William Hewlett (HP) - 1986 MIT Commencement Address

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PRESENTER: I am pleased to welcome to the platform the Honorable Walter L. Sullivan, Mayor of the city of Cambridge, and Mr. William R. Hewlett, Vice Chairman of the board of Hewlett-Packard company. Mr. Hewlett will now give the commencement address.


WILLIAM R. HEWLETT: I see I brought my California weather with me. I apologize. Graduating class of 1986, relatives, faculty, and friends, it's a very great pleasure to be with you this morning, because it's exactly 50 years since I walked across the stage at MIT and I was given of a piece of paper that said I was a Master of Science. In those 50 years, I have been intimately associated with the creative process that is so important to our modern high technology, culture. I felt that it might be appropriate, therefore, to share with you some random thoughts on creativity and its importance in today's society.

When I was preparing this address, I happened to ask Chuck House, who heads our engineering productivity department what he thought about creativity. With a twinkle in his eye, Chuck said, creativity is what screws up my engineering program.


Unfortunately, there is much truth in that statement. Thomas Edison is alleged to have remarked about his laboratory, there ain't no rules around here, we're trying to accomplish something. I cite these two comments, because they say a great deal about the creative process. It works best when it is not too structured, but it must, in the long run, be tamed, harnessed, and hitched to the wagon of man's needs.

First, let me set a background to this country's renewed interest in innovation and creativity. By 1983, it was increasingly evident that we were losing the competitive edge that for so long had characterized the American economy. To better understand this problem, President Reagan created a high level commission of distinguished business leaders and educators to review means of increasing the long term competitiveness of the United States industry at home and abroad with particular emphasis on high technology.

After an in-depth study, the commission concluded they were not meeting the competitive challenge well enough. It stated, our ability to compete in world markets is eroding. Growth and US productivity lags far behind that of our foreign competitors. Real hourly compensation for our workforce is no longer improving. US leadership and world trade is declining. Finally, free tax rate of return on assets invested in manufacturing discourages investment in this vital core of our economy.

One of the commission's primary recommendations was to create, apply, and protect technology. Innovation spurs new industries and revise mature ones. Technological advances lead to improved productivity, an essential ingredient of our standard of living. In essence, this recommendation was twofold-- to create technology and to improve productivity.

How do I define creativity? Nobel Prize winner Szent-Gyorgyi provided a good working definition when he said, discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and thinking something quite different. That's a good enough summary to cover much of what I wish to comment on. The trouble is that creativity is really a poly-faceted discipline.

Trying to describe it in detail reminds me of the story of the three blind men who attempted to describe an elephant solely by their sense of feel. One explored the trunk, one discovered the tusks, the third investigated the animal's enormous feet. But none really had a good picture of what the whole animal looked like.

I would like to describe my elephant, creativity, as I've had a chance to observe it over these years. First, let me make one general comment about creative people. Education is not a [INAUDIBLE] known for being creative. A case at point is that of the most successful engineer who worked for us for many years. Despite the fact that he had only completed one year of college, he was one of the most creative people I have known.

You could present Larry with the most difficult problem, and he would come up with really ingenious solutions. He had the ability to isolate the essentials of the problem and tackle it with vigor. It was such a pleasure to talk to him about his work. He just bubbled over with enthusiasm. Many of his ideas are still incorporated in products we are currently manufacturing.

It is very difficult to spot a creative individual just by looking at a resume. Psychologists can't even agree on how to measure this characteristic, let alone predict who will display it. Establishing an environment that fosters creativity and observe those who flourish is probably the best way of finding this elusive talent.

I would like to distinguish between two different kinds of creativity. One is spontaneous in which an individual sees a complete and elegant solution to an interesting problem. The other I call creativity on demand in which specific objectives are established that must be met, both a great deal of flexibility and how the results are to be achieved.

Both types of successful innovators share many traits in common. Creative people have an abiding curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn how and why things work. They take nothing for granted. They are interested in things around them and tend to stow away bits and pieces of information in their mind for future use. And they have a great ability to mobilize their thinking and experiences for use in solving a new problem.

Problems, however, are rarely solved on the spur of the moment. They must be organized and dissected, then key issues isolated and defined. A period of [INAUDIBLE] then sets in, during which these issues are mulled over. You put them in your mind, and consciously or unconsciously, you work at them at odd hours of day or night, even at work.

It is somewhat analogous to trying to place a name on the face of someone that you've met before. Often, the solution to the problem comes to you much the same way that you eventually recall the name. There is a subclass of individuals that not only have the ability to see things around them, but also to note that which differs from the norm.

