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Eli Whitney and Google

This weekend (12/8/2018) marked the 253rd anniversary of the birth of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. And 20 years ago, Google received its first big infusions of capital from, among others, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Both Eli Whitney and the Google founders instigated economic revolutions, but also illustrate polar opposite approaches to open data.

Eli Whitney’s invention revolutionized the cotton industry and provided a huge boost to the southern slave economy.  Whitney held his cards close to the vest. Not only did he not want to license his technology, he did not even want to sell the gins themselves, figuring he would make more money owning all the gins himself and serving as a monopoly supplier of cotton cleaning services.  The result was a disaster for Whitney because others in the cotton business, unable to purchase his gins, instead built their own gins. Patent protection was not sufficiently strong or enforceable to allow Whitney to stop the practice. Much of the profit was consumed in lawsuits, and Whitney gained fame but not fortune.

Google, by contrast, has laid many of its important cards out for all to see.  Hadoop file system processing and storage algorithms have enabled all organizations to harness the power of big data, and they have their origin in a 2004 paper published by Google.  In a 2010 white paper, Google described its Dremel project, which yielded technology that facilitates super-fast queries across huge datasets. And in 2013 Google published a paper describing the algorithm it uses to serve ads to users.  Other companies would probably regard these things as trade secrets – how did Google benefit from making them public?  Google has prospered by its dominant position in the search market, which comes from having the best algorithms human brains have produced.

Google takes the long view.  More than anything else, it needs a continuing flow of very clever computer scientists, who are attracted by Google’s cutting edge technology, and the prospect of showing the latest developments to the world.  It recognizes that the gains from keeping everything hidden and out of the hands of potential competitors are outweighed by the costs of being overtaken in the “clever people” department.