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The origins of Silicon Valley’s garage myth

To understand the enduring mythology of the Silicon Valley garage, you have to go back to the one that started it all: a converted shed in suburban Palo Alto, where in 1938 William R. Hewlett and David Packard began developing their first product.

The origins of Silicon Valley’s garage myth
[Photo: courtesy MIT Press]

The mythology of the garage as a space for invention started in a valley where taxpayers’ money was being converted into silicon. Even though much has been said about Silicon Valley emerging from the shared geographies of Stanford and venture capital, its real history stems from military research during WWII funded by public money. The garage is central to the origin of many corporate success stories in the twentieth century, from chauffeur to entrepreneur; the space originally intended for the storage of automobiles has become a symbol, a myth, a banal object in the domestic landscape that gave birth to the industrial tech complex.

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As the story goes, Walt Disney, Google, and Amazon were founded in suburban California garages. Here the garage can be seen as a monument to the creation of new labor subjectivities. It had become a cultural marker exposing the displacement of domestic feelings attached to the home, toward contemporary modes of production. Taking the Silicon Valley garage as a symbol that reminds us of the short-lived separation between life and work, we can trace back the shifts in the biopolitical space of the family and its effects on labor-power.

In the suburban streets of Palo Alto there stands a one-car garage, a converted shed that continues the ranch style of the main home but remains detached. It is a trite structure with a padlocked green double door. An embossed plaque on the front reads: The Birthplace of Silicon Valley.

The HP garage. [Photo: Flickr user Arild Finne Nybø]

This garage is the birthplace of the world’s first high-technology region, “Silicon Valley.” The idea for such a region originated with Dr. Frederick Terman, a Stanford University Professor who encouraged his students to start up their own electronics companies in the area instead of joining established firms in the east. The first two students to follow his advice were William R. Hewlett and David Packard, who in 1938 began developing their first product, an audio oscillator, in this garage. The embossed plaque indicates its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Such plaques usually decorate the facade of buildings of great architectural significance and beauty, structures that defied expectations and the potential of their time. In this case, the garage has been monumentalized for its economic and creative significance rather than its subpar pitched roof and musky timber frame.

The Hewlett- Packard garage became an icon, brought to light again in the late 1990s when a company best known for its printer technologies rebranded itself as HP. The advertising campaign “INVENT” was instigated by its new CEO, Carly Fiorina. With a new name and look, it was an attempt to make the company relevant again by linking it to its radical past. Fiorina hired the advertising firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners to help update the nearly irrelevant office-supply manufacturer and rebrand it as a tech startup giant. To do so, GS&P returned to the garage. Whereas Apple had capitalized on its relationship to the space and its punk attitudes, Hewlett-Packard had gone corporate. It was only after Steve Jobs appropriated that narrative for Apple that the garage became cool again, and it was retroactively imposed by HP as its own.

The campaign was powerful. It featured an image of the original HP shed, with a bright light shining through the closed doors and text superimposed that outlined the Rules of the Garage:

Believe you can change the world.
Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.
Know when to work alone and when to work together.
Share—tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.
No politics. No bureaucracy. (These are ridiculous in a garage.)
The customer defines a job well done.
Radical ideas are not bad ideas.
Invent different ways of working.
Make a contribution every day.
If it doesn’t contribute, it doesn’t leave the garage.
Believe that together we can do anything. Invent.

When Carly Fiorina was elected as HP’s first CEO she broke through the proverbial glass ceiling. But in the age of systemic misogyny she had to take a great deal of shit as CEO there. Infamously, she led the company into multiple failed merges and, at one point, was caught selling to the Iranians while they were under sanctions by the United States. Fiorina kept putting HP through every possible loophole, as scrutiny around her tenure tightened the threads around her neck. HP was never able to be as hip or cool as Apple; it remained in Apple’s shadow as it launched wannabe versions of personal laptops and music devices similar but inferior to the iPod. Although it never inspired a cult-like following, Fiorina and GS&P’s team did succeed at reinventing the image of HP. Going back to the garage the brand became more attainable. Going back to the garage, the brand became sexy.

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The Los Altos garage where Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs worked. [Photo: Flickr user Shinya Suzuki]

The contested origin story of Hewlett and Packard’s shed as their laboratory begins with Walt Disney, another garagepreneur, in this case seeking to create “moving sound,” a prototype of what is now known as surround sound. As the story goes, Walt approached David and William, who were developing their first successful technology, the audio oscillator. The HP audio oscillators facilitated the immersive screenic experience by enabling surround sound, which became integral to Disney’s films.

These little machines were made with the help of HP’s first “employee,” Lucile, David Packard’s wife, who offered up her oven for baking the paint on the oscillator panels instead of making roast beef. Lucile claims her cooking never tasted the same again, but after their early success with the oscillators, HP expanded out of the garage and her oven, as they developed technology instigated by new defense contract work during World War II.

During the draft, Hewlett left HP to serve and let Packard steer the company as it took on government contracts. Aiding and supporting the U.S. military was important to both men. In fact, they priced the audio oscillator at $54.40 to reference the American expansionist motto from the 1840s to claim the Oregon Territory from the British, “Fifty Four Forty or Fight!” The collaborators were proud Americans, and later in his life, Packard served in the Nixon Administration as deputy secretary of defense, reforming the Pentagon’s bureaucracy. Packard was nominated to this position because of the unique management strategy and innovative infrastructure he and Hewlett created in their offices. After the war the company had nearly 200 employees, but they faced severe cash-flow issues after the contracts’ terms ended and they endured what both Hewlett and Packard referred to as the hardest years of the company. As they scaled back down to only 80 employees by the mid-1950s they created a more flexible and higher-quality working environment by offering profit-sharing systems, generous benefits, and more autonomy.

This production model was an ideology that made a lasting impression on both Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs during their time interning at HP in the mid-1970s. Wozniak and Jobs were loyal to Hewlett-Packard and in some ways were raised within the company itself. Jobs first began interning there at the age of twelve. They were so loyal, in fact, that Woz even offered his designs for a personal computer to the company, which they declined five times before he and Jobs left to start Apple. Emulating and operating within a paradigm HP had created, Steve and Steve mobilized, and they created their corporation within the framework of a garage startup, perpetuating the garage myth even further. Additionally, the open management style of Hewlett-Packard has percolated throughout the Apple ethos and within its office life.

The startup garage has become more than just a part of Silicon Valley’s folklore; it has transformed into an image, an exportable idea that reveals a set of strategies and theorems that continue to operate in post-Fordist immaterial modes of production and consumption. Its history reveals that mythmaking has become as central to sustaining our economy as profit making. The garage became the architectural symbol that would attract the right venture capital. Once the garage is dematerialized and mobilized by the characters, corporations, and technologies that emerged from the space, it becomes a doctrine stretching its existence beyond the private and intimate format of the house and goes on to reabsorb the public.

This essay was excerpted with permission from Garage by Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela, © 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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