Larry Page: Google Was an Accident

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It was originally devised as a way to annotate the Internet: A technology that would allow people to leave comments about webpages. But they realized that some comments are worth more than others, and that they’d need some way to filter out the junk. What they came up with evolved into PageRank: A webapge’s rank depends on the number and the rank of the pages linking to it.

[rant on how great this accident was]
With PageRank, Google beat out the other two paradigms of searching the Internet: Human-created directories and simple text matching.

Human-created directories would make a lot of sense if the Internet were as slow-growing as ARPANet was: A few new sites a day, maybe, and all of them registering in a standard way with one of, maybe, a dozen different organizations. Humans cannot cope with the Internet as it stands now, with thousands of new pages added a day and very little in the way of standardization.

Simple text matching works as long as everyone is honest: If the Internet were limited to universities and large organizations, even if it were growing like kudzu everyone could be counted on not to fill their pages with crap just to attract surfers. But any idiot can create a webpage, and many do. More than a few create webpages that are full of crap words and phrases designed to trick naive text matching spiders.

PageRank matches the intelligence of humans with the speed of computers by relying on people not to link to crap, and using that as the basis of a fast algorithm that traces down back-links (Google was originally called BackRub because it did that, in fact) to see who links to whom. Voila: Something that naturally filters crap while being as fast as a good algorithm.

All of this is based on a fundamental discovery: Human time is expensive, machine time is cheap, so spread out the work that has to be done by humans (filtering) over as many humans as you can, so you can rely on a few machines to do the rest.

The Internet Movie Database also formed by mistake. It was originally just a database about Julia Roberts, but evolved as people began listing all the movies her co-stars had been in, and all the movies their co-stars had been in, and so on.

She’s kinda the Kevin Bacon of the internet, really.

No matter what I say here, it will be fairly obvious that I’m primarily just bumping this thread, but I really do find it interesting. I’ll bet tons of great inventions came about by accident.

“I was an accident. I was! At least, that’s what my sister told me.”
-Mike from A Chorus Line

Well, hard pretzles were also an accident. Or, so I hear.

Post-It notes were sort of an accident. Chemists had rejected the glue they use as inadequate for the purpose they were trying to develop glue for. Then one had the idea that it could be very useful for something else …

My favorite accidental invention, though, is the potato chip, which was created in a burst of spiteful sarcasm by a chef in a crappy mood. A diner had sent his french fries back, complaining that they were too thick and soggy and not salty enough. So the annoyed chef sliced some potatoes really thin, deep-fried them to a crisp, covered them in salt, and sent them out to the picky diner. Who loved them, of course. Some days, nothing seems to go right …

The discovery of Penicillin, and by extension the discovery of antibiotics, was an accident. A British scientist named Fleming looked at a germ culture that he’d accidentally let get infected with mold, and discovered the mold had killed the germ culture. The rest is history.

I’ve heard that Ivory soap was the result of a plant worker accidentally leaving a soap mixing machine on overnight. He went to throw the result away in a river, and found that it floated. The rest is history.

The Ivory soap thing is true.

According to the brochure at Phillipe’s in LA, they invented the French Dip roastbeef sandwich by accident, when some jus was spilled onto a policeman’s sandwich in the early days. He was in a hurry so just asked them to give it to him as it was anyway. It was delicious and next day asked if they could do it again.

Not sure why it’s called “French dip” and not “Phillipe’s dip” or “LA dip”, unless it’s because it’s made au jus.

Oh, on closer inspection only part of the Ivory thing is true. It was created by a mixing error. But he didn’t try to “throw the result away in a river” (which would have been the Ohio, BTW), but just kept in and shipped it anyway. No quality control in those days. After shipping, the company began to receive letters from consumers raving about “the soap that floats”. Which was called P&G White Soap at the time. It was renamed Ivory by Harley Procter after he heard the word Ivory in a sermon one weekend in 1878.

I think I heard once that vichysoisse was an accident (so far as having it served cold).

Hell, the universe itself was an accident. It was all supposed to be just a request for a bunch of “Platonic articles”, but the contractor got mixed up and thought the call was for “atomic particles”.

[ul][]The Slinky[]BubblegumPlay-Doh (IIRC)[/ul]

Just thought of another one: the tortilla chips & cheese dip known as “nachos” was sort of an accident.

I know this isn’t GQ, but don’t y’all think you should be citing the crap outta this stuff?

I was an accident. (Or so my mommy told me.)

(Sorry…not cite for that one…)


Charles Goodyear’s invention of vulcanized rubber: