Napkins: Where Ethernet, Compaq and Facebook's cool data center got their starts

Great technology and business ideas keep popping up over meals and drinks

Napkins don't really stack up well against hard drives or even floppy disks for preserving data over time.  But some of the technology and business world's most enduring ideas are said to have at least gotten their starts as sketches on dinner or cocktail napkins (which in fact were inspiration for the 5 ¼ floppy disk's size).

Robert Metcalfe's early Ethernet diagrams from his days at Xerox PARC back in the early 1970s might be the most famous napkin sketches in the technology industry.

The DigiBarn Computer Museum in Northern California displays a couple of them, including a composite of early sketches provided by Xerox PARC itself (shown below, on bottom).

The sketches featuring boxes labeled PDP-11 and pointers to "The Ether" would eventually be translated into a big-time business for 3Com, Digital Equipment Corp, and now, just about anybody in the computer, telecom and networking businesses. Metcalfe has gone on to a successful - and award-winning  -- career as entrepreneur, venture capitalist and professor.

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Another contender for famous tech napkin goes to the one used by Rod Canion in 1981 to sketch out a plan at the House of Pies diner in Houston for an IBM-compatible PC clone that would form the basis for Compaq (shown below, left). The company would become the world's biggest PC supplier but following a series of buyouts that didn't work out, Compaq itself was wiped up by HP in 2002.

The Compaq example - along with that of Southwest Airlines - is frequently used now in business talks, including by management consultant Dan Roam,who espouses the benefits of visual/"Back of the Napkin" thinking. (Southwest got its start when the owner of a failed airline sketched out a simple idea for a new airline on a napkin. As the story goes, Herb Kelleher drew three dots representing Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, connected them in a triangle, and the rest is history.)

Famed venture capitalist John Doerr made reference to Compaq's napkin in describing the formation of @Home, a high-speed cable ISP during the mid-1990s and early 2000s.  He is quoted in the Harvard Business School book "Done Deals" saying: "We sketched our idea, Compaq-style, on the back of a napkin [at the Good Earth restaurant in Palo Alto]. We explained to Milo [Medin, the founder] that we would recruit a world-class Silicon Valley technology team that would build the biggest, fastest network ever. But the idea was more than a fat, dumb pipe. The vision for @Home was an extremely popular, co-branded, always on, high-speed Internet service. All the high-speed Internet you could eat - for $20 to $40 per month. Milo laughed and said, 'Nice try, but it won't work.'"

Actually, many years before Compaq got its start, a pioneer in modern computing named John Atanasoff jotted down the basic features of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer on a napkin, according to the Computer History Museum, which has the machine, but not the napkin. According to the museum: "Mathematician and physicist John Atanasoff, looking for ways to solve equations automatically, took a drive to clear his thoughts in 1937. At a Mississippi River roadhouse he jotted on a napkin the basic features of an electronic computing machine. Atanasoff's linear equation-solver, built with graduate student Clifford Berry, could solve a variety of problems but was not programmable."

Napkin-mania got to the point in the mid-1980s where an entrepreneur's business plan napkin began circulating in Silicon Valley, according to the Computer History Museum. From the museum's Evolution of Silicon Valley exhibit: "Bob Zeidman created this preprinted template to streamline the process of drawing start-up business plans on barroom napkins."

Some of the more glamorous and non-techie napkin idea stories involve writer and producer Aaron Sorkin, who says he wrote the play-turned-movie "A Few Good Men" on cocktail napkins while working as a bartender at a theatre.  Sorkin didn't write his screenplay for the Academy Award-winning "The Social Network" on napkins, but Facebook -the subject of that movie - has a little napkin tale of its own worth sharing.

Facebook's Open Compute Project - an effort to build a super-efficient data center in Prineville, Ore. -- included some fancy napkin drawing of the electrical design by Facebook's Jay Park. This, according to Tom Cook, who works in operations for online Q&A site Quora, where I asked the community about any such famous napkins that might exist beyond Metcalfe's Ethernet scribblings. 

Facebook-Data Center

Another reply on Quora came from Bump Technologies co-founder Jake Mintz , who says that the original idea for Bump, which makes an app for sharing info between iPhones, Android Phones and each other by bumping them, can be seen on a napkin drawing by co-founder David Lieb in October of 2008.

Mitnz wrote: "The name changed from Shake Exchange to Bump, but the basis for the technology is described by the drawing (comparing locationand accelerometer data for two phones). The two notes were 'Can you update contacts?' (on iOS) and what to do about 'evil bystanders.'"


Social network site Twitter also had a sketchy start, though an early drawing of what was then called or twttr that co-founder Jack Dorsey posted in 2006 on Flickr is alas, on a notebook page and not a napkin.

Looking forward, it's easy to imagine napkins and even notebooks being bypassed by the latest iPad or other tablet computer for sketching out ideas.  The entrepreneurs doing the drawing will no doubt be able to capture a lot more ideas that way - they just won't be able to wipe their faces with the devices.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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