The History and Promise of TED Talks

TED Talks are now readily accessible online, but they did not start out that way. Learn about the first TED in 1984 and where they are today, including the vision and promise moving into the future.

By Poornima Apte, Contributor

In 2006, just a year after YouTube arrived on the scene, Vice President Al Gore delivered a TED Talk on climate change. While the Nobel Laureate’s passion for the subject may not have been a surprise, the talk’s reach—amplified by an online video format that was relatively new at the time—did garner attention. After all, what used to be an invite-only event now commanded a global stage, delivering worldwide-access to society’s foremost scientists, thinkers, engineers, designers, and artists.

The Genesis of TED

While TED talks are now readily accessible online, they did not start out that way. American architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman wanted to develop a sort of agora, a marketplace of ideas at the intersection of technology, entertainment, and design—hence the acronym, TED.

The first TED in 1984 was a gathering in Monterey, California, where industry heavyweights such as Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, offered attendees a sneak peek into the future, including the possibilities of touchscreen technology. At the same TED, Sony showed off its newborn CD. “Digital audio is becoming something that is more well known, I am not sure how many of you have had a chance to hear it,” Mickey Schulhof from Sony explained, before playing a piece from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Today, in the age of Spotify, the image of a five-inch CD as the next hot thing seems charmingly vintage.

The 1984 event, which Wurman co-founded with graphic designer Harry Marks, flopped due to financial losses. Consequently, the duo placed TED on ice until 1990. From then on, the TED conference became an annual event in Monterey, open to a roster of exclusive guests. TED also shifted from its exclusively tech-heavy focus, opening up its speaker list to musicians, philanthropists, and business leaders, in addition to scientists, designers, and engineers.

In 2000, media entrepreneur Chris Anderson of the nonprofit Sapling Foundation acquired TED. The Sapling Foundation passed ownership to the TED Foundation in 2019. Serving as a curator, Anderson preserved TED’s original mission—the exchange of ideas—and expanded TED’s scope in a number of key ways.

TED Talks Takes Off

By sharing a select few talks on its website every year, TED began to build a consistent presence and increase brand recognition. The series, which started in 2006 and included Al Gore’s famous speech, came to be known as the TED Talks. Another memorable TED Talk from the same year was tech enthusiast David Pogue’s takedown of the worst interface designs. He took Microsoft to task for early versions of Word and decried the lack of focus on user experience in old iterations.

Fast forward more than a decade to 2017 and we have Elon Musk discussing his motivations for human habitation on Mars, and his ideas for SpaceX with TED’s curator, Chris Anderson.

Meanwhile, Ellen Jorgensen explained how the gene-editing technique CRISPR works, and outlined its ramifications for our future, in 2016. “This is a technology [that’s] so versatile and so controversial that it’s sparking all sorts of really interesting conversations. Should we bring back the woolly mammoth? Should we edit a human embryo? And my personal favorite: How can we justify wiping out an entire species that we consider harmful to humans off the face of the Earth using this technology?”

“This is a technology [that’s] so versatile and so controversial that it’s sparking all sorts of really interesting conversations.”

—Ellen Jorgensen, New York-based Molecular Biologist

In 2020, in a conversation with Chris Anderson, philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates discussed the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and where he thought its course was headed. “It’s so maddening to me that government is not allocating the testing to where it’s needed, and maybe that will have to happen at the state level because it’s not happening at the federal level,” Gates said, “But there is no middle course on this thing. It is sad that the shutdown will be harder for poorer countries than it is for richer countries.”

Since 2006, when TED Talks were released, TED itself has spawned numerous additional projects. TED Radio Hour on National Public Radio executes deeper dives into subjects by playing segments from TED Talks and interviewing the speakers about further related topics.

TED-Ed—TED’s youth and education initiative—features TED explainers, which are videos that answer fundamental questions. In a popular TED-Ed video, educator Netta Schramm talks about why perpetual machines never work. TED also provides additional resource material to create comprehensive lessons for teachers.

Further championing TED’s focus as a beneficial exchange of ideas, TEDx takes TED beyond California to towns and cities around the world. TED sold the brand concept to TEDx, and co-founder Lara Stein formalized the concept with a how-to guide for those interested in hosting talks around the world. Now, more than 3,000 annual events work with the TED format.

The Promise of TED

One of the most attractive propositions of a TED Talk is its ability to serve as a time capsule. Gore’s advice about addressing climate change seems simultaneously prescient and relevant today as we grapple with ways of averting a looming disaster.

The capacity of preserving the best ideas in amber drives Dell Technology World’s TED Salon, as well: Artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots and automation, synthetic biology and designing life, 5G and instantaneous connectivity. The TED Salon explores the real-world impact of these technologies. The best thinkers will share insights on how these advanced technologies can drive solutions to our biggest challenges. In the middle of a pandemic, such large-scale ideas seem more relevant and needed than ever before.