TED was born in 1984 out of Richard Saul Wurman's observation of a powerful convergence between Technology, Entertainment and Design. The first TED included demos of the Sony compact disc and new 3D graphics from Lucasfilm, while mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrated how to map coastlines with his newly discovered fractals. Several influential members of the digerati community were there, including Nicholas Negroponte and Stewart Brand.
But despite the stellar lineup, the event lost money, and it was six years before Wurman and his partner Harry Marks tried again. This time, the world was ready and the numbers worked. TED became an annual event in Monterey, California, attracting a growing and influential audience from many different disciplines united by their curiosity, open-mindedness, a desire to think outside the box ... and also by their shared discovery of an exciting secret. (Back then, TED was an invitation-only event without an advertising budget or PR campaign.)
Meanwhile the roster of presenters broadened to include scientists, philosophers, musicians, religious leaders, philanthropists and many others. Over the years, TED speakers included Bill Gates, Frank Gehry, Jane Goodall, Al Gore, Billy Graham, Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, Quincy Jones and Bono. Yet often the real stars were the unexpected, like Aimee Mullins, a Paralympics competitor who tried out a new pair of artificial legs onstage, or Jennifer Lin, a 14-year-old pianist whose 6-minute improvisation moved the audience to tears.
For many attendees, TED became one of the intellectual and emotional highlights of the year. That was certainly true for media entrepreneur Chris Anderson, who met with Wurman in 2000 to discuss the conference's future. Wurman, at age 65, was ready to pass on the reins. A deal was struck, and in 2001, Anderson’s foundation (The Sapling Foundation) acquired TED, and Anderson became TED’s curator.
Anderson stood by the principles that made TED great: the same inspired format, the same breadth of content, the same commitment to seek out the most interesting people on earth and let them communicate their passion, untainted by corporate influence. But there were also significant changes. The content began to broaden, opening up in new and fascinating ways. TED explicitly sought out the world's most interesting speakers, no matter what their field of expertise, and there was a growing attempt to reach outside the US. Second, there was a growing realization that the ideas and inspiration generated at TED could and should have an impact well outside the walls of the conference itself.
Accordingly the years 2001–2006 saw three major additions to the TED family:
- a sister conference, TEDGlobal, held in locations around the world
- the TED Prize, which grants its winners one wish to change the world
- a groundbreaking audio and video podcast series, TED Talks, in which the best TED content is released free online.
The first six TED Talks were posted online in June of 2006. By September, they had reached more than one million views. In fact, TED Talks proved so astoundingly popular that, in 2007, TED's website was relaunched around them, allowing a global audience to enjoy free access to some of the world's greatest thinkers, leaders and teachers.
By 2009, the number of TED Talk views had grown exponentially to 100 million views, making internet heroes out of speakers like Jill Bolte Taylor and Sir Ken Robinson. (See "Great moments in TED Talks" to see TED's growth charted in an interactive graphic.) Soon, the TED Fellows program was launched to amplify the impact of unknown innovators around the globe. This was accompanied by the creation of TEDx, a radical opening up of the TED format to events independently organized, community-by-community. About the same time, TED embarked on the Open Translation Project, creating the infrastructure for TED Talks to be translated into 100+ languages. All of these initiatives fit with the mission of spreading ideas, far and wide. And they worked. In the fall of 2012, TED celebrated its one billionth video view.
As TED Talks continue to be watched around the world, with 17 new page views a second, the TED and TEDGlobal conferences continue to inspire, motivate and thrill attendees. In 2014, TED will celebrate its 30th anniversary in Vancouver, Canada. The theme of this milestone conference: "The Next Chapter," both a reflection on the most significant developments of the past 30 years as well as a look at what's ahead.
And of course, the TED story continues...