Hylke Wiersma had never heard of Hewlett-Packard when he moved
to the United States in 1958. He and his wife had just emigrated
from The Netherlands, arriving with two suitcases and a few dollars,
and the HP job application puzzled him, asking him to choose among
working days, evenings or the graveyard shift.
"I knew what a graveyard was, but I could not understand
what an electronics business had to do with the cemetery,"
he says. "I played it safe and chose the day shift, and 10
days later I was put on the payroll."
Forty-four years later, he is again at HP, this time in HP Quantum
Science Research group. Wiersma had retired in 1998, only to return
18 months later to design and build the imprinting machine, an
elegant silver device used in the process of making nanowires.
Nothing quite like it exists on the market.
"HP's instruments have the reputation of being made to last,"
says Yong Chen, research lead on the project to build computer
memory devices out of molecules. "When Hylke designed and
fabricated this machine, I could feel that spirit. If one tiny
thing didn't work right, he pushed it and changed it and couldn't
sleep right until it was perfect."
Wiersma seemed destined to go into electronics from the start.
As a small boy, he preferred his blocks and erector set to sports.
While his father served in the Dutch army, he repaired the electrical
plug of his mother's vacuum cleaner.
"My brothers and I took turns making the sewing machine
generator go. It also kept us a little warmer," he recalls.
After the war, Wiersma began tinkering with radios (radios were
forbidden under the Germans) amplifiers, old phonographs and excess
army equipment. After completing school, he went to work for Philips
Electronics, testing radio receivers for quality.
Wiersma and his wife decided to emigrate for two reasons: a severe
housing shortage and the rain. "I remember the day I decided
to go - it was pouring, of course," he says.
When Wierma joined HP in 1958, the company had less than 1,800
employees and he was paid $1.50 an hour, plus a production bonus.
In the first years, he worked on test equipment for oscilloscopes,
which HP had introduced only two years earlier. The instruments
show variations in a fluctuating electrical quantity as wave forms
that are visible on a screen.
In 1973, he joined HP Labs,
where for the next 25 years he did what he does best -- helping
to make scientists' visions real.
"They come up with the idea, and I give it form and shape,"