This Day in Jewish History, 1998

Two Computer Scientists Who Disagreed on Everything Found Google

Larry Page and Sergey Brin met, clashed and instantly bonded; the world of Internet searchers is grateful.

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On September 4, 1998, computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin filed papers with the state of California to establish a company they called Google, Inc. The heart of their nascent business was an Internet search engine that used an algorithm, developed by Page, to produce unusually helpful results for surfers of the World Wide Web. Within a few short years, Google had become the gold standard of search engines, and its founders quickly began to monetize it with a growing range of free and easy-to-use products.

Lawrence Edward Page was born on March 26, 1973, in East Lansing, Michigan. His father, Carl Vincent Page, Sr., was a professor of computer science at Michigan State University, where his mother, Gloria W. Page, also taught computer programming. Gloria is Jewish; Carl, who died, in 1996, was not.

Larry demonstrated proficiency at both music and computers from an early age; he played the saxophone and studied music composition. He earned his B.Sc. in engineering and computer science from the University of Michigan (where he built an inkjet printer from Lego blocks), and after working for a variety of tech firms, began a doctoral program at Stanford.

It was there that Page met Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin.

Brin was born on August 21, 1973, in Moscow. His parents, Mikhail Brin and Yevgenia Brin, were both mathematicians, Mikhail having chosen the field, he has said, after his ambition to study physics and become an astronomer had been blocked because of his Jewish origins.

In 1977, shortly after attending a mathematics conference in Warsaw and encountering many peers from the West, Mikhail applied for exit visas from the Soviet Union for himself and his family. He and Yevgenia (today Eugenia) were both immediately fired from their jobs, but permission to leave came through in May 1979 and the family emigrated to the United States.

The Brins settled in Maryland, where Mikhail taught mathematics at the University of Maryland, and Yevgenia worked as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Sergey studied math and computer science at the University of Maryland, graduating with honors in 1993. He was in the second year of a Ph.D. program at Stanford in 1995 when he led a tour of nearby San Francisco for incoming students, one of whom was Larry Page.

Company lore says that the two men quickly discovered that they disagreed about everything, and also, Brin told The Economist in an interview, that they “were both kind of obnoxious.” They bonded instantly.

Google emerged out of Page’s Ph.D. topic, which involved a study of the mathematical properties of the Web, and the way it links between sites. From this, he developed an algorithm, called BackRub and later PageRank, by which it was possible to infer the quality or relevance of a site based on the number of other pages that link to it. This is the key to Google’s ability to deliver useful results.

Brin was fascinated by the magnitude of Page’s project. Crawling the entire Web, even the smaller Web of 20 years ago, digested enormous computing capacity: At one point, the two were monopolizing half of all the bandwidth at the disposal of Stanford’s broadband computer system.

Neither Page nor Brin ever finished a doctorate. Instead, they registered the domain name “Google” (taken from “googol,” a number written with a one followed by 100 zeros) in 1997, and established the company on this date a year later, after receiving $100,000 in seed money from Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim.

Google’s first home was in a garage – naturally – in this case, in the Menlo Park home of Susan Wojcicki, who became the company’s marketing manager. (Brin later married Wojcicki’s sister, Anne, who became co-founder of a genome-research firm; they divorced in 2013.)

By early 1999, Google had eight employees; today the number exceeds 55,000. The company went public in 2004, and only last month, on August 10, announced its plans to create a new parent holding company, Alphabet, that will oversee its wide range of subsidiaries, many of which are not related to the Internet.