For generations, modern education and employment practices have trained us to become specialists; to learn a skill or trade and become experts in that area alone. No longer are renaissance men and jacks-of-all-trades rewarded for their wide breadth of abilities. Instead, we’re often encouraged to meet specific requirements to fit into even more specific silos. Many would argue, though, that the best ideas are born in opposition of this model.
Why is it called TED?
Richard Saul Wurman, for example, created TED to inspire greater communication between emerging industries. In his own history of TED, he recounted, “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.”
Two years later, in 1984 and well ahead of its time, Wurman planned the first TED conference in Monterey, California and invited leaders of the technology, entertainment, and design (TED) industries to attend. The purpose was to spark a conversation among the brightest minds – minds who weren’t necessarily conversing otherwise. Yet, Wurman recalls, the need was not lacking: “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.”
Despite its philosophical success, the first conference was a financial failure. To fill the 500-person capacity, Wurman had to invite students and beg others to attend at a discounted rate. Discouraged, he abandoned the labor of love until someone who had attended the inaugural event convinced him to try again. He did, six years later. In 1990, Wurman and his partner Harry Marks launched TED2, and the conference has been growing ever since.
After 17 years, Wurman sold the company in 2001 to Chris Anderson and the Sapling Foundation. “Since then, the content has continued to broaden to cover all topics and we began looking for ways to share the content with the broader world,” Anderson said. “We tried and failed to get TED onto television. But in 2006, with the arrival of online video, we started ‘TED Talks’ as an experimental video podcast, and when it worked, we decided we would begin giving away all our best content as ‘ideas worth spreading.’”
So what began as an exclusive, invite-only meeting of brilliant minds, is now available to anyone, anywhere with an internet connection free of charge. Despite moving the physical conference to Long Beach in 2009 and Vancouver, BC in 2014, TED’s greatest audience is its online viewers. In fact, the Huffington Post reports more than 3 million talks are viewed every single day. It’s no longer limited to technology, entertainment, or design either.
According to TED itself, the company is “a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less)… and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages.” While the initial conference included the compact disc, and the second virtual reality, the talks these days are certainly still on the leading edge, no matter the subject.
After all, the subject is of less importance than the communication itself. “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,” Wurman stated. “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.”
Whatever your expertise, there’s likely a conversation waiting to be had, and an undiscovered idea worth spreading.
Thanks for reading Why is TED called TED! What is your all-time favorite TED talk and why? Tell us in the comments! #whyisitcalledTED.
Annelise Schoups is a contributor at Rewind & Capture. With a degree in journalism, experience in public relations, and an education in travel, she is passionate about cultivating knowledge and storytelling.