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.
I was hired by HP as a Production Engineer in 1965 in Loveland CO. One of the products I was responsible for was the 200CD. In those days it wass literally raw material to finished product. It seems to me that we made everything in Loveland except the basic electronic components.
I enjoyed many years working as a design engineer at HP. One of best projects was working on a new full-custom CMOS chipset at the calculator division in Corvallis, Oregon. We could do it all in those days because the standard-cell approach wasn't around yet or suitable. We created our schematics and simulated them with HP Spice and proprietary logic simulators. We could walk over to the CMOS process engineer's desk and discuss spice parameters nuances, or discuss bus contention detection with the guy that wrote the logic simulator. We could even do our own CMOS layout and netlist extraction and verification. We could wear a "bunny suit" and enter the CMOS fab to watch our wafers be processed, and manually probe them at a probe station to verify internal circuit operation. HP created as many as 7 full-custom ASICs for a new architecture in those days and the teamwork was amazing. I learned so much from the high caliber people I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with. I also witnessed some of the most amazing assembly language code reviews. In those days of 1MHz CPU clocks and 4KB SRAM chips every cycle and byte mattered. During a code review you could hear one engineer tell another: "if you move instruction XXX before instruction YYY you can eliminate instruction ZZZ saving two bytes and three clocks"! We also frequently heard from customers whose calculators had survived amazing destruction, including one from a bombing in Ireland. It was grand engineering on this scale that is the legacy for things like the HP-35, HP-41 and HP-48. I am sure hundreds of lucky engineers like me participated in a similarly fulfilling engineering environment at other HP Divisions around the country. It was truly the best of days!
I have to admit, once you've used the original built-like-tanks HP test equipment, nothing else seems to measure up.
But hey, leaving that aside, I'm intrigued by your bio. I'm curious about accents. To my admittedly not hyper-trained ear, English spoken in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia and South Africa especially, sounds quite similar. And not too different from English spoken in Australia and New Zealand.
So here's my question. If I may ask, when you moved to Oz, did everyone notice your accent and ask about it, or not? (Or perhaps you fooled them all, and me, by sounding like a yank?)
Hi Bert. Accents...right... My Aussie friends say I'll never sound like an Aussie, but my mom says I do sound like one. The Zimbabwean and South African accents are similar, but if you've lived in either you'll know the difference...like USA and Canada, or Australia and NZ. I could never pick the difference between Aussie and NZ till I came here, now I can do it straight away. The South African accent sounds a bit like NZ in some respects. I can still probably put on a better SA accent than an Aussie one. When I have to introduce myself at functions or training courses, I always say "I'm from Zimbabwe, which is why all you guys talk funny" - Aussies have a good enough sense of humour not to take offence.
I once phoned a guy here that I didn't know from a bar of soap, and within 10 seconds I said "You're Zimbabwean, right?" and I was. I guess I learned something in the 43 years I was there....
Was wondering where you'd heard me...but it would have been Max's geiger counter video, right?
Like David I have a Zimbabwean accent. My favourite story was back in 1992 I phoned someone in California to mail me some data (no email, web sites and fax wasn't really clear). I gave my name and address and finished off with "Ontario, Canada". The voice on the other side countered with
"well, that explains the accent"!
You're right....does smell bad. A bit of fossicking around on the net leads me to suspect that this is an HP 16500B. I found a user guide and a service manual on Agilent's site (as an aside, Agilent do seem very good about keeping a lot of HP manuals available) but nothing in them confirms how the touch screen works. It's a pretty low res touch screen so I wouldn't think anything more than IR leds and detectors would be needed. However I did note that this equipment does have a colour CRT display and those are know to produce X-rays, maybe this is what the warning was about, but I couldn't find any reference to that in the HP docs either. Sorry, my bad, should have researched this a bit better. (And not believed everything I read in one of Max's posts ;-)
I attribute my engineering degree to the HP-35. While everyone else was pushing their slide rules around, I managed to find an extra 20 minutes in the exam. I still have it and some of the books that described the algorithms to resolve complex (not imaginary) calculations.
