HP’s history of innovation: The ten products that changed everything
If HP had been formed in the noughties, it would be a perfect example of the ambitious startup culture that underpins today’s tech industry. In the 78 years since the company received its first $538 investment and set up shop in a small, wooden Palo Alto garage, it’s grown to become one of the most influential tech companies in the world.
The brainchild of William Redington Hewlett and David Packard, Hewlett-Packard first made its name building a range of electronic equipment that ranged from harmonica tuners to a foul-line indicator for use in bowling alleys. Since those beginnings in 1939, HP has made its name from a series of world-class tech innovations, and here we’ve chosen ten that have made their mark.
1938 – Disney chooses the HP Model 200B
Walt Disney’s third feature film, Fantasia, was something of a technological tour de force. Not content with the monoaural sound that was standard in cinemas across the world, Disney pioneered a proprietary multi-channel surround-sound format known as Fantasound. To help realise the film’s soundtrack, Disney ordered eight of HP’s Model 200B audio oscillators to test and control the multi-channel sound systems. Thanks to the pair’s ingenious design, the Model 200B bettered the accuracy and reliability of rival devices, yet did it for a dramatically lower price. The success of the Model 200B meant that one year later, in 1939, Hewlett-Packard was officially born.
1963 – The HP 5100A frequency synthesizer, as used by NASA
HP’s 5100A frequency synthesizer was one of the most complex devices the company had ever built and highly sophisticated for the time. It unified several of HP’s existing instruments to create a device capable of carrying out automatic testing procedures for anything from manufacturing to the space program. Its technological accomplishment meant that it was soon adopted by NASA, and became part of the equipment used for communication with the Apollo moon landing.
1966 – HP introduces the first ruggedised ‘plug-and-play’ computer
Building on HP’s heritage for programmable test and measurement products, the HP 2116A was the first to introduce the concept of ‘plug-and-play’ connectivity. As the 2116A was capable of connecting to and interfacing with a wide array of standard laboratory instruments, it was the first device that allowed laboratories to embrace the computerised age. What’s more, it was the first example of a genuinely ruggedised, go-anywhere computer, as it was able to pass the same environmental reliability tests that all of HP’s instruments were subjected to – it was able to operate in temperatures from 0 to 55˚C and in 95% relative humidity. As a result, the first models of the 2116A found their home at sea in research vessels for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and remained operational in the salt-air environments for over a decade.
1964 – HP 5060A – The ‘flying’ atomic clock
Back in 1964, atomic clocks weren’t exactly plentiful – and they were all far too big and heavy to move out of the confines of a specialist laboratory. Or rather they were until the HP 5060A came along. This device managed to shrink the cesium-beam technology down into a rack-mounted chassis that could be transported relatively easily, yet was still accurate enough to only lose one second every 3,000 years. It was this compact design that allowed the HP 5060A to play a crucial part in the ‘flying clock’ experiments. Finally, atomic clocks could be easily distributed to every corner of the globe in order to allow precise timekeeping across thousands of miles – and HP’s 5060A became the international standard.
1968 – The HP 9100A becomes the first ‘personal computer’
Eight years before the term “personal computer” made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, the HP 9100A was advertised as being exactly that. More specifically, though, it was the first programmable scientific desktop calculator, and it paved the way for the desktop computers of today by storing programs on a magnetic card. And as HP’s original advert testifies, this was one serious calculator: “Willing to perform log and trig functions, even hyperbolics and coordinate transformations at the touch of a key. Able to take on roots of a fifth-degree polynomial, Bessel functions, elliptic integrals and regression analysis.” Funnily enough, the ad didn’t mention whether it ran Windows.
1977 – HP introduces the first smartwatch, the HP-01
Wearables might seem like a new phenomenon, but they’re nothing of the sort: HP designed and produced the first consumer smartwatch 39 years ago. Back then, though, the HP-01 was described as a ‘wrist instrument’. Rather than telling you about your latest social media updates, it combined a digital wristwatch with a calculator, 200-year personal calendar and alarm, stopwatch and timer functions. It even introduced the idea of a stylus, which stowed away invisibly in the bracelet and made it possible to press the tiny buttons. If you were lucky enough to snap up the gold model pictured above, it was pretty darn good looking too.
1980 – HP introduces its first true all-in-one PC
After its reveal in December 1979, the HP-85 finally hit the market in January 1980. This PC took the concept of the all-in-one PC further than any device that had come previously: it combined a built-in keyboard with a 5in screen, thermal printer and tape storage unit, and used the BASIC programming language. With a press of a button, it was possible to instantaneously print out whatever was displayed on screen, including graphics and text. Crucially, though, the only microchips that weren’t custom designed by HP were the eight memory chips that combined to provide 8KB of RAM – the company’s chip-building expertise would eventually lead to its 1994 collaboration with Intel.
1991 – The desktop printer finally leaves monochrome behind
After its pioneering inkjet and laser printers in 1984, HP’s next milestone was the HP DeskJet 500C – and it changed printing forever. Finally bringing colour printing from the high-end to an affordable desktop-sized device, the DeskJet 500C capitalised on the discoveries made by HP Labs’ work on compression, half-toning algorithms and the sRGB colour standard – a standard that has made it possible for users to see the same colours on every display and print-out across the world. With a 300dpi printing resolution and a single tri-colour print cartridge, the HP DeskJet 500C was the first printer to bring colour printing within reach of every home and office.
1994 – HP and Intel push computing into the 64-bit age
Image: Konstatin Lanzet
In the search for a successor to the aging RISC architecture, HP decided to join forces with Intel to design the enterprise processors of the future – which would eventually be known by the codename Itanium. The pairing developed what would become the first 64-bit processor for high-end business and enterprise use.
2014 – The HP Sprout looks to a 3D-printed future
The HP Sprout is the all-in-one PC evolved. While we’ve all become used to the idea of a touchscreen PC, the Sprout adds an Intel RealSense 3D camera, projector and a touch-sensitive mat to the tried-and-tested formula. Place an object in front of the Sprout, and it’s possible to capture a high-resolution colour 3D model of it. Ingeniously, the integrated projector is able to project items onto the mat to allow it to act as a secondary touch-sensitive display. Once captured, it’s possible to manipulate the captured 3D objects, and the 20-point touch mat allows up to four people to collaborate on any given project at once. This is the all-in-one PC redesigned for an immersive, 3D-printed future.