A good example is Sir Arthur Fleming, who discovered penicillin. His story is familiar to many of you. He noted that when a mold had landed on a culture disk with a colony of Staphylococci, the colonies adjacent to the mold were killed. Many other scientists may have had the same problem, but it simply passed by.

In fact, Fleming himself remembered such a previous occurrence. But this time, he became more interested and concluded the mold must have secreted something that was toxic to the bacteria, and if so that something might be beneficial in the treatment of human infection. Thus, the drug penicillin was born.

I have observed the same creative phenomena and the same questioning minds a number of times. A few years ago, a young British engineer who was working for us was investigating the characteristics of a new semiconductor device. In all the tests, it performed basically as expected. But Frank noted that there seemed to be an excess of noise in his measurement. He completed his project but was still curious.

He decided to look into the source of his excess noise. With the aid of a newly developed measuring technique, he discovered that the noise was, in fact, a very high order harmonic train, essentially an electrical analogy of a water hammer. This proved to be a very important discovery for certain nanosecond measurements. In fact, it made practical the very technology that was used to identify it.

Intellectual curiosity is a great source of creativity. An example is that demonstrated by Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez, a longtime member of our board. While visiting Egypt, Luis became interested in the fact that no major burial chambers have been found in the periods of Khefren and began to muse about how one might determine if such a chamber did exist. Luis was familiar with cosmic rays and knew they might be suitable for X-raying the pyramid.

Careful investigation led him to the conclusion that, if he had been asked to design a proper radiation source for this purpose, it would have been the mu meson, an important component of cosmic rays that exactly fitted the need. An added bonus was the fact that under the pyramid was a chamber that extended the full length of the base, in which he could locate his film-- that is, a series of detectors that could measure the strength of the mu meson as well as the direction of arrival. With these thoughts in mind, he went to the chancellor of US Berkeley, who on the basis of Luis' analysis provided a small amount of money to carry out the experiment.

I mention this, because it is a good example of how a little support can encourage a creative person. The study was not a normal function of a physics department, nor was financing of it easy. It was just a fascinating subject the chancellor thought might add to man's knowledge of the past.

Luis received the enthusiastic support of the Egyptian government, and the experiment in due course took place. No chamber was discovered. Yet the experiment was successful, because Luis was able to prove beyond doubt that there was no major chamber in the pyramid.

Another example is that of an HP scientist who was a specialist in designing quartz crystals used for generating extremely accurate time standards. The accuracy of such reference crystals is very sensitive to change in temperature and mechanical force. Much of the existing technology used to stabilize these crystals has to do with minimizing the effect of these two variables.

Don took the opposite view. He thought, why not use the intrinsic sensitivity of temperature as a way to produce a digital thermometer? Normally, the frequency change is not a linear function of temperature, but Don devised a technique to linearize this relationship to about a tenth of a degree over a range from minus 40 to 200 degrees centigrade and with the resolution of about a ten thousandth of a degree.

A major advantage of this technique, other than that that are obvious, was that the sensing element could be located as far as 10,000 feet from the measuring instrument with no loss of accuracy. In a similar fashion, he produced a quartz transducer that operated at pressures up to 10,000 pounds per square inch with an accuracy of about a twentieth of a pound per square inch and a resolution of about a thousandth of a BSI. This device has been used extensively in oceanographic studies and for measuring differential pressures in oil fields to determine the best pumping strategy.

Basically, I've been talking about creativity applied to research type situations. Now, let me turn to the development phase, where creativity on demand is the usual mode. Here, creativity's role is slightly different. There is now a clearly defined objective, and the job is to find a way to meet this goal. This is the type of creativity about which much has been written, primarily because techniques to stimulate and enhance it are well known.

One book on this subject I greatly enjoyed was Conceptual Blockbusting by James L. Adams. His title suggests that we all suffer from mental blocks that stand in the way of solving problems at hand. These might be emotional blocks, such as fear of failure, frustration, or too much or too little motivation. They may be perceptual blocks, such as using incorrect information or the wrong method or not all your senses. Quite often, they are cultural blocks, which sometimes can be the hardest to overcome.

I think this is an area in which younger people have a tremendous advantage, since, as you well know, they have an enduring habit of always questioning past wisdom and authority. They say to themselves, there must be a better way. 99 times out of 100, they discover that existing traditional ways are the best. But it is that 1% that counts. This is how progress is made.

