An Interview with Bill Hewlett
Photo of Bill Hewlett

Interview by Joyce Gemperlein, San Jose Mercury News; and Aashir Shroff Senior, Leland High School

Interview photos by Len Lahman, San Jose Mercury News

Transcribed by Jean Ricket, Tech Museum volunteer

Aashir Shroff
In 1939, with only $538, Stanford University cronies Bill Hewlett and David Packard founded the company that bears their name, and is an international powerhouse that produces vital technology components and machines.

Aside from that, HP, based in Palo Alto, is considered a model of corporate management for its ability to treat employees well and influence society positively.

Hewlett, 83, was born in Ann Arbor, Mich. He attended Stanford University and received his B.A. in 1934. He earned his master's degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936. Three years later, he received the degree of Engineer from Stanford.

In addition, Hewlett holds 13 honorary degrees from universities, including Yale, Notre Dame and Johns Hopkins.

Hewlett served as an Army officer during World War II. During his tour of duty he was on a team that inspected Japanese industry when the war ended. When he returned from the service, he served in a variety of executive posts at HP, including that of CEO beginning in 1969.

In 1985, President Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Science, the highest science honor in the nation. He was named director emeritus of HP in 1987.

Like his co-founder, who died last year, Hewlett has always felt a responsibility to education, medicine and society. He has served in the past on many boards, including the Stanford Medical Center, Kaiser Foundation Hospital, Drug Abuse Council in Washington, D.C. and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Hewlett, revered at HP, now infrequently visits the neat and spare office he occupied there for decades. He was interviewed by writer Joyce Gemperlein and high-school student Aashir Shroff in a conference room adjacent to that office and Packard's. Both rooms, in which Silicon Valley history was made, remain untouched.

Shroff: Do you feel that education has approved or declined with the advance of technology?
Hewlett: Well, I think it's improved. You can do so much more. but you pay a price. . . .I think that the teaching methods are better ... but there are problems. (There's the) lack of personal touch. But you can cover so much more territory. You can appraise it in an analytical way.
Shroff: What do you think of the Internet as an educational tool?
Hewlett: I don't know anything about nets. I hate to say it, but I just don't. (It's new since ) since I was around.

Gemperlein: So you don't ever use the Internet from time to time?

Hewlett: No. My wife may dial onto one of the nets. She's learning how to use it, but I don't use it.

Gemperlein: Do you think that students should have a liberal arts education or, if they're really interested in science, is it best for them to focus on that one thing?
Hewlett: They've got to have both.

Gemperlein: Why?

Hewlett: My first wife (who died) had scientific training. My second wife did not. And I find it very difficult to communicate because she and I don't speak the same language, in a sense.

We have a group. It's called the SPPW. The Society to Prove Papa Wrong. My kids are very good at it.
I've got 5 kids, and we always have had a tendency to get together. And I talk with the kids, and my (second ) wife finally said, "Why is it every time I say something, your kids . . .challenge me?" But that's because they were brought up ... (not) just to accept (something.) To tie it down. . . .My wife didn't take any science. I think it's terrible not to teach science. (In my family) we have a group. It's called the SPPW. The Society to Prove Papa Wrong. My kids are very good at it.

Gemperlein: Have they urged you to get on the Internet?

Hewlett: They know better.

Gemperlein: I have to say that living here, it is often hard for me to communicate with people because I do not speak exactly the language that they do.
Hewlett: I think that's typical. Some people really take to mathematics and some don't.

Have they urged you to get on the Internet?
They know better.
It's something that can just come naturally. Or it's a struggle. But they (students) have to have it in some form. They have to be science literate.

Gemperlein: And you were naturally that way in school?

Hewlett: I guess so. Things were not as regimented then. I did better in math courses.

Gemperlein: When did you know what you were going to do? Or did it just happen?
Hewlett: It just really happened. My father died when I was young, and my mother tried to help. She arranged for me to be educated by some professors at Stanford. To my knowledge, they didn't help very much.

Did you ever blow anything up?
Oh, sure. I think it was a doorknob. A doorknob is compact you can put explosives in it, use it as a bomb.

I had one guy who was very good. . . . Professor Terman.

I enjoyed those courses and did well in them. . . . (Terman) inspired us to start HP. He took a position that anybody who took his course would be able to do of the Terman-Binet intelligence tests, so he had a background in education.