In 1994, a Princeton graduate named Jeff Bezos left the New York hedge fund D.E. Shaw, where he had quickly risen through the ranks, to start a new venture. As Brad Stone tells the story in his new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Bezos went with a close friend, Jeff Holden, to a barbecue restaurant on 44th Street to strategize. They talked about the name of the business they wanted to start:
Bezos had tentatively decided to call his company Cadabra Inc., but was not committed to the name. Holden filled both sides of a piece of notebook paper with alternatives. The one Bezos liked best on the list was MakeItSo.com, after Captain Picard’s frequent command in Star Trek.
But MakeItSo didn’t stick. In August 1994, when Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, had moved to the Seattle area and was beginning to hire developers “to help pioneer commerce on the Internet,” he revisited the naming project:
The magical allusions of Cadabra Inc., as Todd Tarbert, Bezos’s first lawyer, pointed out after they registered that name with Washington State in July of 1994, were too obscure, and over the phone, people tended to hear the name as Cadaver. So later that summer, after renting a three-bedroom ranch house in the East Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Bezos and MacKenzie started brainstorming. Internet records show that during that time, they registered the Web domains Awake.com, Browse.com, and Bookmall.com. Bezos also briefly considered Aard.com, from a Dutch word, as a way to stake a claim at the top of most listings of websites, which at the time were arranged alphabetically.
Aard means “earth” in Dutch. Aardvark—from Afrikaans, which is related to Dutch—means “earth pig.”
Bezos and his wife grew fond of another possibility: Relentless.com. Friends suggested that it sounded a bit sinister. But something about it must have captivated Bezos: he registered the URL in September 1994, and he kept it. Type Relentless.com into the Web today and it takes you to Amazon.1
Still, Cadabra.com lived on through the fall, while Bezos set up his headquarters in a converted garage. Shel Kaphan, a founding employee, arrived in Seattle from California and “immediately began worrying about the company’s name”:
“I was once part of a little consultancy called the Symmetry Group, and people always thought we were the Cemetery Group,” says Kaphan. “When I heard about Cadaver Inc., I thought, Oh God, not this again.”
The final name selection occurred in late October 1994:
Bezos pored through the A section of the dictionary and had an epiphany when he reached the word Amazon. Earth’s largest river; Earth’s largest bookstore. He walked into the garage one morning and informed his colleagues of the company’s new name. He gave the impression that he didn’t care to hear anyone’s opinion on it, and he registered the new URL on November 1, 1994.
Later in the book, Stone tells the story of the Kindle, which was developed by an Amazon division dubbed Lab126 headed by Gregg Zehr. (Stone: “The 1 stood for a, the 26 for z; it’s a sublte indication of Bezos’s dream to allow customers to buy any book every published, from a to z.” The arrow in the Amazon logo also reinforces the a-to-z association.)
Lab126 reported to Steve Kessel, who had joined Amazon in 1999 and took over the new digital initiative in 2004.
In those waning months of 2004, the early Lab126 engineers selected a code name for their new project. On his desk, Zehr had a copy of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a futuristic novel about an engineer who steals a rare interactive textbook to give to his daughter, Fiona. The early Lab126 engineers thought of the fictitious textbook in the novel as a template for what they were creating. Michael Cronan, the San Francisco-based graphic designer and marketing executive who baptized the TiVo, was later hired to officially brand the new dedicated reading device, and he came up with Kindle, which played off the notion of starting a conflagration and worked as both a noun and a verb.2 But by then Kessel’s team was devoted to the name Fiona and the group tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Bezos to keep it. In a sense, the knowledge-starved Fiona of Stephenson’s fictional world became Amazon’s patron saint in its risky journey into the digital frontier.
The code name for the Kindle 2, released in 2009, was Turing, “after a castle in The Diamond Age,” Stone writes. That castle was in turn named for Alan Turing, the pioneering British computer scientist best known for the Turing test, considered the foundation of artificial intelligence.
2 Strictly speaking, “kindle” is only a verb; the noun form is “kindling.” But through association with the device, Kindle has become a proper noun.