Why Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies was one of the most important books of all time

By Stuart Fuller


Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of an event that changed the way we shop.  Back in July 1994 a former Hedge Fund employee on Wall Street called Jeff Bezos launched a new company, based in his garage at his house in Seattle.  He saw an opportunity to create an online company to take advantage of this new “Internet thing”, especially after the US Supreme Court ruled that mail order catalogues were not required to collect sales taxes in states where they lack a physical presence – in other words, an online shop would not be liable for any tax.

During the next few months Bezos and his small group of employees tried to build both a web presence as well as an operations centre under the name of his company, Cadabra, focusing on selling just books.  A few months later Bezos had a change of heart and renamed the company Amazon because it was a place that was "exotic and different", something that Bezos felt akin to.  The fact the company began with an “A” and would figure highly on any alphabetical list of companies.  The domain name, Amazon.com, was registered in November 1994 and for the next few months orders trickled in from friends and family.  The world for Bezos and Amazon changed on 3 April 1995.

John Wainwright was a computer scientist working Kaleida Labs, a joint online venture between Apple and IBM back in 1995.  He had received a marketing flier for Amazon and looking for a very specific title, thought he would give them a try.  Whilst never in the same league as the best sellers of the time such as The Golden Compass, High Fidelity or Notes from a Small Island, the book he ordered started a revolution, one that today has made Amazon the biggest retailer in the US and Bezos one of the richest men on the Internet.

Douglas Hofstadter's ‘Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought’ hardly trips off the tongue, but it made history in being the first “proper” order made on Amazon.com, costing Wainwright $27.95.

Three months later Amazon.com opened its doors to the world and has never looked back.  In that first six months of trading word got around that they could fulfil orders for some of the most obscure books, reflected in their top 10 titles sold in 1995 which included Applied Cryptography and Protocols, Learning UNIX, Silicon Snake Oil (written by our old friend Clifford Stoll who foresaw doom for the Internet from day one) and How to Set Up and Maintain a World Wide Web Site, the best seller for the year.

Bezos recognised the importance of that very first order and the customer himself.  Wainwright’s second book was potentially even more of a harder read – ‘The First Five Thousand Words in Russian’ and he has gone on to be a customer to this day.  Today you can see the lasting legacy to Wainwright in the Seattle Campus of Amazon – the Wainwright building is located on 535 Terry Avenue North if you are interested in paying a visit.

Today, Amazon makes over $66,000 per minute.  Their impact on the online world cannot be under estimated, now selling everything from A to Z online as well as being major players in the online digital streaming and web hosting market. Who knows what the online world would be like today if Wainwright had decided to buy his book from a store in the local mall? I for one am eternally grateful for Wainwright’s interest in Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought.