Ten years ago this week, two of the most influential words in the geek lexicon became legally merged into a single, world-changing concept: Google Incorporated. On Sept. 7, 1998, Larry Page and Sergei Brin officially formed the for-profit enterprise that has revolutionized Internet search, online advertising, and the modern information landscape. Pretty good for a student project that almost didn’t happen. Larry Page considered one of several subjects for his PhD dissertation in mathematics, and it was his advisor — noted artificial intelligence expert Terry Winograd — that convinced Page to focus on the structure of the World Wide Web. Page teamed up with fellow Stanford math student Sergei Brin to handle the project.

Specifically, Page and Brin were looking into a mathematic annotation for the citation of academic papers. Papers that have been cited the most are by inference the most influential, and thus the most valuable. Coherently and efficiently mapping the complex web of cross-cited academic writings required some extremely savvy math — the kind that earns you a PhD from Stanford.

The result of Page and Brin’s academic citation research was the BackRub algorithm — so named for its tracing of Internet backlinks to papers published online. (Lest we forget, the Internet was originally populated almost entirely by academic papers, and academic content still made up a sizeable percentage even into the late 1990s.) It was a minor leap to run the same algorithm over the entire World Wide Web — with a few tweaks that became the original PageRank system — which formed the basis for Google’s original search index. Throw in a geeky number pun nickname and a quirkily constructed custom storage array, and you’ve got google.stanford.com.

Google got its own URL on Sept. 15, 1997, and less than a year later, it became a full-fledged corporation. Between those two dates, Page and Brin needed access to a resource even their mathematic aptitudes and Stanford’s considerable academic assistance could not provide: money. Luckily, the Palo Alto area is not exactly bereft of fiscally resplendent individuals who might comprehend the potential of a better, faster Internet search engine. Thus, an angel investor who had helped create another Silicon Valley heavyweight that still wields considerable cachet in technical circles became the first man to give Google money.


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The investor was Andy Bechtolsheim. He gave Brin and Page their first $100,000 of investment cash. Bechtolsheim could afford to throw around that kind of money because he was so successful in a previous endeavor as a cofounder of Sun Microsystems. Bechtolsheim’s check was made out to “Google Inc.” even though at the time there was no Google, Inc. — Brin and Page hadn’t yet incorporated, and in fact didn’t even have a checking account into which they could deposit the money.

The money helped, both in encouraging other investors and allowing Google to get its technology up to speed. By the end of 1998, Google’s algorithm had generated an index of 60 million pages. A year later, the company had leased space in Mountain View, CA at 1600 Amphitheater Way — an address that today is known as the original Googleplex.

As for Bechtolsheim, he very much got his money’s worth from the investment. Google has been profitable every year since 2001, and when the company filed its unconventional initial public offering in 2004, it generated over $1.6 billion and resulted in a market capitalization for Google valued at over $23 billion. (Ironically, Yahoo! was one of the pre-IPO investors in Google, with an equity stake that is now equal to 2.7 million shares.)

How successful is Google? The company’s name is now a verb — to the point it must defend its trademark from genericide — as recognized by Merriam-Webster‘s and the Oxford English dictionaries.

Today, Google is one of the most well known and influential media and technology companies on the planet. It has research and development relationships with several major technology outfits including the NASA Ames Research Center, with which they are developing next-generation grid computing systems, and — in what may be considered coming full circle — Sun Microsystems, with which Google is developing and distributing the OpenOffice application suite.

That’s not just some fantastic financial foresight on the part of Bechtolsheim, it’s an exponentially expansive example of high-tech Geek Trivia.

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