humanity from global warming. Last month, TED celebrated its 25thanniversary in Long Beach, California, where a crowd of 1,300 listenedto speakers including Oliver Sacks, Daniel Liebeskind, and Nate Sil-ver opine on topics of their choosing for 18 minutes each—no more,no less, as is conference tradition. (In years past, the long-winded orovertly commercial would simply have their microphones turned off;these days, a ashing light serves as a more polite warning.)It’s a power fest like no other, and the $6,000 ticket price helpskeep it that way. But organizer Chris Anderson—not to be confusedwith the editor-in-chief of
—is distinctly uncomfortable withTED’s elitist reputation. Since acquiring the conference in 2001 fromits charismatic founder, Richard Saul Wurman, Anderson has set outto bring the magic of TED to a much wider audience. You may not havethe fancy title or bank account to make the guest list, but now you canlisten in remotely via simulcasts or visit TED.com to download hun-dreds of high-denition TEDTalks for free. Anderson has also estab-lished a humanitarian award called the TED Prize that grants threenotable individuals $100,000 to realize one wish to make the planet abetter place. Novelist Dave Eggers, for instance, used the money to setup a foundation that helps people donate time to local public schools.But TED began as a much simpler enterprise. In 1984, Wurmanset out to “host the dinner party he always wished he could have butcouldn’t,” as he famously used to quip at the beginning of each confer-ence. “I was interested in ideas and passions and in people’s hobbies.Exclusivity came operationally, because when people realized it wasgood, they sent their money in early.”TED has been sold out ever since. This timeline of conference high-lights explains why.
Nicole Dyer is a senior editor at
imagine you’re at a dinner party.
To the left of you is Walt Mossberg,to the right is Ozzy Osbourne. Sitting directly across the table is FrankGehry. Wait, who’s that guy next to Frank? Is that the legendary prima-tologist Frans de Waal? Yes, that’s Frans. Don’t look now but there’sLarry Page and Sergey Brin; the Google duo is talking to Al Gore. Andnext to Al is someone named Oliver Stone.Face after face, it’s the same. Everyone is elite, everyone is brilliant,and after eavesdropping on their conversations for ten minutes, you re-alize that everyone is irrepressibly interesting. Feeling overwhelmed?This is the essence of TED, the Technology, Entertainment andDesign conference, an annual gathering of well-heeled overachiev-ers, from artists to business magnates, who convene to talk about thethings they’re most passionate about and to share “ideas worth spread-ing,” as the conference tagline promises. This typically entails headysubjects like string theory, open-source architecture, and ways to save
45TED at 25
TED at 25
A brief history of the conferencethat’s changed the face of invention.
1984:Richard SaulWurman stages thefirst TED conference
in Monterey, California.
The guest list includessuch luminaries ascomputer scientistNicholas Negroponte,founder of MIT’sMedia Lab, and HerbieHancock. Sony executiveMichael Schulhof talksabout the futureof media and tosseshard shiny discscalled “CDs” into theaudience. “No one hada machine to play themon,” Wurman recalls.The gathering was alsotreated to one of thefirst demonstrations ofthe Macintosh computer.1990:After a six-yearhiatus due to budgetconstraints, Wurmandebuts the second TED,again in Monterey,where it would remainuntil 2008. FrankGehry, Laurie Anderson,and John Sculley, theformer Pepsi executivewho invented the PepsiChallenge, are amongthe attendees.1992:Guest listnotables: MichaelCrichton, Bill Gates,Stephen Jay Gould, andQuincy Jones1994:Penn & Teller,Thomas Dolby, DeanOrnishMid-1990s:The dot-com bubble balloons;venture-capital cashand lucrative stockoptions flow like cheapchampagne. EntrepreneurJeff Bezos, a regularTED fixture, foundsAmazon.com in 1994.1995:Jonas Salk,inventor of the poliovaccine, gives hislast speech at TED. Hepasses away in June.“Ricky is a mutant,”he tells the audience.“You’re all mutants andthat’s why everyonehere understands what’sgoing on.”1995:Journalist LouisRossetto and publishingpartner Jane Metcalfereceive seed money tolaunch their Europeanpublication,
