A Brief History Of TED


It occurred to me during frequent airplane flights in 1982 that the only interesting conversations I was having were with people in the technology business, the entertainment industry and the design professions, and that the exciting news from them had to do with the crossing of the boundaries between these disciplines.

It was an embrace of these patterns that led me to invent the TED conference. Careful observation leading to the discovery of patterns, and just letting things reveal themselves, is often mistaken for discovery when it is only really seeing the obvious. The obvious in this case was that in every conversation, people in these related fields were talking about not only their own work, but rather what they knew or wanted to know or found intriguing about these sister businesses. The designers were in awe of technology, the entertainment business was desperately in need of design of the information they were conveying, and the technology business was certainly in need of these other two fields.

So I created TED, but it was perhaps invented a few years before its time. And so by the beginning of 1984 when I held the first conference in Monterey, California, I could get my good friends as speakers, but I could not get a terribly large audience. Up until shortly before the conference I only had a couple of hundred in a room that sat 500, so I filled the room with another hundred or so students and others at a discount rate, so there would be a critical mass there at conference time.

The speakers were grand. Right from the very beginning I started with a disparate, eclectic group of presenters. At the very first conference there was Herbie Hancock, who left after a performance session that wasn't over until well after midnight to receive his first Grammy. Benoit Mandelbrot had just shaken up the world with his discovery (again the discovery of a pattern) of fractal geometry. The patron saint of TED, who has been to almost all the TED conferences, Nicholas Negroponte was there. (The MIT Media Lab was also launched in 1984 as an outgrowth of the MIT Architecture Machine.) Stewart Brand was there as well, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, again a book of different patterns. Stewart met Nick, and the book The Media Lab was born.

Mickey Schulhof, later the President of Sony of America for several years, gave away shiny little discs to everybody, when nobody knew what they were, and nobody owned a CD player. We had top representatives from NBC and from the Lucas Group. Bob Abel, who was then at the forefront of developing ways to tell complex multimedia stories, showed his patterns for learning. The editor-in-chief of a new newpaper that people thought would soon go bankrupt, came and told us the vision behind it, and that newspaper was USA Today. At that same time a new book called Megatrends was on best-seller lists around the world, and its author, John Naisbitt, gave both an opening talk and a summation.

This eclectic group of people who were to prophesy the merging of technology, entertainment and design, and thus the emerging of a new career track, were the first TEDologists.

The audience went away enthused - and I went back to work, thinking that I would never again put myself through the agonies of this money-losing situation, and having to beg people to come to hear wonderful speeches. Several years later, in 1988, somebody who was at the first TED conference convinced Harry Marks and me to try again, so we decided to do TED2.

The year was 1990. TED conference in 1984 was the first place that the Macintosh was shown in the United States. John Naisbitt came back to TED2. Nicholas Negroponte returned, as he has to almost every TED conference. Jaron Lanier broke onto the scene with an extraordinary talk about virtual reality, once again a subject that few knew about, but that two years later would be in video arcades.

At TED3 in 1992, we were welcomed by Walter Cronkite over closed-circuit television. Bill Atkinson, the creator of HyperCard, and the beginning of a new kind of software, came and gave a wonderful speech about learning with Alan Kay, then at Apple. Herbie Hancock joined us again, and we had a number of new presenters - Frank Gehry, the world famous architect, Tak Igarashi, Nancye Green, and Nigel Holmes, the extraordinary graphic designer who created information graphics for Time magazine, which became the model for understandable graphics.

Bran Ferren gave one of his early speeches at TED3, and later became head of technology at Disney. Bill Gates and Timothy Leary met and spoke for the first time during one of the dinners. It was an interesting meeting. A year after that, the first conference outside of Monterey, and outside of the United States, was TED4Kobe. It was probably more notable as a social success than for any big ideas projected. But as an intellectual and social meeting place for 450 Japanese and 250 foreigners, mostly from America, I think it was a major success. There was one extraordinary evening put on by NTT bringing together Makoto Ozone and Herbie Hancock with a remote (Tokyo-Kobe) digital jazz concert which was historic and will be long remembered.

TED5 was back in Monterey in February 1994. Daniel Boorstin, the brilliant historian and writer, as well as Librarian of Congress Emeritus, joined us for the first time. Bill Gates came to make his second presentation. Muriel Cooper, an old friend and colleague, made a wonderful presentation, much of which was crafted during the three days of the meeting, in its only live form, culminating her years of contributions to information architecture, most recently as the founder of the Visual Language Workshop at the MIT Media Lab. With this presentation, Muriel, in my words, allowed us to fly through information. Shortly after showing a tape of this work in Cambridge, England, just a few months later, she died.

