Some HP CPD history - from one point of view

Lee A. White

My sincerest thanks to all of you for your kind comments about the mechanical design of the 9845. At the time I understood fully how advanced this machine was going to be. I am pretty sure every one of the project engineers walked out of the meeting where they got their assignments with the same thought - now just how the hell am I supposed to do that! We knew this machine was going to advance the state of the art in calculators (desk top computers). We ere aware that if we succeeded we would set a new standard and leave all the competition far behind., and we were driven by the challenge to get it done. It never really occurred to me then or since that this machine would have such an impact on those who would actually use it. That it would be a new tool and that it would enable others to do other great things in their own disciplines because it existed for then to use do those great things with. That thought is priceless. I thank you all for making that clear. It is a new perspective.
So far as the hierarchy and MEs being somewhat under appreciated - it was just how it was. HP was an electronics company and EEs ruled. As a physicist first, I saw myself as at least their equal, so I never got my nose out of joint too much. Generally speaking you were treated well except when it came to spending money.  It was a bit irritating to see a EE ask for and get God awful expensive state of the art equipment without any hesitation or any need to explain, and then have to beg for an electric  drill and some drill bits. EEs had work benches full of equipment to do their work. MEs had to go down the hall to the other end of a very long building, down the stairs and over to the machine shop, fill out a work order, and then wait until the shop got around to doing it! The shop's main objective was producing production parts and maintaining production machinery and tooling. Design engineers could wait. It was difficult to meet impossible project schedules when that was your only option. We ask for but never got a work area with a bench and a vise and a bench grinder and maybe a drill press and a band saw. That would have cost less than one good scope, but it never happened. I had all of those at home, so I often took work home and did it there. I was a pretty good machinist myself and with time I was granted access to the shop's machines. When one was open, I could go use it and do my own work.
Why would a physicist/engineer go down to the shop and do machinist work? Well, it was something of a product of the HP culture. HP had a Management By Objectives culture (MBO - per management guru Peter Drucker - he wrote the book - literally!). You were expected to sit down with your supervisor, set and agree to objectives, go do the work necessary to meet them, and come back in a month and report on your progress against those objectives. On my first day at work this system was laid out and I was told quite bluntly "and that progress report is supposed to be just that - a report on your progress - not a search for it." And that "Progress is not a list of all the problems you found and all the excuses for why you did not get it done! It is a report of HOW YOU SOLVED THEM AND OVER CAME THEM!" My boss made it clear that this was a results oriented culture and that I would be judged on the results I achieved, not on the difficulty of getting them or the effort I had put into trying. It was also made clear that being late on a drawing because drafting was "backed up" was not an acceptable excuse either. That was an anticipatable occurrence and if a drawing was critical - it was my job to know the backlog in drafting and get it turned in ahead of time or to make arrangements before the fact to get expedited handling. Understandable reasons for failure were not acceptable substitutions for progress. So, if you needed parts now - not when the shop could get around to it - you rolled up your sleeves and made them yourself. Some guys even had bed rolls under their work benches so they could get a quick nap when pulling several all nighters in a row. If you were in the critical path, you did what ever it took. Not because you were afraid of getting fired, but because you did not want to let your buddies down and because you were compelled to prove to yourself that you were up to anything they could throw at you. Your boss didn't have to drive you, the schedule drove you and you drove yourself.
It wasn't all work and no play. When you were on schedule and things were going well, you could take an afternoon off and go soaring because the weather was good that day. On rare days when weather was poor and cloud ceilings were low and there was no ice in them, you knew who the instrument rated pilots were because they were all gone - all up flying in ACTUAL INSTRUMENT WEATHER. On the first day of hunting season - it was Colorado after all - there were lots of empty chairs. It was that kind of a place. Work hours were flexible too. Everyone was expected to be there during certain core hours, but arrival and lunch and departure times were flexible within bounds. There were no time clocks, you were expected to be responsible. If you were good enough to work there, you were good enough to trust. So, they did not keep track of how many rolls of tape or pliers, or whatever you checked out of stores - you were trusted. There was no trash on the floors or graffiti on the rest rooms walls either - HP did not hire that kind of person.