A wonderful example of the desire to break from the rigid traditions of the past may be that of the French impressionist painters during the latter part of the 19th century. The most important works of these painters had been excluded from the Salon, held in Paris nearly every year under the auspices of Les Académie des Beaux-Arts. The Salon juries refused their work, because they did not follow the traditions of the academic schools.

Finally in 1874, the impressionists, several of them in their 20s and 30s, banded together to share the cost of exhibiting their own controversial works. And a series of eight of these impressionistic exhibits were held. And by 1886, the impressionist school was well established and recognized. But now to return to the more mundane world of R&D.

Projects do not always progress at a steady uniform rate. Sometimes, progress is stymied by very difficult problems. The problem might be overcome by clear technical breakthrough. But more often than not, it is bypassed with a compromised solution I like to call a hot patch. If there are too many of these hot patches, you probably will wind up with a very clumsy solution to the problem.

My company has often employed retired engineers or scientists on a part time consulting base. One such was Harald Friis of Bell Telephone Laboratories. I am sure that some of the electrical engineers in the audience are familiar with his book on antenna design.

Harald and his wife would come to California during the winter months and spend time in and around Palo Alto Harald enjoyed visiting with our engineers in the laboratories. Frankly, he didn't know beans about modern transistor circuitry, but he knew how to think about the development process, and he loved to work with the engineers who felt they had reached a dead end on a project.

He would get them to step back and view their work as a whole. He would ask, what are you really trying to do? Are you on the right track, or do you feel you have too many hot patches? Or are you really on the wrong track and need to make a fresh start?

This can be one of the toughest decisions a development engineer may have to make. Harald was just wonderful in helping young engineers reach this critical decision. He had a way of making a person see things in perspective, and engineers just loved him. We always try to encourage this kind of interaction in our laboratories between generations, because experienced engineers can be very helpful in the development process. In this exchange of ideas, I have often seen younger researchers learn new ways to harness the use of their instincts.

In practice, spontaneous creativity and normal development process are often intertwined and may, in fact, seem to conflict. Witness Chuck House's comments referred to earlier, there is a time and a place for creativity, but in the development process timing sometimes outweighs innovation. It all comes back to the question of how often you can change course and still make forward progress.

I remember when we were trying to bring out our first scientific desktop calculator. Integrated circuits were just being introduced. And we had to decide whether to delay the entry of the project, so that we might use integrated circuits, or go ahead and introduce it with a primitive but proven read-only memory device. We chose the latter. Timing was a dominant factor and not the nicest to the solution.

I have talked enough about creativity in the R&D phase. Now, let's look at how creativity can help increase productivity and improve quality. This challenge is clearly defined by the findings of the President's commission. We need the same creative effort in the production process that we now lavish on the development phase.

We must start by having productivity and quality as stated objectives of the research and development program. Productivity must be designed under a project, not added at a later date. Quality cannot be inspected in.

There was already a great deal of technology readily available that can be used to improve quality and manufacturability of a product. In many cases, however, the US industries have not taken advantage of this knowledge, although much of it originated in the United States. We need new ideas and new leadership in this quest. Here, the universities have a very real responsibility.

I don't mean that they should go back to teaching forge, foundry, and machine shop, subjects that I had to take as an engineering student. But our universities do need to provide a theoretical base for quality and efficiency in the manufacturing process. I am delighted to learn that this trend is already underway at this institution. But after all, what else would you expect.

I hope I've made it clear that creativity will play a vital and critical role in our increasingly high tech society. Our company president, John Young, put it this way. Creativity is the only American competitive advantage left. Industry is going to have to make some dramatic changes in how it views the importance of research and development programs and the necessity of increasing productivity.

Change never comes easy. There's comfort in safety and tradition. But change must come no matter how painful or how expensive it may be.

From your standpoint, this situation is anything but bleak. Personal advancement in a static company or a static industry can be slow and difficult. Change, however, opens cracks in those monolithic structures. It presents a period of great opportunity, for this is the time when the best and the most creative minds we sought out and placed in positions of responsibility. In the high tech field, top leadership was always looking for good minds, high energy levels, and willingness to accept responsibility.

In fact, our company is so dependent upon creativity that we're still emphasizing the recruitment of engineering graduates, even though there is a freezing hire in effect for the rest of the company. It may turn out that the present period will be looked back upon as one of unprecedented opportunity for a scientifically minded. You are in a unique position to take advantage of this situation. Good luck. I wish you success, happiness, and great bursts of creativity in all of your endeavors.