Rick Smolan, who single-mindedly embarks every few years on a remarkable project, a number of which he has shown us at TED, demonstrated his current photography project. Penn & Teller were a great hit as well. TED6 was held in February 1995. Alexander Tsiaras showed us more remarkable images of the human body as part of his Anatomical Travelogue project. Roger Law, of Spitting Image, showed us images of some of his remarkable satirical puppets of major world figures and celebrities. The brilliant Stuart Kaufman, then of the Santa Fe Institute, spoke over most of our heads on complexity.

Jonas Salk made one of his last public appearances when he joined us. (How fortunate I didn't wait to invite him to the first TEDMED conference.) The Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, the author of Harmony, also spoke. My own upcoming sixtieth birthday was recognized in a bizarre helium-induced Mickey Mouse chorus of Happy Birthday as the finale of Tom Rielly and Russell Preston Brown's TEDZilla.

TEDMED was held in Charleston SC in October 1995. This conference was focused on the communication of medical information due to my growing fascination with understanding more about my body and my health. Much like the very first TED, I got an extraordinary group of presenters for TEDMED, but had great difficulty finding an audience.

The presenters included C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General, the always brilliant and eloquent Stephen Jay Gould, Horace Deets of the AARP, Laurie Garrett, who had just written the disquieting book The Coming Plague, as well as Dean Kamen, the inventor of among other things, several medical devices.

I followed up TEDMED with another more-tightly focused TED conference in February 1996. TEDSELL was about our transactional future. The remarkable presentations included stand-outs by Stanley Marcus, the retail legend, Laurie Anderson, the performance artist and musician, and Ricky Jay, the phenomenal magician and actor. John Doerr and Will Hearst, partners at Kleiner Perkins, talked about their then start-up, the broadband cable venture @Home. Bill Gross, as a member of the audience, came away from TEDSELL contemplating ideas which resulted in the first Internet incubator company idealab!

TED7, in Monterey in February 1997, returned to the general TED focus. I thought I really raised the bar with this meeting, in terms of meeting my objective of sustained intellectual hedonism. Daniel Boorstin joined us for his second TED to give a wonderful presentation on the amateur. Edward DeBono came and made one of his eloquent, witty presentations. Rand and Robin Miller previewed Riven. Gary Burton and Mokoto Ozone performed amazing duets. Michael Moschen, the MacArthur Award-winning choreographer and juggler, astounded the audience. Norman Pearlstine and Kurt Andersen (between editing New York magazine and writing his first novel and founding Powerful Media) joined us for the first time.

Li Lu, the Tiananmen Square dissident, now a venture capitalist in New York, told his moving story in eloquent newly learned and perfect English. Frank Gehry and Tom Krens, the head of the Guggenheim Museum, previewed their remarkable Bilbao building before it opened to virtually universal acclaim. Herbie Hancock joined us again with a wonderful performance.

After TED7, I put on another meeting - in New York, as I'd wanted to for some time - focused on my concept of learning as the new American business: Technotainment. TEDNYC took place in September 1997. The program was remarkable, although we were competing with the City for our audience. One of the greatest emotional high points of any TED was the presentation by Bob Abel and the Jet Propulsion Lab Mars Pathfinder team of the back-up Sojourner Truth rover. Sumner Redstone of Viacom welcomed us. Raymond Smith, then CEO of Bell Atlantic, Tom Freston of MTV, Ace Greenberg of Bear Sterns, Walter Isaacson of Time, Ed Friedrichs of Gensler, Bob Pittman of AOL, David Rockwell of The Rockwell Group, Dan Wieden of Wieden & Kennedy, Courtney Ross of the Ross School, and Robert Krulwich of ABC News were among the presenters.

TED8 was again in Monterey in February 1998. I believe we raised the bar once again. Ruth Brown sang beautifully, and the skillful and energetic Klezmer Conservatory Band got everyone moving in their seats. Presenters included Frans de Waal, the primatologist, the always brilliant Kevin Kelly, the multi-talented Oliver Stone, and the theatre genius Julie Taymor (speaking on her triumph The Lion King, as her first film Titus was still in the future). An emotional high point was the beautiful athlete Aimee Mullins taking off her remarkable prosthetic legs. Another high point was undoubtedly the appearance by Billy Graham, who moved a largely agnostic audience with his eloquent professions of faith.

The influential Wall Street Journal columnist Walt Mossberg helped us understand speech recognition, moderating presentations by Ozzie Osborne of IBM Speech Systems, and Janet Baker of Dragon Systems. Walt's session was accompanied by another group of presentations on search engine and related technologies later in the meeting. As I told the audience, voice technology and search engines combine to give you Star Trek. Forrest Sawyer followed up his Nightline feature at TEDNYC with a presentation.

