[SIGCIS-Members] how to document history mistakes? (was Re: Issason, Acknowledgements, and Crowdsourcing)

Chuck House housec1839 at gmail.com
Thu Oct 9 10:06:59 PDT 2014

Jeremy, I was faced with a version of your question when we did The HP Phenomenon, Stanford Press, 2009. 

The issue centered around the company lore, continued to this day on HP’s website, that the company began by selling eight oscillators to Walt Disney.

Cursory beginning research in HP’s archives revealed three things:

1. the number was NINE, not EIGHT
2. this was the third order, not the first
3. the sale was to Bud Hawkins at Disney Studios; Walt Disney had no idea, then or later, that such a purchase was made or who HP was.

I talked with the HP archivist, and the original archivist (ex-Bell Labs, later HP archive creator and collaborator on the book The HP Way, and by then archivist at Agilent).  I also traced the change to HP’s first public relations director, and five of the ‘old guard’ who zealously guarded HP reputations (who had urged us to write our book).  All were unconcerned, whereas for factoids surrounding their own historical work, they were adamant and vociferous about us ‘getting it right.'

So, below are the paragraphs in the opening chapter, which is matter-of-fact about NINE.  The footnote (#5) is lengthy, explaining what we found.  I don’t know that we handled this rightly, but this was how we solved the issue.

The upshot was that HP sued me and Stanford, to ‘cease-and-desist’ because of monumental errors in the book, starting with claiming it is NINE, not EIGHT.

The result of that skirmish was that the Stanford Press folk were delighted, saying this will quadruple sales, if HP says it is banned.  The suit was dropped, and HP these days uses the book in their executive training, so they’ve relaxed.

The chapter inclusion, pp. 9-10 (red emphasis for this note)
The HP saga began with a clever but simple idea: to insert a small lightbulb into one side of a circuit as the resistance element, rather than a standard resistor. Whether Bill Hewlett understood the probable effect ahead of time is unimportant—he instantly recognized the result when he turned it on. He had constructed an automatically controlled amplitude limiter for a resistance-capacitance signal generator. His innovation was adequate for a fifteen-page engineer’s thesis from Stanford University in 1939; it was also good enough for U.S. patent number 2,268,872.4 And it led to the Model 200A Oscillator, a brand-new product from a brand- new company named Hewlett-Packard after Hewlett won the coin toss for the right to put his name first. The first big order—$517.50 for nine units—was garnered from Walt Disney Studios in 1939, intended for use in creating and balancing stereo soundtrack music for the cartoon movie “Fantasia.” The movie was a pioneering effort, with six individual soundtracks, two mixing tracks, and a metronome track to capture Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra in very high-fidelity sound. One oscillator per track was required; HP’s new machine, offered at $54.50 versus the General Radio machines at $400 each, was an exciting find for Disney’s chief engineer Johnny (Bud) Hawkins. But as it turned out, the HP 200A didn’t have quite the frequency range desired. So Hewlett changed the capacitor and charged $3.00 more per unit, and Disney actually bought the company’s second product, the 200B. Over time, at least twenty-four variations of the lamp-stabilized oscillator would be offered for sale.5

The endnote  p. 548

5. This is one of those Sherlock Holmes detective stories about which historians do battle. Every reference to the 200 oscillator history in Watt’s Current issues for the first twenty-four years of the company (notably the fifth and tenth anniversary issues, August 5, 1944, and November 1949), cites nine units for the Disney order. Oddly, when HP Measure was launched in July 1963 as a worldwide employee newsletter, the “official number” shifted inexplicably to eight rather than nine (cf. the HP twenty-fifth anniversary issue, September- October 1964[3]). David Packard, The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), Packard’s autobiography, derived from the twenty-fifth anniversary article, cited eight units, each at a recollected price of $71.50. Subsequent biographers have inferred that Packard mispriced the original units, but quickly realized his error and astutely raised the price as soon as possible, from the original $54.50 to $71.50 each. The $71.50 price, however, wasn’t established until December 1940.

Al Bagley, in composing the Los Altos Museum exhibit about Dave and Lucile Packard in January 2008, found Lucile Packard’s original cash ledger, in which a big shipment to Disney accounts for a sale of $517.50 for nine units at $57.50 each. The first two units (standard HP 200A’s) were sold at list price of $54.50 (to Caltech and the Radio-Television Company); Hewlett charged $3.00 more per unit to Disney and renumbered the units to the HP 200B to cover the changed capacitor and the rackmount front panel costs. The next unit, another HP 200A, was sold to MIT for $54.50.

In Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, History Documentation (Palo Alto, CA: HP TV Network, A Hewlett Family Production, 1983), Hewlett recalled that the original price was $54.40, having associated the price with the longitude of the the old Oregon Territory– Canadian dispute; his recollection was erroneous by a dime. Packard couldn’t recall the price or the association when asked.

The Southwest Museum of Engineering, Computing and Communication has long insisted that nine is the right number, citing both the original salesperson, William Stancil, and the Disney archives. See Ed Sharpe, “Hewlett-Packard: The Early Years,” http://www.smecc.org/hewlett-packard,_the_early_years.htm. William V. Stancil, who had introduced Norm Neely to Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, sold the units to Bud Hawkins at Disney through Neely Enterprises. Stancil wrote a letter dated January 18, 1989, to Bill Hewlett (which is posted on the SMECC website) that cites the nine units twice. In the fiftieth anniversary HP Measure issue, Jean Burke Hoppe devoted a half page to Stancil’s role, but omitted his reference to nine units. Hoppe, “What a Mickey Mouse Way to Start a Company” HP Measure (September-October 1989): 8–11. 

On Oct 9, 2014, at 8:18 AM, Jeremy C. Reed <reed at reedmedia.net> wrote:

> On Wed, 8 Oct 2014, Mike Willegal wrote:
>> Though we are lucky enough to be able to talk to many people that 
>> experienced the events, first hand, I have found that interviews done 
>> 30, 40 or 50 years after the fact is fraught with the difficulty of 
>> people remembering exactly what happened.  Many people ?remember? what 
>> has been most frequently reported over the past decade or so.  
>> Researchers in Civil War history have found the same thing and are 
>> more and more relying upon contemporary evidence such as journals, 
>> newspapers and letters.
> For the book I am authoring, I started keeping track of mistakes, such 
> as wrong dates and misspelled names, in my sources, including from 
> previous "history" articles and books and my own interviews. I have 
> found only around 20 mistakes. In some cases, I have found that my 
> interviewees have misstated facts and dates (in most cases from the 
> events they personally participated in the 1970s and 1980s).  I have 
> gone back to the interview subjects with my other cited facts and they 
> have agreed with me, but they state that they don't remember.
> Some of the mistakes are in the contemporary documents (such as 
> misspelled surnames in court documents) or history papers having wrong 
> dates or misarranged chronologies (such as saying some software was 
> invented after it was shipped) even when only a couple years removed 
> from the events.
> Do you have any advice on how to document history mistakes, so later 
> researchers don't hit the same issues -- or so later historians don't 
> follow the wrong path? Some ideas I have considered are to add footnotes 
> or comments to my bibliography that explain that the cited source or 
> even sources misspelled some name or stated a wrong date and then 
> explain briefly where the correct or assumed correct details came from.
> I don't think I want to explain about the mistakes in the content itself 
> as it will be distracting.
> A different type of mistake is where someone acknowledges someone more 
> significantly than they deserve or maybe more than the recipient 
> believes. In other words, taking more credit and giving more credit than 
> is due. For example, for over 30 years, for a software technology, 
> various "stories", corresponding release notes, and histories said a 
> developer had invented the work. When I interviewed him, he told me he 
> didn't know why the developer who really did the good work gave him the 
> credit but he wanted me to be clear in my work that the other person was 
> the proponent and key inventor behind the technology.  I wasn't able to 
> interview the other person, but since my contact did fully partipate in 
> this software technology, I plan to use his version of the story. 
> Explaining about the different versions of the story may be distracting 
> in my book. (But also thinking about it from another view -- maybe both 
> of them wanted to credit the other.)
> For what it is worth, the person who documented the credit is well known 
> for acknowledging many others in his detailed software release notes, 
> interviews, and documentation.  It has been very useful for me to find 
> others to interview -- but in many cases, they told me their work was 
> insignificant. I guess some people like to give credit to many others 
> for their own work, which may cause mistakes in history.
> How do you document history mistakes?
>  Jeremy C. Reed
> echo 'EhZ[h ^jjf0%%h[[Zc[Z_W$d[j%Xeeai%ZW[ced#]dk#f[d]k_d%' | \
>  tr            '#-~'            '\-.-{'
> _______________________________________________
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