They did hire the kind of engineer who had lots of interests and who did "private projects". In fact, you were encouraged to do them and HP provided parts to do them with. Lab stores were not locked and no one watched over it. You could go get whatever you needed whenever you needed it. Well, to a point. At one time there was a sign on the lab stores parts cabinets requesting that all engineers limit their withdrawals of static ram chips for "personal projects" to 4 KB per year! Sounds like nothing today but back then you could put an operating system and tiny basic in about 1.2 KB and have the rest for user program space. That was a lot of video memory too at a time when the 9830's 32 character alpha numeric display was better than most computers could muster. One EE designed and had the machine shop make a bicycle pump that also served as the top member of the bicycle frame saving weight on his mountain bike. A couple of EEs were using machine shop lathes and mills after hours to make parts for their BD-5 home built aircraft projects. There were a few extreme stereo projects too. I was given permission and even encouragement to build (and keep) a 9830B and a 9866B from scrap parts and to get replacement chips from lab stores to do it with - if I did the electronic trouble shooting myself! Later, I was given permission to have a set of what were called "in house ROMs". These were NMOS ROMs processed through the Loveland chip fab by an engineer one wafer at a time. These ROMs were used to develop the software for the 9830 and you could do pretty much anything with them, including examining ROM code and resetting the operating system boundary to incorporate new command code in the interpreter itself. They were tightly controlled. I believe I still have those ROMs. I would guess that there was probably a similar set of ROMs for the 9845 that would allow access to and control of both processors and all memory. HP was big on continuing education too - on keeping engineers fresh and current. You were expected to take a continuing education course of some sort that was relevant to your job every year, and your boss was expected to insure that you did - or he was not meeting his objectives! HP had a Video Tape room where you could take courses from Stanford, and there were in house courses and seminars on a pretty regular basis - often by pretty big name presenters. There were even a couple offered at a hotel in the mountains near by - NICE. It was a great place for an engineer to work and to be, but you had to make progress against your objectives so you had something to report each month.
One point is worth mentioning here - failure was not generally punished - unless it was endemic or due to lack of attention or effort. HP expected the impossible and failing to get it on the first try was expected. In fact, I was told on several occasions that if I got it all right the first time they were not asking for enough and I was not being aggressive enough in giving them everything even remotely possible. What was expected was that you exercised good technical judgment and good personal effort and that you persisted until you did succeed. Stupid approaches or half hearted attempts were not going to be well received, but that is not the kind of thing an HPite would do anyway. If he did, he was going to suffer terribly at the hands of his coworkers in the next design review meeting. And that was really for his own good because at some point there was going to be a program review and he and his project team was going to have to stand up in front of and be grilled by Hewlett and Packard and Oliver and they did not suffer fools kindly.
HP had lots of little perks too, Christmas parties and gifts for employees children, clubs for this and that hobby, and a ranch in the mountains with free cabins and a summer employee and family picnic with good food and pony rides and games and live entertainment at the ranch. One summer, the end of the picnic was shadowed by a terrible thunderstorm - a record one in fact - that dumped record amounts of rain on a rocky canyon - something like 8 inches in an hour if I recall correctly. Rock does not absorb water so it all drained down into the Big Thompson Canyon - where the road to the ranch was - right about the time the picnic was ending. The road was clogged with normal traffic to/from the Rocky Mountain National Park at Estes Park and with all the extra HP picnic traffic too . A wall of water rushed down the canyon reaching something like 60 feet and more in places. Over 130 people were killed, many were stranded clinging to sheer rock cliffs over a hundred  feet high, or stranded on what little was left of the road in some high places. Some of us saw the danger and left early escaping the flood waters. I and my family made it out about 10 or 15 minutes before the water did, but many hundreds of people were stranded, road washed out, cliffs un-climbable, and a river raging below! I went in with the rescue teams because I had spent many hours fishing and canoeing and kayaking in the canyon and I knew it well, and I had the gear - the wet suit and helmet and life preserver - and the ability to get in the raging white water and swim across to the other side. I swam with ropes that I could anchor to the other side and that the climbing team could then set up and use to get across to the other side of the raging river at the washed out areas. Climbing the wet cliffs was just too dangerous, but even that was our only option at a couple of points - so we did it. The river wasn't too safe either - tons of debris and washed down timber snags and floating logs and propane tanks that leaked and would hiss and some times explode, and the occasional current driven rolling boulder the size of a car. We spent two days helping survivors and retrieving bodies and body parts. Fortunately, I did not find anyone I knew, or the missing baby. When the weather finally lifted a bit, the Army sent in Chinook helicopters to pull us out. When we got out at the marshalling area - there were the HP engineers. They went to the lab, grabbed a bunch of 9830's and printers and a disk drive, went to the marshalling area, set up the computers, and wrote software and created data bases with names and addresses and phone numbers and relatives names and etc for all the missing and all the accounted for. As I understand it - They were not told to do it and they did not have permission to do it - they just saw it needed to be done and they did it. That is the kind of person that worked for HP. They were not only the best engineers I ever worked with, they were the best people too. At those picnics, the bosses served the food to the employees - and that included the founders too. Hewlett buttered my ear of corn and Packard handed me my steak. When they told you the story about Hewlett and Packard wrestling a line of port-a-potties across the field at the ranch during the picnic - because they thought the toilets were too close to the food lines and needed to be moved - they were telling you about the HP way - and the culture you were joining.
