Palantir started in a very small office on Sand Hill Rd. For a time (while between offices), all work was done in a founder’s bedroom. In late 2005, the Palantir moved to medium-sized, nondescript suite on Page Mill Rd., just across the street from Hewlett-Packard in south Palo Alto. I joined a few months later, as the fifteenth employee. Since that time, we’ve sextupled in size and we’re currently pushing a triple-digit headcount!
We almost ran out of space last year, but managed to find a fantastic office space in downtown Palo Alto, at the intersection of Hamilton and Alma. At the time we acquired the space, we were told that it had been the home of Digital Equipment Corporation’s Western Research Lab. I mentioned this to an acquaintance of mine who mentioned, offhandedly, that this same set of offices was where Java was developed.
A few weeks ago, I got curious about this potentially dangling reference and decided to see if I could transmute it from rumor into fact. It sure would be neat if the fundamental technology that underlies our software was first developed in the very offices in which we work.
Some quick research confirmed the rumors and they’re all true! After the jump, the history of 100 Hamilton Ave.
Before there was a Google, Microsoft, Apple, Sun, or Internet, there was Digital Equipment Corporation (aka DEC). DEC built the PDP series of mini-computers that Unix was originally developed on. In later years, DEC built AltaVista, the first search engine that returned useful results quickly. They did this to show off the power of their Alpha microprocessor, which was one of the first “commodity” 64-bit processors.
In the style of most tech behemoths, DEC funded a number of laboratories where researchers could work on basic science that would hopefully be turned into profitable technologies. In 1982, DEC opened the Western Research Laboratory at 100 Hamilton Ave., in Palo Alto.
Their raison d’être is spelled out in the front matter from one of their technical reports:
The Western Research Laboratory (WRL) is a computer systems research group that was founded by Digital Equipment Corporation in 1982. Our focus is computer science research relevant to the design and application of high performance scientific computers. We test our ideas by designing, building, and using real systems. The systems we build are research prototypes; they are not intended to become products.
As you may know, DEC was purchased by Compaq in 1998, who was then bought in some bizarre reverse-merger fashion by Hewlett-Packard. The full list of their published research is available on the HP Labs website.
People might assume that researchers in this field might be a dry humorless lot. Not so! In 1988, WRL publishes Technical Note 13: Characterization of Organic Illumination Systems, an experiment into the incandescent properties of three varieties of pickles, mandarin oranges, and bok choy. The report includes instructions on making your own pickles as well as a discussion of the practical considerations of making glowing cucumbers commercially viable:
9. Practical considerations
The primary advantage of pickles as light bulbs is that they can be eaten, either before or after providing illumination. Thus they are to be preferred for long sea voyages. Pickles are also organically grown and so do not contribute to pollution. However, whereas incandescent lamps can be manufactured by a single machine at a rate of 20 or 30 per minute , proper pickling takes several weeks and requires careful control . Thus the challenge to economically exploit the rediscovery of pickle light sources comes down to developing techniques for the massive growing of cucumbers and efficient vast vats for pickling. This may be an excellent industry for the Developing world.
For those of you wondering what an incandescent pickle looks like, YouTube is here to help you out:
The legacy of this experiment lived on inside DEC for years. From the Wikipedia page on the DEC Alpha:
Officially, the Alpha processors were designated the DECchip 21x64 series, the “21” signifying the 21st century, and the “64” indicating 64 bits, with the middle digit corresponding to the generation of the Alpha architecture. Internally, Alpha processors were also identified by EV numbers, EV officially standing for “Extended VAX” but having an alternative humorous meaning of “Electric Vlasic”, giving homage to the Electric Pickle experiment at Western Research Lab.
The Western Research Lab ultimately produced some slightly more useful innovations, like AltaVista (in 1995, after they had moved around the corner).
Sometime in 1992, DEC moved the Western Research Lab a few blocks away to 250 University Ave. The world did not yet know Java. At that time, the Java team was known as “The Green Team” and were working in relative seclusion from the rest of Sun, on the fourth floor of the Bank of America building on Sand Hill Road.
Around 1993, the Green Team demoed the *7 (“star seven”), a hand-held computer running an early version of Java (then known as “Oak”) on top of a stripped down version of SunOS.
Building on the momentum of that demo, the Green Team formed FirstPerson, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sun. FirstPerson was working on building and promoting the Oak technology (not yet officially named Java), focusing primarily on the cable set-top box market. The team expanded to about 100 people and moved into the offices that are currently occupied by Palantir. As one of the earliest Java developers recalls:
We moved the company to the best location in the entire south bay. The old DEC Western Research Lab at 100 Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto. This is ironically where the OSF, Open Software Foundation was formed by the “Hamilton Group” before they came up with what Scott always called “Oppose Sun Forever”. Six blocks of the finest restaurants in the Bay Area, CalTrans across the street for the San Fran commuters, and the nicest looking office buildings around. Things were looking up.
Javasoft occupied 100 Hamilton for a very exciting four years before being re-assimilated into the Sun mothership. During that time Java was named, introduced, released to world, and worked through three major revisions of the platform (1.0, 1.1, and 1.2).
This interview with Sami Shalo from JavaWorld’s October 1996 issue (no longer available online) has the details:
JavaWorld: What is your recollection of the meeting in which the word “Java” was chosen as the name of Sun’s new programming environment? Where was it held and when?
Shaio: Oh, boy. Well let me look through my extensive archives. The meeting was held at the “TestPattern” conference room in “PAL2,” which is the building at 100 Hamilton Ave., where all the Java-Internet thing happened. It’s also the infamous building where OSF started, when it was known as the “Hamilton Group.” I believe the meeting was held in perhaps January of 1995.
Palantir started operations at 100 Hamilton in October of 2007. We love our new home, especially having lunch out on our third-floor kitchen balcony. In the grandest Silicon Valley tradition, we’re living the dream of working hard and playing hard, moving the state of the art forward, one line of code at a time.