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Hewlett Packard: The Complete 80+ Year History

Welcome! In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll explore the storied history of the technology giant Hewlett Packard (HP). Together, we‘ll follow HP from its beginnings in a small Palo Alto garage in 1939 to becoming a leading global provider of personal computers, printers, enterprise solutions and more.

We‘ll spotlight key inventions, acquisitions, controversies and products that defined each era of this iconic company. With insightful stats and analysis, this guide offers a deep dive into over 80 years of HP innovation. Let‘s get started!

1939-1960s: Two Stanford Grads Get Their Start in a Garage

In 1938, recent Stanford graduates Bill Hewlett and David Packard founded their part-time electronics business in a small garage in Palo Alto, California. Their first product was the HP200A Audio Oscillator, used by sound engineers to test equipment. Priced at just $54.40, the 200A undercut competitors by nearly 50%, attracting customers like the Walt Disney Company. Disney‘s animated film Fantasia featured 8 HP200A oscillators to process sound effects.

Buoyed by the success, Hewlett and Packard incorporated their venture as the Hewlett-Packard Company in 1939. By 1941, HP was posting revenues of $1 million per year and occupying several buildings. The workforce grew from the founding duo to over 150 employees.

When World War 2 hit, HP developed counter-radar technology that allowed Allied forces to detect German radar waves and evade detection. This proved pivotal in anti-submarine warfare. HP also supplied specialized fuses for artillery shells which improved reliability. Their reputation for precision measurement devices soared.

Expanding beyond audio, HP produced their first high-speed frequency counter in 1951, measuring signals up to 10 MHz. This enabled advanced electronics testing. By 1960, HP employed over 1,600 people and made acquisitions to enter the medical instrumentation space. The company forged partnerships with Japanese firms like Yokogawa Electric to access their semiconductor expertise.

While not directly in the consumer electronics business, HP laid the foundation for its future diversification.

1970s-1980s: Calculators, PCs and the Printer Boom

The 1970s saw HP enter the handheld calculator market just as electronic components were miniaturized enough to enable portable devices. In 1972, HP unveiled the HP-35, the world‘s first scientific pocket calculator using reverse Polish notation input. Weighing just 0.5 lbs with an LED display, it became an instant hit. HP ultimately released more than 35 handheld calculator models through the decade.

For the business sector, HP launched its first general purpose desktop computer system in 1972 as well – the HP 3000. The multi-user system featured a 16-bit CPU and supported BASIC and COBOL languages.

In 1979, HP engineers developed Thermal InkJet printing that precisely sprayed ink from a removable cartridge onto paper. This revolutionary technology enabled the release of the HP ThinkJet printer in 1984.

The real game changer came in 1984 when HP shipped its first commercial desktop laser printer. The HP LaserJet was faster, quieter and produced sharper output than noisy dot matrix printers. Priced at $3,500, it brought affordable laser printing into small offices and workgroups.

The mass adoption of PCs along with HP‘s proprietary toner system that used cheap, widely available cartridges created an explosion of demand. HP rapidly dominated the emerging consumer and small business printing market. Through the late 1980s, HP continued enhancing its LaserJet line while moving into new product categories like laptops, servers and computers.

1990s: Soaring Sales Under New CEO Carly Fiorina

Propelled by robust sales of LaserJet printers and desktop PCs, HP revenue grew from $13.2 billion in 1990 to $42.4 billion by the end of 1999. Seeking to refocus on its core computing strengths, HP spun off its medical, chemical analysis and electronic measurement instruments divisions. The independent company formed from these units was named Agilent Technologies.

Meanwhile, HP looked to expansion through mergers and acquisitions. The most pivotal move came under new CEO Carly Fiorina, when HP acquired rival PC company Compaq for $25 billion in 2002. This briefly made HP the #1 seller of PCs and servers worldwide, ahead of Dell.

Other innovations like recyclable ink cartridges and advancing color printing technology helped sales soar. HP also diversified its computer lineup to include media center PCs, tablet PCs, TouchSmart all-in-one desktops and even a supercomputer dubbed "Blackbird".

By the late 1990s, HP was doing business in over 120 countries and employed a global workforce exceeding 100,000.

2000s: Compaq Merge and Stiff Competition

The Compaq merger made HP a titan in the PC and server market during the early 2000s. But keeping this leadership position grew challenging as low-cost manufacturers entered the space and Dell‘s direct sales model achieved massive scale.

To differentiate itself, HP focused on making PCs more stylish and user-friendly. The multimedia TouchSmart line with large touchscreens designed for entertainment launched in 2007. These early single-unit desktops presaged today‘s all-in-one computers.

However, HP failed to gain much traction in the booming smartphone and tablet industry. It acquired the pioneering Palm webOS operating system in 2010 but quickly discontinued the product line.

The company saw better returns expanding into IT services, software and printers. By the late 2000s, HP remained a leader but was losing PC market share to Lenovo and Dell.

2010s: Splitting the Company in Two

Entering the 2010s, tablets and smartphones were disrupting the traditional PC market. As growth slowed, HP acquired data analytics provider Vertica and cloud computing firm Eucalyptus. But a disastrous $11 billion purchase of software maker Autonomy in 2011 led to an $8.8 billion write-down the following year due to accounting errors.

This prompted a major rethinking of HP‘s strategy. In 2015, the company split into two separate publicly traded entities:

HP Inc. – Focused on PCs, laptops, printers and personal systems

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) – Focused on servers, networking, storage and cloud solutions

This enabled greater focus within each sector. Under CEO Dion Weisler, HP Inc. reclaimed the global lead in PC sales through strong growth in gaming PCs and premium laptops. It maintains around 40% market share in printers.