Another element of the culture was celebrating successes - the release party. When a new product design was completed and was release into and accepted by production, the lab had a big party! Project over - time for a good time. Big grills were rolled out on the patio area and food prepared, several trucks rolled up with chips and buns and condiments and etc, and another with kegs and taps. Yep - beer - right there on company property and on company time. It was party time! Everyone celebrated. I mean everyone - not just the project team.
Now, when you put a bunch of high powered guys in a small - close to nothing actually - town pretty far from every where and with little to do in the way of entertainment, they are going to get up to something - like practical jokes. There were the normal things, like gluing the telephone handset into the cradle and then calling some one. When they try to answer they pick up the whole phone. Or removing the microphone element from the telephone handset and then calling them. The guys working on the 9845 switching power supply were dealing with an oscillation that caused a hissing sound for a second or two followed by a big bang from an explosion and venting of the electrolytic capacitors. The smell was really God awful - and it went through the whole lab, so every one was a little irritated. It happened without warning and those guys got a little jumpy, especially since they were usually leaning over it when it blew. So, one guy walked up behind them while they were bent over working intently, made a good replica of the hissing sound, then slammed a book down on a bench top. The PS guys jumped a foot in the air and every one had a good laugh. We had cans of circuit cooler - a spray can filled with refrigerant used to cool chips when looking for intermittent components or testing for thermal drift. One guy thought it would be cute to see what would happen if you put some of the circuit cooler refrigerant in a piece of surgical tube and tied a tight knot in each end. Just how big would it get. Answer - about 6 inches in diameter - and then it blows - like a big popped balloon. So, when his buddy was intently working on a problem at his desk, but had to get up for a restroom trip - it seemed like a good opportunity and one of these refrigerant filled rubber tubes found its way into the buddy's desk drawer. The buddy returned and got back to work, only to be interrupted by a minor explosion in his desk drawer. Probably the most creative trick I saw was when a another guy took the little squeeze bottle full of water that every EE had and used to wet the sponges in their soldering stations and squeezed a little water from it and up into the tip of it, then froze it solid with a squirt from a can of circuit cooler. This guy then unscrewed the top, added some circuit cooler to the bottle and screwed the top back on. The evaporating circuit cooler pressurized the bottle. He then pointed the water bottle at the spot where the engineer would be when talking on the phone, walked back to his own desk, and called the victim. After a while talking on the phone, the ice in the tip thawed and the pressurized squeeze bottle started squirting water on the victim - all on its own apparently! The victim just sat there staring at it and getting squirted and probably wondering - what the heck? About that time management put out the word that this kind of thing needed to stop - and it did.
So, that is my recollection of how it was back then, clouded a bit by passing years I am sure - but still reasonably accurate. I am sure others had a somewhat different experience.
So why did I leave?
1)  After completing the entire management development program at HP and after consistently receiving very high performance evaluations, I was told that it would likely be a very long time before I could expect to advance into management at HP as a ME. I was being pressured to return to school and get a MSEE. They generously offered me a transfer to California, guaranteed admission to Stanford's graduate school, and a job in HP Labs working on E-beam etch of microcircuits. Sounds great until you hear that about that time HP had decided that microcircuits were not their business and had decided that they would exit that activity. Seemed to me like a dead end to go into semiconductor process development at HP under those circumstances. HP had put a little no-name spinoff group from Stanford's semiconductor development lab into business by teaching them how to build NMOS rams (1103's) and giving them HPs designs (and later, micro processors too) and then buying enough volume from them to make them a financial success. That company is named Intel! Ironic - given what happened to HP-CPD.
2) I had spent much of the prior 9 years of my life attending college - much of it while also working one or more jobs to pay for - and going back to college at Stanford while also working full time once again did not seem like a real good idea. I had a family and I needed a professional life AND a private life.
3) HP was an electronics company and no ME was ever going to be center stage there - I did not like that aspect. I wanted to be a part of the core activity.
So I left for a management job with a huge pay increase. I spent the rest of my career looking for another HP - never finding anything like it again. The only consolation is that the HP I knew also vanished.


