It’s hard to imagine how people survived in the BA (Before Amazon) Era. I suppose anyone who grew up in the late 1990s just assumed that Amazon had always existed. It’s like the Big Bang of retail: one moment there was the Void — then BANG! there it is was — a portal to the world’s largest store. You just log in, search, scroll, click, and a few days later, there’s your stuff on the doorstep. But no, Amazon had a humble beginning in the early 1990s. Taking a page from some of the most famous startups in Silicon Valley, Amazon was founded in the garage of the parents of Jeff Bezos’ home in Bellevue, Washington. Amazon began selling only books in early July 1995. Its first year, Amazon sales totaled $511,000. Naturally, that invites the question: what was the first book ever ordered on Amazon?
Before we get to the book, let’s meet the person who ordered it: John Wainwright. Wainwright is a computer scientist who was one of the key developers of object-based computer languages ScriptX and MaxScript. Back in early 1995, he was an employee of Kaledia Labs (1991-1996), a joint venture between once arch-rivals Apple and IBM, located in Mountain View, California. One of his friends, Shel Kaphan, was an early employee at a startup named Amazon, sent him an invitation to their beta site to purchase a book. He wrote: “Create an account and order some books.” The book that Wainwright ordered on April 3, 1995 (although Amazon dates the sale to July 1995 when it officially opened) was Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter and the Fluid Analogies Research Group published by BasicBooks in 1995. The price he paid for the 518-page hardcover book: $27.95. In an interview, Wainwright said that he still has the original packing slip (with the original Amazon logo inspired by the Amazon River and the note “Thanks for shopping at Amazon.com!”) and the book is still in his order history. Unfortunately, Amazon did not have the book in the inventory they had access to; Wainwright explains “… the story goes that Jeff Bezos didn’t want to delay the fulfillment and he went charging around [local brick-and-mortar] bookstores himself to find a copy to send it off in time. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a small testament to his energy and drive that he got it.”
So why did Wainwright order this particular book, especially since Hofstadter’s more popular work is Godel, Escher, Back. Wainwright explains in an interview with MarketWatch: “[Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies] was a work on artificial intelligence and human cognition modeling. It seemed like a reasonable way of catching up with what was going on around the 1990s. It’s a collection of articles and essays documenting research that Hofstadter and his students were doing at the time, modeling human form.” The Amazon review states: “Readers of earlier works by Douglas Hofstadter will find this book a natural extension of his style and his ideas about creativity and analogy; in addition, psychologists, philosophers, and artificial-intelligence researchers will find in this elaborate web of ingenious ideas a deep and challenging new view of mind. A lucid, highly readable exploration of the computer models of discovery, creation, and analogical thought developed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach and the Fluid Analogies Research Group. The book features anagram and number puzzles, analogy puzzles involving letter strings or tabletop objects, and fanciful alphabetic styles.”
For his contribution to Amazon’s amazing success story, Amazon named one of the buildings on its corporate campus the Wainwright building (535 Terry Avenue North). Pretty cool, huh? Incidentally, if you want to buy the Hofstadter book, it is still available. As of this writing, a used hardcover copy costs $4.56 and a new paperback costs $21.99.
Bonus question: what was the second book that Wainwright bought on Amazon? The First Thousand Words in Russian by Heather Amery (current price for a used hardcover copy $2.33). Wainwright explains: “We were just in the throes of adopting a daughter from Russia and we thought we should learn some Russian. We adopted [a girl] in April 1995.”
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For further reading: http://www.quora.com/What-was-the-first-book-ever-ordered-by-a-customer-on-Amazon