Technology

Where Tech Got Its Start


The early quarters of tech giants like Hewlett-Packard and Apple could be must-see tourist spots for your grandkids

At first glance, there's nothing special about the garage at 367 Addison Ave. in Palo Alto, Calif.: four walls, a roof, barn door, and a modest workbench. But for the thousands of tourists that stream by there each week, it's a shrine: This is the spot where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard hatched Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) in 1938. Unwittingly, the two established the region of California now called Silicon Valley as a cradle of innovation—and the garage set the standard for countless technology startups.

It's this legacy that the U.S. National Park Service honored in May, when it named the HP garage to its National Register of Historic Places. Other important sites in tech history, such as Thomas Edison's lab in Edison, N.J., and AT&T's (T) Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., have made the list, but this is the first landmark with direct ties to the modern computing age. "The invention of computing and networking will have such an enormous impact on life for centuries, and people are starting to recognize how incredibly important all that work was," says Bruce Damer, curator of DigiBarn, a computer museum in Boulder Creek, Calif.

It's still too early for other historic spots in Silicon Valley, many just down the street from the HP garage, to land on the National Register. To be designated as an Historic Place, the significant event needs to have occurred at least 50 years ago and the players behind it can't still be active in the field. The key consideration, according to National Register historian Paul Lusignan, is: "Do we have enough perspective from the event to evaluate its significance?"

Paul Allen's Albuquerque Adventure

List or not, there's more than one garage on the magical technology tour. In 1975, Steve Wozniak dropped out of the University of California at Berkeley to build computers with former co-worker Steve Jobs. Jobs' dad unloaded the car-restoration equipment from the garage in their Los Altos (Calif.) home to give them a rudimentary workshop. There, Woz and Jobs founded Apple Computer (AAPL) and built their first personal computer, the Apple I, in 1976. Though the Apple garage remains part of a private residence, it's become a regular sightseeing stop.

There are, of course, historic tech spots outside of California. Bill Gates and Paul Allen are rumored to have slept nights on the floor of the MITS building in Albuquerque, as they worked tirelessly to refine Altair BASIC, the software that would help the Altair 8800 pioneer the personal computing revolution. Altair BASIC was distributed by MITS in 1975, and Gates and Allen left the company the following year to start a business called Microsoft (MSFT).

MITS would be sold to Pertec Computers in 1977 and shut down by 1980. There are no plans to preserve the original site: It's now a parking lot. But Allen donated $5 million to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science to open the STARTUP Gallery, an exhibition paying homage to Albuquerque's role in microcomputing that opened last year.

For today's HP, the recognition as a Historic Place is a happy reward for years of work. The company purchased the property for $1.7 million in 2000 and meticulously restored it to its original condition by 2005. "[Hewlett and Packard] left nothing at the property. When they moved, they took everything with them," says HP archivist Anna Mancini. "We were lucky to have several photos of how it looked originally." One such touch of authenticity was a used Sears Craftsman drill press nearly identical to the one utilized by Hewlett and Packard to create their first audio oscillator. HP doesn't mind the lines of parked cars and sidewalk photographers outside, but it has no plans to permanently open the garage to the public.

Although Google (GOOG) still has to wait a long time before any of its facilities might qualify as historic places, that hasn't stopped founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin from trying to preserve their place in history. Last October, they purchased the home where Google found its first digs: a garage in Menlo Park, Calif., rented for $1,700 a month. At the time, the company told reporters that it plans to "preserve the property as a part of our living legacy."

For a look at historic birthplaces of technology, check out BusinessWeek's slide show.

MacMillan is a reporter at BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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