesn’t have the same ring as “HP” did. Ah, the good old days….. I hope some of you with good HP stories (about working there or about their equipment) will post them below.
About the Author
David Ashton on David Ashton: I’m not sure what I am….. I was born in London, UK, raised and trained and worked in Rhodesia, then Zimbabwe, and I now live in Australia. (So I’m a Pom-Rhodie-Zimbo-Aussie??) Work-wise it's much the same. I have run electronics labs and managed telecoms centres, run my own comms business, and I am now working as a telecoms specialist keeping a large comms network going. I’m a jack of all trades, and yes, admit I’m master of none, but I kinda like it that way. It makes it difficult to get bored.