Despite the difficulty I had with TEDMED, I put on TEDMED2 in May 1998, again in Charleston. I planned a program of presentations more impressive than the first time, but still struggled to get an audience. Richard Rockefeller, of the Health Commons Institute returned, along with William Haseltine of Human Genome Sciences (giving a speech even more intriguing than the first time), and Horace Deets of AARP. Stephen Jay Gould, while always brilliant, gave perhaps his best-ever TED speech. Hamilton Jorden, Carter's Chief of Staff, spoke movingly on his three battles with cancer. Shaun Jones, then at the Defense Department's DARPA unit, gave a chilling presentation on biological warfare countermeasures. Finally, Joe Sachs, a writer and technical advisor for the television program ER, gave an insightful talk about his work and the educational value of the weekly show.

TED9 was held in February 1999, and was so successful that I didn't think I would be able to surpass it with TEDX. Peter Bergman rejoined us, this time with the entire Firesign Theatre. Jim Fowler was back with a great group of animals. A remarkable feature of TED9 were separate presentations by the three women, personally chosen by Richard Leakey - Jane Goodall, who has worked with chimpanzees, Biruté Galdikas, who focused on orangutans, and Penny Patterson, who has cared for apes.

Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons, previewed his new show, Futurama. Dale Chihuly brought a great collection of his glass art and told us about his projects. Quincy Jones rejoined us after an absence of several years and gave us an overview of his acclaimed career in music. Story Musgrave, the multi-talented former astronaut, showed us images of the Earth from his Space Shuttle missions. Maya Lin, the artist and architect, who started out her career designing the brilliant Vietnam Veterans Memorial, spoke of more recent projects.

Peter Hirshberg headed up a hilarious presentation on designing your own religion, focusing on Wurmanism - perhaps the most elaborately produced entertainment at TED since the remote duet of Herbie Hancock and Makoto Ozone at TED4 in 1993. Tom Rielly and Russell Brown made their final of many brilliantly funny TEDZilla presentations, which dated back to TED3.

TEDX, held in February 2000, had an overriding theme: understanding America (not reviewing the history or projecting the future) at this critical moment. I produced a book, Understanding USA, to accompany the meeting. Interspersed with many presenters you would expect, given the theme, we were also joined by Art Buchwald, the humorist; Danny Hillis, who spoke about his Long Now Foundation Millennium Clock and publicly showed for the first time a working model; Bill Joy, the Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems; and Irwin Kula, a rabbi and President of CLAL. Also participating were Michael Milken, the philanthopist and financier; Sinbad, the actor and comedian; James Truman, Editorial Director at Condé Nast; and Anne Simon, a professor of biochemistry, who is also a scientific advisor for The X-Files.

After TEDX, in partnership with Moses Znaimer, a pioneer in innovative television from Canada, who had spoken a couple of times at TED, I put on a Canadian meeting called TEDCity, in June 2000, in Toronto. It was like a regular TED, except that all the presenters either live in or were born in Canada. While we suffered the registration anxieties that accompany the first iteration of any meeting I've ever planned, the presenters were phenomenal.

Frank Gehry, a TED regular was there. My old friend Moshe Safdie, another architect, joined us for the first time. Others included Bruce Cockburn, the musician; Naida Cole, the pianist; Douglas Coupland and William Gibson, the novelists; Atom Egoyan, Norman Jewison, and Art McKellar, who direct, write and act in movies; Natalie MacMaster the Cape Breton fiddler; Kevin Newman of ABC News; and Julie Payette the Canadian Space Agency astronaut, among many others.

After the great success of TEDX, I thought the next event would only be incrementally better, but most people seemed to agree with me that TED11 was the best ever. There were many wonderful moments just on the opening day - starting out with amazing underwater images presented by David Gallo and Bill Lange of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The Raspyni Brothers returned, and performed live juggling titles in conjunction with the always extraordinary video titles from Bob Greenberg of R/GA. John Wooden, the retired UCLA basketball coach, made a moving presentation, then stayed long after he was to leave for another engagement. Spencer Tunick, infamous for his beautiful landscapes of nudes, showed us his images, then was arrested early on Friday morning after taking photographs of about 80 TED audience members down on Fisherman's Wharf. Gary Burton organized a wonderful performance with Julian Lage, an incredibly talented 13-year-old guitarist, during which they were joined on the piano by Herbie Hancock, who was sitting in the audience. Sherwin Nuland returned from TEDMED2 and gave an powerful presentation on his battle with profound depression as a young man. This was all just the first day. Subsequent highlights included performances by Linda Martinez, Naida Cole and Natalie MacMaster; presentations by three Nobel laureates - Leon Lederman, William Sharpe and Murray Gell-Mann; as well as a great first TED appearance by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who not only showed a number of clips from the upcoming DreamWorks animated feature Shrek, but helped me with prize drawings.

