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Consequences in Alternate History: How Goethe Created the World’s Biggest Computer Manufacturer

By Tom Anderson

In the 1930s, Frederick Emmons Terman was the Dean of Engineering at Stanford University in California. He was one of the often unsung ranks of scientists and engineers who change the world not because of their own individual breakthroughs, but because of their skills in organising, teaching and directing others. In particular, Terman was keen to encourage his students to stay in California and found spin-off companies based on their research, rather than moving elsewhere. Because of this, he (along with William Shockley) is often described as the ‘Father of Silicon Valley’.

Among the many students who went on to become influential figures in the postwar age were two engineers named David (Dave) Packard and William (Bill) Hewlett. The two officially agreed to found their joint company in January 1939, and tossed a coin to decide its name (another example of a coin toss determining the course of history, for those who remember an earlier article!) As things turns out, history would not see a technology company named Packard-Hewlett; rather, it would be Hewlett-Packard. Packard and his wife Lucille lived in 367 Addison Avenue, San Francisco, while Hewlett slept in the house’s shed. The new company’s work began in the house’s garage, with initial capital of $538. Packard and Hewlett craftily realised that their company would look more respectable if their first product’s name implied it was part of an existing, longstanding range, and therefore they decided to give it the name ‘HP200A’.

The HP200A was an audio oscillator, using the Wien bridge circuit (named for the German physicist Max Wien), based on the work that Hewlett had completed for his master’s thesis. Its purpose was to test sound equipment, and its advantage over existing commercial equipment was that it was the first to use a simple light bulb as an automatic gain control, reducing the price.

Now, Packard and Hewlett were certainly both brilliant and far-sighted minds: later on, Hewlett would give a 12-year-old Steve Jobs his first job, seeing his potential, and Packard would register ‘HP.com’ as one of the first domain names ever registered on the nascent proto-internet in 1986. However, that is no guarantee of the success of a company, particularly one founded in the turbulent time of the 1930s and 40s. Hewlett-Packard could easily have failed in those fragile years. But a chance collision of events gave the company a badly-needed big sale at just the right time.

Now rewind 142 years, to a time when San Francisco was a Spanish colonial village barely twenty years old—the year 1797, the middle of the French Revolutionary Wars. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, living in Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire (there then was no united state of Germany) was a polymath who had been famous for his literary works since he was in his twenties. Among his many achievements in literature, science and statecraft was a poem written in this year titled Der Zauberlehrling, or in English, ‘the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. The plot of the poem saw the titular young apprentice, lazily seeking an easy way out of the chores set by his wizardly superior, enchanting a broom to collect buckets of water by itself—only to then lose control of the process and find he did not know enough magic to stop it. He inevitably makes it worse and worse and is humbled when the wizard returns to break the spell.

Paul Dukas

Exactly one hundred years after Goethe wrote the poem, in 1897, the French composer Paul Dukas wrote a symphony—strictly a ‘symphonic poem’—inspired by, and accompanying, Goethe’s work. This went on to be a popular piece played at concert parties, but its popularity would see a huge boost four decades later...

Return to the 1930s. Walt Disney, after struggling in other people’s cartoon companies in the 1920s, had hit gold with the character of Mickey Mouse in 1928 (co-created with his friend Ub Iwerks, with whom he later fell out). Disney went from strength to strength with both cartoon shorts and later, beginning with the ambitious “Snow White” in 1937, the feature-length animated films that his company would become synonymous with. On the other hand, Disney felt that by 1936 the character of Mickey Mouse, now eight years old, was growing stale and needed a popularity boost. (Ironically, his company would end up lobbying after his death to constantly change US copyright law just to keep the rights to him!)

Disney had already set cartoons to classical music in his ‘Silly Symphonies’ series (whose name was ripped off by MGM for their, ironically now better known, ‘Looney Tunes’). However, he now planned a much more ambitious cartoon inspired by the Goethe poem and the Dukas musical adaptation. Mickey Mouse would play the titular apprentice, using magic to get out of the chores set by his wizardly master (dubbed ‘Yen Sid’, ‘Disney’ backwards, by the animators as an in-joke). Disney bought the copyright to Dukas’ music in 1937. He then happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, at Chasen’s restaurant in Hollywood, and Stokowski agreed to collaborate—the big name of a well-known conductor would help sell the project. Work began.

Typically for Disney’s ambitious projects, the avant-garde and untried nature of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” led the project’s cost to overrun to $125,000; Disney’s brother Roy, who managed the studio’s finances, pointed out that a short cartoon could scarcely earn back that budget on its own. Also typically, Walt saw this problem as an opportunity, extended Stokowski’s contract and planned an entire suite of cartoons set to different classical pieces. It would be a full-length feature film, but with the air of a theatrical production, delivered not in conventional cinemas but in specialised systems travelling the country as a roadshow, with famous theatres as venues. The working title was originally just “The Concert Feature”, but it later became “Fantasia”. Disney was keen that the audience feel that the orchestra was in the theatre with them, and was ready to invest a great deal of money in the superior sound reproduction system (dubbed ‘Fantasound’), which would be built by RCA for around $200,000. Disney and RCA poured research attention into many different areas, creating early forms of technologies we now take for granted: stereo sound, multi-track recording, noise reduction, overdubbing and many more.

Of course, even when completed, moving Fantasound around the country from venue to venue would be a nightmare: there was so much that could go wrong with the complex new technologies. What Disney needed was an easy and portable way to test that equipment! By chance, in 1938 the chief sound engineer working on “Fantasia” happened to see a demonstration of Hewlett-Packard’s prototype HP200A (before the company was even strictly formed). The engineer asked Bill Hewlett to make some modifications, resulting in what ended up being called the HP200B. Disney then bought eight of the machines at $71.50 each, enough to test the first 12 Fantasound-equipped theatres that would first show “Fantasia” in 1940. In one fell swoop, Hewlett-Packard had made a sale—indeed, Disney was almost their first customer—that earned them $572, more than the entire working capital the company had been founded with.

In the end, “Fantasia” was not a major financial success, largely because World War II cut off too many markets for Disney in this era, and it would not finally make back its budget of $2.28 million dollars until it was re-released in 1969. Walt Disney had originally had the idea of gradually swapping out segments with new ones, which never fully materialised, but re-releases, revivals and a “Fantasia 2000” sequel would go on to appear. Regardless, the film had created the image of Mickey Mouse in his wizard’s hat and robes, which would influence the iconography of Disney’s theme parks and, eventually, the ideas behind Square Enix’s hugely popular Kingdom Hearts game series.

Yet its biggest legacy may be the fact that Hewlett-Packard went from strength to strength, becoming both the world’s biggest computer manufacturer (jockeying with Lenovo for the title from 2014 onwards) and also one of the largest printer manufacturers, its ink cartridges still typically dominating the supermarket aisle alongside products from Epsom and Brother. It is quite likely the computer you are using to view this article is made by Hewlett-Packard (or rather, as they formally became after a split-up in 2015, “HP Inc.”).

And all because Goethe wrote a poem about a sorcerer’s apprentice in 1797.

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