In a musty garage at 367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto, Calif., in 1938, two chaps — William Hewlett and David Packard — built an audio oscillator, the HP200A. Later, they sold eight of them to Walt Disney Studios to certify the sound systems in theaters that would feature the first major film released in stereophonic sound, “Fantasia.” The results: The birth of Silicon Valley and the creation of an enduring myth about innovation.
Soon, others piled on. Apple. Cisco. Intel. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. They “represent” millionaire inventors and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes not by getting their hands dirty with government assistance, but by rolling up their sleeves, sequestering themselves in their mythic garages, and spinning brilliant products that would change the modern world.
But here’s the problem: none of it is really true.
As Argonne National Laboratory director Eric Isaacs remarked in Slate.com in May, “As Americans, we tend to embrace the notion that a brilliant inventor doesn’t need much more than a garage, a sturdy workbench, and a dream…our inventor-heroes have been popularly viewed as single-combat warriors working feverishly in a basement or some other threadbare den of solitude.”
The reality, of course, is that even Messrs. Hewlett and Packard benefited from critical assistance via the federal science enterprise in garnering their vast technological fortune. “It’s certainly true that Hewlett and Packard began building their first commercial audio oscillators inside that historic garage. But the prototype of those oscillators was built in the laboratory of Stanford University electrical engineering professor Frederick Terman,” Isaacs wrote. “And Packard later wrote that many of those early devices were built using technical equipment at an engineering lab owned by a friend, an engineer and entrepreneur named Charles Litton. So while that Palo Alto garage may be a legendary landmark for the IT industry, Hewlett-Packard would not have been possible without its founders’ access to state-of-the-art engineering labs.”