When they released the HP35S about 3 years ago, I just had to buy one. It is much closer to the HP61 because of the programmability and key functionality. Sort of resembles the 35 as much as the new Mini car resembles the old one.
I must say though, after my recent acquisitions of HP printers and scanners I don't think the HP quality is still there. See my thoughts here
I had a problem once - I got a design for a sine wave generator using an 8-bit shift register that has inverted feedback - ie it fills up with 1's then fills up with 0's. You dimension the resistors off the outputs so that at each point the resistors divide the 1's and 0's to the right voltage at that point on the sine wave. Only problem was, I wanted a 10-bit shift register. So had to redimension all the resistors. I worked out a program to do it on my 33E. It involved quadratic equations but with RPL and the stack they are easy. I was sorting thru some old articles the other day and came across my original hand written notes on this. The program only just fitted into memory (think it was max 50 steps?) but it worked just fine.
I bought an HP45 in January 1974 during 3rd year EE. It cost $495 CAD and thanks to the polar\rectangular conversion function it quickly paid for itself doing 3-phase and RLC analysis. I still have it and it runs (mostly) The battery pack is long gone (although it will run off the original wall wart) the zero key occasionally bounces and the battery door no longer latches.
It got so much use that to this day my muscle memory has me going for the wrong keys on my HP32Sii!
I had to replace the NiCds on my 45 before it finally gave up the ghost, they are standard AA NiCds but you have to do a bit of careful work opening up the plastic housing to replace them, and solder wires onto the new cells if you can't get tagged ones.
I have several pieces of late 60's through end of 1970's HP equipment. I call them "infinitely repairable" instruments because they generally used discrete transistors, or at most complex, very basic op amps and TTL chips. I guarantee you this fact alone accounts for their longevity and reliability.
Any problem I have ever found in these instruments concerns the silver coloured electrolytic capacitors they used, which short. Sprague was the manufacturer in most cases.
And David, there is likely nothing wrong with your 8640B except a blown fuse on the generator output. A picofuse most likely, they fused the output on many instruments to protect the output stage.
Re the calculators: When I was in Jr. High, I wanted an HP-35. In High school, I wanted the 45, and when it came out, the 55. When I was a freshman in college, I actually bought a 29C from an ad in Scientific American. I really loved that calculator, but I had difficulty (several failed attempts) replacing the battery, and eventually sold it to a collector on eBay for about 50% more than I paid for it in the first place.
Today I have a 48G on my desk. Unlike the 29C, which I knew backwards and forwards, I can only use about 10% of the capabilities of this amazing machine. I just wish the build quality matched the 29C...
Anyone who has an interest in HP calculators might enjoy a trip to www.hpmuseum.org. There's even sections on slide rules and the Curta "pepper grinder".
Oh, goodness, too many HP test equipment stories to tell but here is just one. I am now retired and I have a number of old'ish HP test equipment around. A couple of months ago, I pulled an HP-120B oscilloscope off the shelf where it had been languishing for 20+ years.
I had a two fold objective: get it working so I could use it to fix my Tektronix 465 o'scope and then to be able to sell it. The HP120B is a (mostly) vacuum tube beast dating from the mid-1050s. I put it on the bench and used a variac to bring it up over a 12 hour period. I rotated the controls and spritzed them with suitable cleaner. As the variac reached 90V, the old HP120 started to come to life and, after more than 20 years, it was soon working much it did '..back in the day..' After using it to find my problem, I then sold it to another electronics guy down south. Fantastic but not totally unexpected. They build them good!