Norman Lear joined us for a presentation and also brought his foundation's copy of the Declaration of Independence. John McCarter also presented, and brought a cast of Tyranosaurus Sue's skull. Similarly, Frank Gehry was back for a presentation, and brought a model of his projected winery near Bilbao. Ray Kurzweil and his team put in enormous efforts with the involvement of many others to mount his presentation featuring his performing digital avatar, Ramona. We ended the conference with a presentation by Brad and Barbara Washburn, who showed remarkable images of their pioneering work of surveying major world mountains.

TED12, in February 2002, was the final TED that I created and chaired in Monterey. I decided I would reinvent TED, as I attempted to do each year. I planned TED12 to be Simply the Greatest Design Conference ever. I also referred to TED12 as 12@12, as I planned the meeting as 12 separate conferences, or blocks of presentations on 12 different aspects of design, considered in a broader sense. The 12 aspects of design we examined were: The Car; Music; Technology; Sensuality; Space & Place; Animals; Humor; Understanding; The Near Future; Life; and Creativity. Chris Anderson, of the Sapling Foundation, who is running TED after me, also planned and directed a block of presentations, as a bonus session, and a sampler of TED 2003.

I was certain TED12 could be incrementally better than TED11, but I believe it reached a new level. as the quality and range of the presentations more than matched anything I had done before. The highlights included a transcendant performance by Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road ensemble of world musicians, another remarkable presentation by David Macaulay, previewing his forthcoming book on Rome, and a fascinating return by Robert Full, named the bug man by Stanley Marcus ­ with more robots based on nature, including microscopic views of a lizard's foot pads. Other notable presenters included Ben Katchor, who delivered one of his very dry and deadpan, but hilarious monologues, Kary Mullis, the recipient of both the Nobel and Japan Prizes in 1993, Chaille Stoval, the young documentary filmmaker, Richard Dawkins the brilliant Darwinist, Bruce Vilanch, who writes for all the Hollywood awards shows, Josef Penninger the genetics researcher, with a toy mouse representing his groundbreaking studies, and Dean Kamen, who brought a small fleet of his much-anticipated Segway Human Transporters. Herbie Hancock and Makoto Ozone played together in a wonderful concert, reminding those who were there of their remote Tokyo/Kobe performance at TED4. Claude Nobs invited them on the spot to perform together at Montreux this summer. I ended my final Monterey TED sitting beside my old friend, the remarkable architect Frank Gehry, for a conversation.

As I've always said, the audience at TED is as impressive as the presenters. Rupert Murdoch came to TED12 for the first time, and enjoyed himself enough to return with his wife the final day. Jeff Bezos was back, as was David Bodanis, the author of most recently, E=mc2, as well as Kurt Andersen, the writer and journalist, Chris Anderson, the Editor-in-Chief of Wired, Stewart Brand, the author, and a founder of The Well, The Whole Earth Catalog, The Long Now Foundation, and most recently The All Species Foundation, Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Sky Dayton, John Doerr, James Fallows, Bran Ferren, Matt Groening, Bill Gross, Michael Hawley, John Kao, Larry Keeley, David Kelley, Vinod Khosla, Jack Lenor Larsen, Jane Metcalfe and Louis Rossetto, Clement Mok, Jakob Nielsen, David Rockwell, Rick Smolan, Patty Stonesifer, and James Truman, among 850+ others.

TED in Monterey will continue without me, and I believe it will continue with great presentations, and a great TED audience. I think I've done the Monterey TED as well as I can, and I'm excited to continue with the TEDMED conference, which I've done twice before in Charleston SC. I'm planning TEDMED3 for 11­14 June 2003, this time in Providence RI, a great underappreciated city near where I've lived for 9 years now, in Newport RI. I've said before that people know more about their cars than their bodies. I also believe they spend more effort studying all the details (hotels, flights, museums, restaurants, etc.) to plan for their vacations than they do to understand their own bodies, and the options and alternatives of healthcare, including testing, diets, exercise programs, and multiple treatment and surgery specifics. I see the growth of huge new business opportunities to help people understand their bodies better than ever before possible with the combined efforts of scientific and medical researchers, engineers, and information architects. Knowing all we can about our bodies is necessary to enhance our greatest journey, that of designing our lives.