in theU.S. under the new nameof
1998:Britishjournalist ChrisAnderson attends TEDfor the first time.“I thought I had comehome,” he says. “Ididn’t want it everto end.” His favoritespeaker: Microsoft CEOand paleontology buffNathan Myhrvold,who gives a colorfuland unexpectedtalk entitled “WhyDinosaurs Fuck.”1998:Aimee Mullins, aParalympics competitor,shows TEDsters themeaning of humanresilience when sheputs on her race-ready artificial legs.“That was a classic TEDmoment,” says Anderson.“It wasn’t so muchabout technology ordesign as it was abouthumanity.”1999:Li Lu takesthe TED stage 10years after he helpedorganize the studentprotests in TiananmenSquare. “There wasn’ta sound in the room,”recalls Wurman. “Hetold his whole story.It took people’s breathaway. I broke my ruleand let him speak for40 minutes.”1999:Anderson launches
; hecredits the title toa conversation he hadwith Jeff Bezos ina bathroom during aTED conference.1999:Bill Gross ofstart-up GoTo.com givesTEDsters a demo of thefirst internet searchengine to generatead-supported results,an innovation that“arguably inspiredGoogle’s searchalgorithm,” saysAnderson. Adds Wurman:“Bill sparkled with somuch enthusiasm, hehad us all convincedthat he was going tobe the next dot-combillionaire.”1999:Scientists DavidGallo and Bill Langeof the Woods HoleOceanographic Institutewow the audience withastounding pictures ofexotic sea creatures.1999:Jazz vibraphonistGary Burton performs.2000:On March 11, theNASDAQ plunges, theofficial pinprick inthe dot-com bubble.The crash vaporizesthousands of over-inflated start-ups,including DigiScents,a company that aspiredto transmit odors overthe internet and whosedesktop scent boxappeared on the coverof
in 1999. Alsodust: Pets.com, theonline pet store whosewildly popular sock-puppet mascot failedto win the hearts ofinvestors, and Go.com,Disney’s unconvincingme-too search engineand web portal.2001:Looking to injectmore social activisminto TED, Anderson’sSapling Foundationacquires the conferencefrom Wurman. “You hadthis amazing group ofpeople full of a senseof real possibility andimagination and perhapsnothing much was beingdone with it,” saysAnderson. “There wasan untapped aspect ofit. People got excitedbut there was no realfocus. That was onevery real challengefor me.”2001:Surgeon andbest-selling authorSherwin Nuland deliversan emotional talkabout his strugglewith depression andreveals in public forthe first time hisexperience receivingelectroshock therapy.“Everyone in theaudience was crying,”says Wurman. “There wassuch courage in hisvulnerability. He didit because he receivedso many accoladesfor his writing andwork that he feltcompelled to share hisimperfections.”2003:Amazon’s JeffBezos takes the stageand calls the averageinternet experience akludge. “We’re at the1908 Hurley WashingMachine stage ofinternet development,”he tells the audience,predicting radicalimprovements in thefuture, despite grimWall Street forecasts.2004:Eve Ensler talksvaginas: “I was worriedabout vaginas, aboutwhat we think aboutthem and what we don’tthink about them.” Shedescribes how her ObieAward–winning play
ledher to create V-Day,a nonprofit organizationthat has raised morethan $50 million toend violence againstwomen worldwide.1980199020001995Continued...
TED’s rst year; attendeesare treated to one of therst demonstrations of the Macintosh computer
The dot-combubble balloons;entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, a TEDregular, foundsAmazon.com
Microsoft CEO NathanMyhrvold discourses on“Why Dinosaurs Fuck”
NASDAQ plunges; Pets.comtanks, despite its wildlypopular sock-puppet mascot
Chris Anderson launches
; he credits thetitle to a conversation hehad in a bathroom duringa TED conference
Feminist writer andactivist Eve Enslertalks vaginas anddescribes herunhappy childhood
M a t h i e u t h o u v e n i n ( j e f f B e Z o S )