@"...dating from the mid-1050s"
Goodness - I didn't know they'd been going THAT long... ;-)
Typos aside, another good story illustrating the quality of the old HP stuff. Sorry, I'm not clear, which one did you sell, the HP or the 465? I have fond memories of the 465...the first scope I ever used...as a radio tech in the Rhodesian police. Our comms were 40 MHz AM, so you could look at the TX output directly on a sniffer port of our dummy load. Damn good scopes, Tektronix is a close second to HP in my opinion, but they only really made scopes in those days, unlike HP who made pretty much everything.
I remember vaguely that HP long ago used advertise about one of their Fiber Optic test instrument with a story "one that got away".
It was about an instrument that was stolen off a truck and submerged in a North US lake for 3 years and worked fine are it was accidently found.
Anybody recollect the details?
I was thinking about the exact same story!
HP actually used the story as a full page ad in the 90's. I may still have the old EE magazine with it or at least that one page.
It's been a while ago but the sory went something like this. The box was stolen and the equipment was probably too specialized for the thief to easily sell, so the gear ended up dumped in a lake or river. An angler hooked it and snagged his line on it a couple of years later - that's how it was found. The box went back to the HP calibration lab and the guy there dried it out. He was thinking of cleaning it out but then thought, what the heck, let's see first if it works at all. He powered the box up and it not only worked but it was operating fully within specs.
I don't much like advertisements but I loved that ad!
I was totally dumbfounded when the HP name went to the computer company and T&M became "Agilent". It should've been the other way round.
The decision on HP vs. Agilent was pretty simple. It was determined that it would be much easier to retrain the relatively small number of engineers who used test equipment, rather than the great masses of people who used HP printers and/or computers. I'm a 30+ year employee of HP/Agilent and still love my job.
Hewlett Packard quality was also legendary in the medical equipment they used to make. I started my career as a Biomedical Equipment Tech in 1973. The hospital that hired me had just purchased HP monitors for a newly built ICU/CCU.
At one time HP owned over 80% of the medical monitoring business in the US. Then they split the medical and the test equiment divisions into the Agilent era and after a couple of years they sold the medical part to Philips. In our ER we have some monitors that have the Hewlett Packard name, some that have Agilent and some that have Philips. Same model same quality. Two clinical engineers came to work us because we had Hewlett Packard monitors house-wide. They knew they were not going to get a lot of middle of the night call-ins. We never had to get new equipment because the old was failing.
HP always tried to make their new models backwards compatible too. A great company that in my opinion made some very unwise decisions.
I'm a young fella who works on his own. I still have my HP 41CX as well as my TI-58C. Still use them. My bench is almost entirely HP except for the scope. I have a 1722A I want to restore, as well as an 3586B (received with destroyed regulator card - what battery did it use?). I treasure each piece, from a 6236A I've had forever to the 34401A I also bought new. The latest prize is a 4195A (with test set, used of course) I'm learning to use fully. What people don't see from the front panels are the entire set of functions available. Even the old 428B DC clamp current meter is an amazing piece of equipment. It's tube based and works more than "fine". This older gear is still fantastic. Too bad most of it hits the scrap or re-sellers, instead of the people who actually need it. Even the "working" equipment" I've bought was no-op, from larger companies that re-sell test gear through Eeek! -bay.
I love restoring HP equipment, and the work is always well worth the effort.
As for which way the trademarks went ... I agree. Computers and printers need that trusted name I guess. The Agilent name is creating those same trusted followers that HP forged. I hope the computer guys don't mess it up!
You're a lucky man indeed (and smart, obviously!) I have always been astounded by the range of equipment that HP produces. Tektronix, for example, have always made superb scopes, but HP made superb -everything-. As you've pointed out, you could equip an entire lab with HP equipment and there would be very few requirements you could not fill with their gear. Many thanks for the comment.
Most of my AF & RF test equipment is RCA in-house (we had a small division that made test equipment for the various divisions, including TV & appliance field service) & Heathkit, handed down to me by my Uncle Chazz, with my Heath vacuum tube tester -- still working! -- a hand-me-down from *his* father!
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