From: Precaud
Sent: Tuesday, July 03, 2018 8:46 AM
Subject: Re: [VintHPcom] Found - 9845 Light Pen

Wow, great story, Lee. Thanks for sharing it, and for your great work. Besides being functionally appropriate, the design layout of the 9845 resonates with something in the unconscious, like a  first glimpse of an emerging archetype. Of all the computers of that era, the 9845 *looks like* what it should be. Accomplished through the marriage of imagination and solid engineering.

I live in a town (Santa Fe, NM) that, for as long as I've been here. celebrates the artist and the creative process. While that is a good thing, their definitions of "artist" and "creative process" are very narrow, confined almost exclusively to the classical visual arts; painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, etc. What consistently passes by them unappreciated is the creation of entirely new classes of objects as they emerge and find their place in our world. To me, this is where the *real* creativity exists. It's too bad our culture does not choose its heroes from this type of person.

I will arrange with François for the delivery of the pen to him.

I have been informed off-list that the light pen is a rare bird and I should price it appropriately. I would appreciate some input.

I am on a "glide-path" into retirement, and will most likely be relocating to a smaller residence at some point. My son, who one day be left with all of this stuff I've collected, has made it very clear that he doesn't want to deal with it, and I need to pare it down. And so I am using this process to compact not only my inventory, but also my electronics test bench, which is populated almost entirely by instruments made prior to 1990. While they are all functionally superb, best-in-class at the time, some of them need to be replaced with modern, more compact equivalents. That's what I'll be using the funds for.



Wow. You write the true foreword to "The HP Way" which was missing in the original publication :-)

Some of the principles in fact have made their way into today's companies.

Too bad the "inhouse" ROMs for the 9845 are lost. Though with today's knowledge you can write new ones if you like. I wrote some kind of monitor program for the 9845 which utilizes unused space in the system test ROM, so that you have some kind of interactive shell with a prompt, and you can display/alter memory, load/save/start data or machine language programs to/from any memory block, launch system tests and so on, even can be used as a boot loader when one of the keys is latched during start-up, so you may load some other program or OS from tape or disk directly into system RAM and jump to an execution address to hand over control, instead of starting into BASIC, or use a remote terminal connection via HP-IB to control input and output from outside, can be pretty useful if display and/or keyboard is dysfunctional.