I've spent some time the past few weeks researching the life of a little known Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Francis Bates. Here's his story:
Francis Bates was born in 1847 in Rhode Island. His mother, Amy Ann, passed away when he was just 11 days old. During his childhood, young Francis needed to assume many of the household chores -- make his bed, take out the trash, and fetch the mail. While making his bed and taking out the trash weren't that bad, Francis really hated fetching the mail. You see, the Bates house was located off the beaten path -- and pretty far from the main road. And since his Dad wanted to read the mail immediately after it was delivered, Francis was constantly checking to see if there was mail in his mailbox. In fact, Francis spent most of his mornings walking back and forth to his mailbox. Most of the time it was empty, but from time to time he would find something in it.
During the Civil War, Francis joined the Army and was injured. In pursuit of health, Mr. Bates came to California in 1896 and settled in San Jose. Like his childhood home in Rhode Island, his house in California was also a great distance from the road. Francis really disliked the wasted time (and effort) he spent checking for mail - especially due to his injuries. And in 1899, he had an idea. Why not invent a flag that can be put on the mailbox to indicate whether the mailbox was full or empty? Thus, the birth of the mailbox flag. As Francis wrote in his 1899 patent (USPTO #627,635):
If the carrier is obliged to inspect every box to know whether there is any mail-matter to be collected, or if the people for whom the box is placed are obliged to go to the box in order to find out whether any mail-matter has been deposited for them, there is considerable loss of time; but by arranging some signal which is displayed for the carrier when there is any matter to be collected from the box and another to be displayed for those using the box to show whether anything has been left for them it will not be necessary to go to the box except when there is something in it to be collected.
Thus the birth of the modern mailbox. Francis Bates became one of the first Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and grew extremely wealthy off his novel mailboxes. They couldn't manufacture enough of these mailboxes -- "For nine years this firm turned out some 10,000 boxes a month, and then the demand was greater than they could meet".
The Internet today, is a lot like mail delivery in the 1800's. Surprisingly, web services don't have "flags". Rather, applications are forced to "ping" Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, etc. every few minutes and ask "have any of our users done anything new?" These applications are literally checking to see if each virtual mailbox is empty/full every couple of minutes. Now that more and more services are aggregating more and more updates, the growing volume of pings has created real scaling challenges for services (such as Twitter) and consumes a rapidly growing amount of bandwidth and resources.
That's why I'm so excited about our investment in Gnip. Yesterday, Gnip unveiled it's plans to solve the "ping problem". In layman's terms, Gnip hopes to be the mailbox flag for the 21st century. Rather than having to check for updates from services like Flickr, Digg, and delicious, Gnip pushes all relevent updates to you. Read more about it here and here.
I think that Eric Marcoulier and the team at Gnip are well on their way towards becoming the Francis Bates of the Internet...
(You can read more about Francis on page 1014 of the History of Santa Clara - pdf download)