By Ken Zurski
In the early half of the 20th century, shortly after World War I ended, mathematician Edward Kasner, a professor at Columbia University, devised the concept of showing the common features of whole numbers, no matter how large.
As an example, he came up with the number one followed by a hundred zeros. Writing out such a large number was ridiculous of course, and at the time formal names didn’t exist for numbers larger than a trillion. But he needed a name.
So he asked his nine-year-old nephew Milton to intervene. During a causal stroll in New Jersey’s Palisades Woods, Edward wondered if Milton could come up with a name. “Googol” was the boy’s answer. Milton also came up with the term “Googolplex,” or one followed by a googol zeros.
In lectures, Kasner began referring to the seemingly infinite number as “Googolplex.”
Flash forward more than 70 years in 1995 when two Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began collaborating on a search engine they originally called BackRub. The project began to attract investors and bandwidth grew. But they needed a new name, something catchier, something they could easily register online.
Google was chosen as the common spelling of Googol which, thanks to Kasner, was as close to an infinite number as possible.
“We picked the name “Google” because our goal is to make huge quantities of information available to everyone,” Page later recalled.
When they presented the name however, math traditionalists balked. “You idiots, you spelled it [Googol] wrong!” one chastised. But Google.com was available and Googol.com was not. Besides, Page said, “It sounds cool and has only six letters.” According to Google’s official corporate website (yes, there is one): “The name “Google” reflects Larry and Sergey’s mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.”
Simple enough. But what about young Milton? Why did the word “Googol” pop into his head? Speculation runs rampant here. A great niece of Dr. Kasner, Denise Sirotta, claims her father Edwin, Milton’s younger brother, should get some credit since he claimed the siblings came up with the name together. “He was asked for a word with a sound that had lots of O’s in it,” she said.
Another observation seems to make more sense especially in the imaginative mind of a toddler. Caroline Birenbaum, another great-niece of Dr. Kasner’s, speculates the word was inspired by a comic-strip character named Barney Google, who debuted in 1919. She says Dr. Kasner, liked cartoons. “He may have tweaked the spelling to avoid any trademark issues,” she claims.
Barney Google was an American comic strip created by Billy DeBeck, that originally appeared on the sports pages. Google had big “banjo” eyes, a mustache, a large bulbous nose, and wore a tuxedo-type suit. He was an “avid sportsman and N’er do well” involved with some of the more contentious contests like poker, prize fights and horse racing. Google’s bow-legged horse “Spark Plug” was introduced in 1922, and nicknamed “Sparky.” The horse was a nag who rarely raced, but when he did it became a big media event. Millions of readers bought in.
A popular song was introduced, a foxtrot, titled Barney Google and Spark Plug:
Barney Google—with the goo, goo, googly eyes,
Barney Google—bet his horse would win the prize;
When the horses ran that day,
Spark Plug ran the other way!
Barney Google—with the goo-goo-googly eyes!
In 1934, another character named Snuffy Smith joined the fray and Barney Google and Spark Plug were phased out.
So Google, the word itself, was in the public consciousnesses long before the giant search engine came along. Still, Kasner had no idea that the chosen name for his boundless number would become so popular in the next century. So where did his inspiration come from?
Kasner, who never married, cited a description of unrequited love. In a divorce case, he explained, a woman called the commitment she had for her husband as “a million billion billion times and eight times around the world.” Kaisner was struck by the expansive description. “It was the largest number ever conceived of,” he said. So he set out to immortalize it.
And his little nephew gave it a name.