Meanwhile, HPE drives double-digit growth in its hybrid cloud offerings and continues acquiring startups. The 2015 Aruba Networks purchase bolstered HPE‘s edge-to-cloud vision. Today, HPE provides the infrastructure powering many 5G networks.

Most Pivotal Inventions and Firsts

Throughout eight decades of technology breakthroughs, HP has introduced some truly transformative products:

  • HP35 Scientific Calculator (1972) – The first programmable handheld calculator affordable for students and engineers. Over 300,000 sold in its first year.

  • Thermal InkJet Printing (1979) – This revolutionary printhead design remains the basis for most consumer inkjet printers today.

  • ThinkJet Printer (1984) – HP‘s first inkjet printer priced under $1,000 brought professional-quality printing to the desktop.

  • LaserJet Printer (1984) – The first mass-market laser printer cost just $3,500, allowing small offices to ditch dot matrix printers.

  • OmniBook 300 (1993) – One of the earliest sub-notebook PCs, this 1.4 kg unit had innovative hardware compression technology to squeeze power into a tiny package.

  • Blackbird Processor (2006) – This advanced supercomputer CPU achieved unprecedented speeds through a dual-core, parallel processing architecture.

  • HP Elite X2 1012 G1 (2015) – Pioneering 2-in-1 detachable laptop that blends power, performance and mobility in a slim tablet-first form factor.

HP holds over 10,000 patents and has introduced technologies that defined each era of computing.

Key Acquisitions That Reshaped HP

Expanding through strategic mergers has been pivotal to HP‘s continued growth and relevance across changing technology landscapes:

Compaq (2002) – $25 billion

This massive deal saw HP acquire rival PC manufacturer Compaq to briefly become the top PC seller worldwide. It also expanded HP‘s footprint in servers and services.

VeriFone (1997) – $1.2 billion

VeriFone‘s encryption and payment systems strengthened HP‘s offerings for retailers. HP gained expertise in secure transactions and point-of-sale systems.

EDSMercury Interactive (2006) – $4.5 billion

Mercury‘s application management and testing tools augmented HP‘s software portfolio nicely. HP gained deeper monitoring and optimization capabilities.

Aruba Networks (2015) – $3 billion

This wireless gear maker provides the connectivity for HP Enterprise‘s edge-to-cloud framework. The deal strengthened HP‘s presence across networking infrastructure.

Autonomy (2011) – $11.7 billion

One of HP‘s few disastrous deals, Autonomy‘s financial accounting woes led to a massive $8.8 billion write-down a year after acquisition. Most assets were written off.

Through key deals, HP has maintained leadership across evolving enterprise IT markets from printers to PCs to cloud services.

Controversies That Made Headlines

For such a large company, HP has faced its fair share of scandals and questionable decisions over the decades:

Sale of products in apartheid South Africa (1980s) – Despite boycotts and shareholder proposals to withdraw from South Africa, HP continued to operate and export products to the country during apartheid. It ultimately sold off its South African subsidiary in 1985.

Spying on board members (2006) – HP hired investigators who obtained private call records and emails of board members by posing as them illegally. Criminal charges were filed over this breach of privacy.

Foreign bribery fines (2014) – HP‘s Russian subsidiary pleaded guilty to bribing government officials to win a €35 million contract. The company paid over $108 million in U.S. fines over violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Massive Autonomy write-down (2012) – After an $11 billion acquisition of software firm Autonomy in 2011, HP took an $8.8 billion write-down following alleged accounting improprieties at Autonomy. This led to lawsuits and recriminations.

Missing the mobile revolution – HP failed to keep pace with smartphones and tablets, discontinuing its Palm webOS line just months after launching it in 2011. It ceded mobile to iOS and Android.

Through it all, HP has shown an ability to adapt, whether restructuring, splitting itself, or just acquiring its way into new markets.

HP By the Numbers

Let‘s look at some key statistics that showcase HP‘s scale and leadership across its 80+ year history:

  • $1 million – Annual revenue achieved by 1942 just three years after HP‘s founding
  • 35+ – Number of handheld calculator models released by HP in the 1970s
  • $3.5 billion – Revenue from HP‘s printer division in 1991, just 7 years after introducing the LaserJet
  • 120+ – Number of countries HP operated in by 1999
  • $25 billion – Amount HP paid to acquire rival PC maker Compaq in 2002
  • 11th – HP‘s ranking in 2018 on the Fortune Global 500 list
  • >50% – HP‘s share of the U.S. printer market as of 2020
  • #1 – HP Inc‘s position as the leading PC vendor worldwide as of Q4 2021

HP Revenue Split

HP maintains strong market positions across PCs, printers, notebooks and enterprise solutions. It has excelled at reinventing itself to align with emerging technologies.


For over eight decades, HP has pioneered electronics, computing and printing innovations that changed the world. It has evolved from its modest garage origins to become the global titan it is today through a mix of homegrown R&D and key acquisitions. Despite some stumbles along the way, HP has shown resilience and an ability to adapt to new markets.

From handheld calculators to LaserJet printers to 2-in-1 laptops, HP has introduced technologies that define each era of computing history. Going forward, we can expect this tech giant to continue evolving for the future through investments in 3D printing, virtual reality, industrial IoT, mobility and more. The journey continues for the iconic company launched by two Stanford grads in a Palo Alto garage.