David Packard

  • Hometown: Palo Alto, Calif.
  • Sex: Male
  • Alma Mater: Stanford University
  • Religion: Episcopalian
  • Era: 20th Century
  • Source of Fortune:
    • Technology
  • Philanthropic Focus:
    • Conservation
    • Public Policy
    • Higher Education

David Packard was the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, a pioneering business that accelerated many of America’s greatest technological achievements during the 20th century. A prominent public servant and philanthropist, he was a leading funder of conservation efforts, public-policy think tanks, and his alma mater, Stanford University.

Packard was born in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1912. From a young age, he was fascinated by science. Relying on the World Book Encyclopedia, he dabbled in chemistry, cooking up his own homemade explosives—until he nearly blew off his left thumb. (From then on, young David favored tinkering with handmade crystal radio sets.) By the time he was in high school, the six-foot-five Packard stood out for his athletic prowess—he lettered in football, basketball, and track—and his academic achievement.

In 1930, Packard began his freshman year at Stanford University. (During the lean years of the Great Depression, his father managed the quarterly tuition of $114 thanks to one of the era’s few steady jobs: bankruptcy referee.) At Stanford he had a remarkably rounded college career, winning three varsity letters in his first year. He studied engineering under Fred Terman, a relentless innovator whose research on vacuum tubes, circuits, and radios helped establish the field of electrical engineering. Under Terman’s mentorship, Packard dropped basketball and track (but not football, he later explained, because of “peer pressure”) and devoted most of his attention to his studies.

Packard excelled academically, and was admitted to both the Alpha Delta Phi literary society and the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Moreover, at Stanford he met his future business partner, William Hewlett, another of Terman’s students. More importantly still, he also met his future wife, Lucile Salter, while he was washing dishes at the Delta Gamma sorority. They married in 1938, forming a bond that lasted until her death in 1987, producing one son and three daughters. After graduation, Packard worked briefly for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, before returning to Stanford to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1938.

Just as some American presidents were born in one-room log cabins, so too have some great American corporations been launched in one-car garages. One of the greatest of these is Hewlett-Packard, a pioneer in personal and business computers, and among the largest manufacturers of electronics in the world. It was founded in 1939 in Palo Alto, California, by Hewlett and Packard with an initial investment of $538. When the company incorporated in 1947, they tossed a coin to decide its name. Packard won the toss and put Hewlett’s name first. It was that sort of partnership.

Having set up business in Packard’s garage, Hewlett and Packard’s first product was an innovative audio oscillator, a device for testing and synchronizing sound equipment. At the time, precision audio oscillators sold for over $200, but they introduced a temperature-dependent resistor that greatly improved stability. The two amateur history buffs decided to charge $54.40, after the 1844 Democratic rallying cry, “Fifty-four Forty or Fight!” Walt Disney bought eight of the oscillators for use in the production of Fantasia. The partners never looked back. In 2012, the company’s gross sales were $120 billion, with 331,800 employees and an estimated 1 billion customers worldwide.

Hewlett concentrated on the product side of the business while Packard tended to the business side, where he ran a famously tight ship. (When Hewlett-Packard went public in 1961, several executives missed the ceremony at the New York Stock Exchange because they got lost on the subway on the way down from their midtown hotel. Their expense accounts didn’t cover taxis, let alone limousines.) Packard stayed with the company he founded the rest of his life, except for two years (1969-1971) when he served as Deputy Secretary of Defense. He remained remarkably forward-looking throughout his business career; it was Packard who decided in 1986 to register the domain name HP.com, fully a decade before the internet became commercially important.

Packard’s contributions to corporate America are well-known; his beneficence as a philanthropist, perhaps less so. That is unfortunate, not least because of the scale of his giving. He and his wife established the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, to which he left the bulk of his $4 billion estate. Moreover, during their lifetimes, the Packards were notable philanthropists.

Environmental conservation in general, and marine conservation in particular, was a lifelong concern for Packard. Perhaps the most conspicuous result of Packard’s conservation giving is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, visited by 1.8 million people annually. Located in Monterey, California, on the site of an old sardine cannery that had been featured in two of John Steinbeck’s novels, it ranks among the world’s largest aquariums. At the 1984 opening, Packard credited two of his daughters who studied marine biology—Nancy and Julie (who remains executive director of the aquarium)—with fanning his interest in the project.

Packard invested himself in the aquarium. Before beginning, he studied other successful models. “What we learned,” he explained in a 1985 interview, “was that most aquariums are built on a fixed budget, and they made short cuts.” Not so Packard. (“The result was that the aquarium cost us $40 million instead of $10 million,” he added.) The aquarium has spectacular exhibits, including a live California kelp forest, made possible by pumps that circulate 2,000 gallons-per-minute of ocean water from Monterey Bay. Naturally, Packard designed the wave machine that keeps the kelp undulating. “My children thought we shouldn’t charge admission so that poor people could come,” he later said. “I said we weren’t going to do it that way. If what we did was right, people will pay for it. If it wasn’t right, we shouldn’t have done it.”

David Packard, who flourished so abundantly in the American capitalist system, was a firm believer in the power of free markets to enrich society as a whole. He served for years on the boards of the Hoover Institution, the Herbert Hoover Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute. He was an enthusiastic patron of each, reported Philanthropy magazine in 2000, “donating his time, talents, and fortune to their success.” When AEI hit hard financial times in the early 1980s, Packard “helped very significantly with his finances and his advice,” according to former AEI president Christopher DeMuth. “He bailed us out. He was a hands-on trustee, a great man.”

The third principal recipient of the Packard family’s generosity was Stanford University. In 1986, David and Lucile Packard donated $40 million to found the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital located in Palo Alto, which opened in 1991, four years after her death. It is regarded as one of the best pediatric hospitals in the country, with a physician staff of 650. In 1996, it merged with the Stanford Medical Center.

Packard funded three professorships at his alma mater, in engineering, marine science, and literature. He also funded everything from sports facilities to the Terman Fellowships—named in honor of his old Stanford mentor—to provide financial support to young science and engineering professors. In 1994, Packard partnered with Hewlett to donate $77 million to the school to build the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building next to the William Hewlett Teaching Center.

Altogether Packard and Hewlett, together and separately, donated more than $300 million to Stanford. As the university put it on his death, “Dave Packard, along with his wife, Lucile, and his partner, Bill Hewlett, have shaped and nurtured this university in ways that can only be compared to the founders, Jane and Leland Stanford.”

“Everywhere I look I see the potential for growth, for discovery far greater than anything we have seen in the 20th century,” reflected David Packard in 1995, a year before he died. All that was needed, he believed, was determination. “The state of change is proportional to the level of effort expended.”

Further reading:

  • David Packard, The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (HarperBusiness, 1995)
  • Christophe Lécuyer, Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970 (MIT Press, 1996)