Sunday, November 30, 2008

8 or 9 Oscillators -- Who Cares?

Since 1964, the "official story" from HP has been that the Walt Disney company provided the first order for Hewlett's inventive Audio Oscillator, to make the sound track for Fantasia; done with 8 oscillators that sold each for $71.50. This story was continued in Packard's autobiography, and embellished in Mike Malone's "Bill 'n Dave" biography last year.

Malone used the $71.50 pricing to demonstrate that Packard was always an efficient business-oriented profit-making leader, and that he had allowed Hewlett indulgence on the price due to the Oregon Territory war motto about "54:40 or fight".

The shift was in the internal HP magazine, Measure, at the 25th anniversary. Until then in company literature, it had been 9 oscillators, the original price for the first units was $54.50 each, and the Disney order was the first "high volume" order. While we found this discrepancy early, we couldn't reconcile it for quite a while.

Our research re the original order (helped materially by Alan Bagley) found that the Disney order was the third order for oscillators from HP, for $57.50 each for nine units, up $3.00 over the base price for the units shipped first to Stanford and Caltech, and the next one after Disney which went to MIT. The extra $3.00 bought two changes -- a bigger capacitor which moved the frequency range down to 20 cycles (from 30), and put a rack mount front cover on the machine. The price didn't go up to $71.50 for another year and a half, belying Malone's view of Packard's prescience.

Corroborating evidence was overwhelming, once the journal entry and some newspaper coverage of the day was discovered during the Dave and Lucile Packard museum exhibit in Los Altos. Oddly, though, the company which has prided itself on measurement accuracy all these years, had "no comment" and the only word from the PR group was an emeritus note which said "I vote for eight, but keep me posted". Ironically, the 50th anniversary issue evoked a letter from the man who sold the units, sent directly to Hewlett, which referenced the "nine". The man himself was mentioned, and his description of the sale, but the number was conveniently omitted.

Other topics in our manuscript generated much heat and invective on occasion, especially from participants. But this one failed to generate much buzz, and in fact, the coup de grace was delivered by one oldtimer, whose cryptic quote was "really, does anyone care whether the number of oscillators sold to Disney was 8 or 9?"

Another oldtimer, probably the toughest manuscript reviewer for correctness and detail over three years of our book preparation, said "I guess it is important to get it right, but it doesn't seem all that important. Legends have a way of getting embellished and botched up."

And then, ironically, after no feedback for four months on the manuscript this summer, HP Public Relations "experts" tried to stop the book on the basis that it had lots of "major inaccuracies" -- it would have been helpful if they could have specified even one error, but they deigned to do so, saying ominously that "all errors had to be fixed". They went on to add more severe threats, about "illegal use of confidential information" but the one table they cited had been given to us by them with the request that we use it because earlier writers had gotten it wrong!

So, the evidence to us at the moment is that at HP, factual history doesn't matter much more than culture, although it is fun to imagine that there still is an HP Way and that the mythology is still intact for Disney's sale.

No comments: