William Hewlett was a multitalented man: botanist, rancher, outdoor enthusiast, and outstanding engineer whose contribution to analytic instrument making is second to none. Hewlett was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he earned a B.A. at Stanford University (where he met David Packard) and a master’s in electrical engineering at MIT. In 1938 he returned to Stanford for another engineering degree; it was then that he and Packard decided to go into business.
Hewlett wanted to build an oscillator that would be lightweight, portable, and simple to construct, but it also had to combine the stability of a coil-condenser-type oscillator and the flexibility of a standard beat-frequency oscillator. Working out of Packard’s garage in Palo Alto, California, Hewlett designed a revolutionary audio oscillator that used a simple light bulb to act as a negative feedback element in the oscillator circuit. With the bulb partially on, its strength increases or decreases to offset any unwanted variations in the oscillator’s signal, allowing the device to maintain a nearly constant output over its operating range. The 200A, the first practical instrument for generating high-quality audio frequencies, became the first of many outstanding products from Hewlett-Packard. Walt Disney bought eight audio oscillators for use in the making of his groundbreaking film Fantasia.
During World War II, Hewlett served on the staff of the U.S. Army’s chief signal officer and then headed the electronics section of the New Development Division of the War Department’s special staff; in this capacity he was part of the team that inspected Japanese industries immediately after the war. In 1947 he returned to California and rejoined Hewlett-Packard as vice president. When he retired forty years later, he had been executive vice president, president, CEO, chairman of the executive committee, and vice chairman of the board of directors. The long tenure of both Hewlett and Packard enabled Hewlett-Packard to become one of the largest companies of its kind in the world.
Hewlett was also influential in scientific education and was prominent in many organizations in the electronics industry. He was president of the Institute of Radio Engineers (now the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and served as a director of such diverse institutions as Stanford University, the Kaiser Foundation Hospital and Health Plan, and the Drug Abuse Council.
Hewlett received many honors, including membership in the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences; he was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a trustee of the California Academy of Sciences. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science.
Hewlett (right) and Packard developing their first product in a Palo Alto, California, garage in 1939. Courtesy of Hewlett-Packard.