TED at 25

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By: Nicole Dyer

A brief history of the conference that’s changed the face of invention.

Two generations of TED: Organizer Chris Anderson and founder Richard Saul Wurman

Imagine you’re at a dinner party. To the left of you is Walt Mossberg, to the right is Ozzy Osbourne. Sitting directly across the table is Frank Gehry. Wait, who’s that guy next to Frank? Is that the legendary primatologist Frans de Waal? Yes, that’s Frans. Don’t look now but there’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin; the Google duo is talking to Al Gore. And next to Al is someone named Oliver Stone.

Face after face, it’s the same. Everyone is elite, everyone is brilliant, and after eavesdropping on their conversations for ten minutes, you realize that everyone is irrepressibly interesting. Feeling overwhelmed?

This is the essence of TED, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, an annual gathering of well-heeled overachievers, from artists to business magnates, who convene to talk about the things they’re most passionate about and to share “ideas worth spreading,” as the conference tagline promises. This typically entails heady subjects like string theory, open-source architecture, and ways to save humanity from global warming. Last month, TED celebrated its 25th anniversary in Long Beach, California, where a crowd of 1,300 listened to speakers including Oliver Sacks, Daniel Liebeskind, and Nate Silver opine on topics of their choosing for 18 minutes each—no more, no less, as is conference tradition. (In years past, the long-winded or overtly commercial would simply have their microphones turned off; these days, a flashing light serves as a more polite warning.)

It’s a power fest like no other, and the $6,000 ticket price helps keep it that way. But organizer Chris Anderson—not to be confused with the editor-in-chief of Wired—is distinctly uncomfortable with TED’s elitist reputation. Since acquiring the conference in 2001 from its charismatic founder, Richard Saul Wurman, Anderson has set out to bring the magic of TED to a much wider audience. You may not have the fancy title or bank account to make the guest list, but now you can listen in remotely via simulcasts or visit TED.com to download hundreds of high-definition TEDTalks for free. Anderson has also established a humanitarian award called the TED Prize that grants three notable individuals $100,000 to realize one wish to make the planet a better place. Novelist Dave Eggers, for instance, used the money to set up a foundation that helps people donate time to local public schools.

But TED began as a much simpler enterprise. In 1984, Wurman set out to “host the dinner party he always wished he could have but couldn’t,” as he famously used to quip at the beginning of each conference. “I was interested in ideas and passions and in people’s hobbies. Exclusivity came operationally, because when people realized it was good, they sent their money in early.”

TED has been sold out ever since. This timeline of conference highlights explains why.

Click here for a downloadable PDF of our TED timeline. Nicole Dyer is a senior editor at Popular Science.