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 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?)
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 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.