Earth from space

A photo that inspired a lot. Plus, 7 other things worth your time.

In the summer of 1966, a man named Stewart Brand—a Stanford graduate, former soldier, and self-described "loafing artist"—set off on a quest. 

The Space Race was nearly a decade old, and Brand had been seized with the realization that NASA had yet to release a photograph of the whole Earth taken from space.

He started a public campaign, and hitchhiked across the country promoting it.

Soon enough, NASA did in fact release the first such "whole Earth photo," taken at the end of 1967, from a satellite called ATS-3. And, Brand was inspired to it on the cover of an idiosyncratic new magazine he started, called the Whole Earth Catalog.

What was the Whole Earth Catalog? Well, it could best be described as—actually, let’s let the late Steve Jobs explain it, as he did in his iconic speech at Stanford University in 2005:

When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. 

...

It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: It was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Brand only printed 1,000 copies of that first issue, but later issues took off, with more than 2 million copies. And, Jobs wasn’t just citing him and his work out of the air.

"No one was more influenced, or inspired by, Brand, than the founder of Apple," writes Carole Cadwalladr. "And while many credit Jobs with being one of the most creative agents of change in the late 20th century, Jobs credited Brand."

But wait, as the old TV commercial used to say. There’s more.

Fast forward to 1994, when Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott headed to Seattle to launch Amazon. Bezos hired his very first employee: Shel Kaphan, whom he later called, "the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com."

What had been Kaphan's very first job back in 1968?

Working for Brand as one of the original people on The Whole Earth Catalog. As Brad Stone writes in The Everything Store:

Kaphan (by now shorn of his long locks and beard, balding, and in his early forties) was inspired by what he saw as Amazon's potential to use the Web to fulfill the vision of The Whole Earth Catalog and make information and tools available around the world.

Later, Kaphan introduced Brand to Bezos, which sparked a relationship that led, among other things, to Bezos's thematically similar $42 million, "Clock of the Long Now," designed to keep time for 10,000 years. As Brand explained:

Ideally, [the clock] would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

It's probably fair to say that the 1967 photo that inspired Brand has since been supplanted in our culture by the Earthrise photo, taken in 1968 by the crew of Apollo 8, and the Blue Marble photo, taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17.

But it was the earlier photo that inspired Brand, and it was Brand who created the catalog and put it on the cover, and the combination was still coming up in the founding stories of two of the world's biggest companies, 40 and 50 years later. 

By the way, in 1966, when Brand set off on his quest to get NASA to release a photo like the ATS-3 one, Steve Jobs was 12. Jeff Bezos was 3.

Something to think about, as we begin the quest to return to the moon, and beyond. There’s no telling what images we’ll create, and who might be inspired by them.

Leave a comment


7 other things worth your time

  • At age 97, you never have to mince words. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right hand man, on cryptocurrencies: “[T]he whole damn development is disgusting and contrary to the interests of civilization.” (CNBC)

  • This is not Florida: Broadway theaters are weighing requiring audience members to show proof that they’ve been vaccinated for Covid before being allowed in. (Forbes)

  • What state has the largest percentage increase of Asian-Americans moving there? It’s surprising (because of the weather) but not surprising (because there’s a lot of money and opportunity there): North Dakota. “The people are nice here. It’s just a little cold.”(LA Times)

  • New trend: Young adults who went home to live with their parents during the pandemic are finding that the places they grew up weren’t so bad after all, and deciding to stay: “We had that ah-ha moment where being near family is so special. It’s a gift.” (WSJ, $)

  • A third of the employees of Basecamp, a web software development company whose co-founders have written books about workplace culture, left the company after it instituted a new ban on talking about politics at work. (NYT)

  • A pro soccer player in the UK retired at halftime of his team’s latest game, after an opponent allegedly mocked him for admitting that he’d once made a suicide attempt, and being open about mental health struggles. David Cox, who played for Albion Rovers, said he was quitting because he was concerned he’d break “the boy’s legs” or “batter someone on the park” if he kept playing and was taunted like that again. (BBC)

  • Grace under pressure: This video of two armored car guards in South Africa reacting calmly as they’re shot at in an attempted robbery is going a bit viral. I know there are readers of this newsletter who have had much more intense experiences in this regard than I have, but as for being shot at: my emotional reaction as a reporter embedded with the U.S. Army in Iraq was much more matter-of-fact than I would have predicted. Plus, these guys look as if they’ve had good training. (SA Trucker, YouTube)

Thanks for reading. Photo credit: the U.S. government. I’ve written about the whole Earth photo for Inc.com. (Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.)

Leave a comment

Share Understandably.com