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Modern economy owes a debt to technology pioneers

February 1, 2001

Two men who died last month played a big part in shaping how we work today

 

THE world today is so dependent on the information and communications industries that it is surprising to realise how recently it all started. Two men died last month who were each in their own way hugely influential in the creation of our modern economy. 

 

You will probably have heard the name of one of them, an American called Bill Hewlett, but it is quite likely that you have never heard of the other, an Englishman called Tom Kilburn.

 

Bill Hewlett was one half of the partnership, along with David Packard, who formed Hewlett-Packard (H-P), one of the most successful technology companies of the twentieth century.

 

Hewlett and Packard started their business, with only $538 of capital between them, in the garage of Packard’s home near Stanford University. This garage is now regarded as the birthplace of Silicon Valley – the place where the ‘bootstrap’ approach to business started – and has now become so famous that the US Government has declared it a national historic monument.

 

Before H-P, engineering companies were based mostly in the Eastern states, focussed on the defence industry, and were traditionally organised, with strong hierarchical management structures. H-P decided they would not seek military work, but would look for wider consumer and industrial markets for their technology.

 

Hewlett and his partner set up a more democratic, more creative, style of management at H-P. They called it “management by walking around”, empowering their staff to make decisions. It is a management style that has been taught at countless business schools worldwide as the ‘H-P Way’, and has been broadly adopted throughout the modern economy.

 

They also set a climate which supported innovation and entrepreneurial activity. In 1967 Hewlett returned a call from a 12-year old schoolboy who wanted to ask for some spare parts to build a piece of test equipment. The boy was Steve Jobs and Bill Hewlett offered him, not only the parts, but a summer job at H-P. Steve Jobs later went on to set up Apple Computer – in his garage of course. - and Apple is only one of hundreds of companies that have been set up in Silicon Valley following the model set by Hewlett-Packard.

 

They also pioneered the ‘open plan’ office, and employee-friendly policies such as flexible working hours and decentralised decision making. Hewlett said that he was most proud of the fact that “we really created a way to work with employees, let them share in the profits and still keep control of it”.

 

Although his stake in Hewlett-Packard made him one of the richest men in the USA, Bill Hewlett lived relatively modestly. He did, however donate more than $300 million to Stanford University and set up the Hewlett Foundation with an endowment of more than $3.5 billion.

 

But his biggest legacy is the ‘H-P Way’, the management style that he and his partner  developed which has been adopted by modern businesses throughout the world.

 

And what about Tom Kilburn? Like Bill Hewlett, Tom was also one half of a technology partnership, in this case with Freddy Williams. The two of them worked at Manchester University just after the war on the development of early computers. Computer research was underway in several centres in the 1940s; at Cambridge and Manchester Universities in the UK, and in the USA at MIT and the highly influential Moore School at Philadelphia.

 

One big goal was to develop a storage device – equipment that could hold details of the computer instructions, data and results. All the centres were working flat out to achieve this prize and on Monday June 21st 1948 Freddy Williams at Manchester reported “it stopped and there, shining brightly in the expected place, was the expected answer. It was a moment to remember… and nothing was ever the same again”. They had actually built a computer, called the ‘Baby’, with a storage device and Tom Kilburn had quickly written a small set of instructions to try it out.

 

Fifty years later, in June 1998, a reconstruction of the Manchester ‘Baby’ was handed over to the Museum of Science and Technology in the city. At the event, Tom Kilburn signed a copy of his original computer instructions for me – a short program which calculates the factors of an equation. Kilburn went on to design many other computers but he didn’t regard himself as a programmer and never wrote another program.

 

Of all the millions of computer programs ever written in the world, Tom Kilburn, who died last month, had written the very first one.

 

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