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That Started as
In 1819, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to create a
system of code his men could use to communicate
silently and in the dark. Captain Charles Barbier,
a French army oﬃcer, developed “night writing,” a
method that used two columns of up to six dots to
denote a character. The army promptly rejected the
idea as too complicated.
Two years later, Barbier demonstrated his system
to the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris.
One student, 15-year old Louis Braille, realized
Barbier’s 12-dot matrix was too large to be felt in a
single touch. Barbier cut the matrix in half and
developed the Braille system.
Thomas Edison ﬁrst envisioned the phonograph as a
simple dictation device that would turn voice into text.
While working with his assistants to turn paper strips into
recorded telegraph messages in 1877, Edison had an idea.
That same night, the crew created the “talking machine”—
a crude device that used a needle to etch indentations into
paper based off sound vibrations. When pulled back
through the device, those indentations reproduced the
But recording sound through the telephone proved too
complicated, so Edison moved to plan B: use the invention
as a way for a boss to dictate letters to his secretary.
When this failed to catch on, Edison set out to use the
technology to make a talking doll. Since kids are rough on
toys and Edison’s cylinder wasn’t sturdy enough to survive
their drops, this was an abject failure, too.
After decades of tinkering and innovation, Edison
introduced the Perfected Phonograph, which used wax
cylinders to record sound. And this version, which proved
successful at recording and playing music, ﬁnally caught
on as a commercial hit.
In 1994, a drug that treated a benign prostate
enlargement hit the market. That drug was called
Proscar and had a noticeable side effect: the regrowth
of hair in bald men. The drug’s manufacturer, Merck,
spent the next ﬁve years testing the drug as a
treatment for thinning hair and baldness.
After gaining FDA approval for the hair-loss treatment,
Merck relaunched the drug as Propecia, which
has become synonymous with treatment for male
Don McPherson, a glass scientist, created lenses to
protect surgeons’ eyes from lasers and help them
differentiate human tissue. Quite serendipitously, he
found another use for them.
While playing Ultimate Frisbee back in 2002, he lent
a pair of the glasses to a colorblind friend. He didn’t
expect the response he got. “I see orange cones. I’ve
never seen them before,” his friend said. Intrigued,
McPherson set out to study colorblindness and
tinker with his product.
He applied for a grant from the National Institutes
of Health in 2005, where he ended up working
alongside vision scientists, a mathematician, and
a computer scientist named Andrew Schmeder.
Alongside these innovators, McPherson successfully
created glasses that allowed people with
colorblindness to see the full spectrum.
With the help of Tony Dykes, a business development
director at a technology startup and former Silicon
Valley lawyer, he launched Enchroma in 2012 to
market and sell the glasses.
In the mid-2000s, NASA saw a problem: The
agency had different websites devoted to different
departments, all built and managed differently. In
2008, NASA set out to codify its site by providing
a standard set of tools and methods for its web
What resulted was Nebula, a cloud-based platform
that provided NASA developers, researchers, and
scientists with a wide range of services to access
and manage the large quantities of data the Agency
accumulated every day. To use 2017 speak—the
agency created a huge cloud-based storage system.
But this is not where the story ends.
When Texas-based Rackspace, a cloud technology
and software company, saw the technology, it
partnered with NASA to form OpenStack, an
open-source software that has attracted a huge
community: Nearly 2,500 independent developers and
150 companies are a part of it, including AT&T, Dell,
In 1998, the brains behind PayPal launched Conﬁnity,
which delivered security software for handheld
devices such as PalmPilots. The basic idea behind it,
according to Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal, was “I
can pay you [and] you can pay me with these kind of
electronic IOUs that lived on your PalmPilot.”
To explain his concept to people who didn’t own a
PalmPilot, Levchin built a live demo that he describes
as just sitting “kind of in a corner” of the Conﬁnity
website. But over time, he noticed a growing
number of people paying each other through the
web demo. “After a little bit of digging, [I] realized
that most of them came through this website called
eBay,” Levchin said.
After dragging his feet a few months, attempting to
shut down the use of his payment system in eBay
and grow his PalmPilot program, Levchin ﬁnally
(reluctantly) pivoted to the web-based payment
platform we all know of as PayPal.
The photo-sharing site used by billions around the
world didn’t start as the easy-to-use social platform
most of us know and love. Rather, it started as Burbn.
In early 2010, Kevin Systrom attempted to
capitalize on the latest craze of location-based apps
spearheaded by Foursquare. He developed Burbn, an
iPhone app that used location technology to allow
users to check in at a particular location, make plans
for future check-ins, earn points for hanging out with
friends, and post pictures of the meet-ups. Systrom
soon found that rather than focusing on the location
itself, users simply wanted to share their photos.
Upon looking at the analytics, Systrom teamed up
with another developer, Mike Krieger, to build a photo-
sharing platform. They called it Instagram.
If it were up to founders Steve Chen, Jawed Karim,
and Chad Hurley, you’d be using YouTube to ﬁnd a
signiﬁcant other. When the founders registered the
domain on February 14, 2005, they had a speciﬁc
vision: single people making videos introducing
themselves and saying what they were looking for.
Despite their catchy slogan—”Tune In, Hook Up”—the
concept didn’t catch on. Five days after launching the
site, no one had uploaded a single video.
“We were so desperate for some actual dating
videos, whatever that even means, that we turned
to the website any desperate person would turn to,
Craigslist,” said YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, who
offered any willing person $20 to upload a dating video.
But, realizing they had developed a method of easily
uploading and sharing video, the founding trio scrapped
the dating idea and started uploading random videos,
everything from days spent at the zoo to airplanes
taking off. The site, too, started to take off and was
acquired by Google for more than $1 billion in 2006.
In 2009, Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra, and Vikram
Bhaskaran set out to revolutionize the retail world. Their
app, Tote, was meant to turn mobile phones into a
one-stop-shop outlet by allowing users to save their
favorite items, alert them when clothes went on sale, buy
items through the app, and point them to nearby stores.
There was one catch: Mobile payments weren’t as
sophisticated as they are today.
Without a reliable payment option, users weren’t using
Tote to purchase items. Rather, they were creating
collections of “favorite” items to share with their
friends. Picking up on this trend, Silbermann and his
partners pivoted the app and created Pinterest.