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Napkins and the History of Ethernet, Compaq, Facebook 67

alphadogg writes "Napkins don't really stack up well against hard drives or even floppy disks for preserving data over time. But some of the technology and business world's most enduring ideas are said to have at least gotten their starts as sketches on dinner or cocktail napkins (which in fact were inspiration for the 5 ¼ floppy disk's size). Robert Metcalfe's early Ethernet diagrams from his days at Xerox PARC back in the early 1970s might be the most famous napkin sketches in the technology industry, but there are napkin stories involving Compaq, Facebook, @home and more."
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Napkins and the History of Ethernet, Compaq, Facebook

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  • My understanding is that the original hi-bit encoding scheme of UTF-8 was on a napkin.
  • Obviously the best way to advance the world's technology is to improve napkin design. Let's get on that folks!

    • by ari_j ( 90255 )
      There's an untapped market for cocktail napkins that are easier to write on and do not bleed or tear as badly when they get slightly damp in your pocket. I can't tell you how many great inventions I've lost because the only writing surface available when I invented them was a napkin that tore under even light pressure from a ballpoint pen or bled into illegibility in my pocket after I sketched the idea. Well, I guess I can tell you the number: zero. But I'd give anything to have had a better napkin for F
      • Didn't you ever watch any Bond movies? The girl is supposed to write her number on your inner thigh.
      • by hitmark ( 640295 )

        I fear the issue is that if you want the paper to have high liquid absorption you need it to be "fussy". This then results in a very loose texture. Sadly, bringing a pen and pad everywhere will make one appear both nerd and desperate...

      • Trust me, it worked out for the best. It was hard to tell with the smearing but "her" name was really "Felipe".
    • No, we should go for the base of all of it. Napkin technology is just an spin-off from Bistromatics.

      • by gnick ( 1211984 )

        Yes, but should you take advantage of the Bistromathics principles and come up with an innovative napkin improvement technology, what are you going to write your idea down on? A notebook? Pshaw! Notebooks have no place in the world of Bistromathics. Napkins now, Bistro Math later.

  • (which in fact were inspiration for the 5 ¼ floppy disk's size)

    Napkins were probably also the inspiration for agile programming's "user-stories on index cards"...

  • (which in fact were inspiration for the 5 ¼ floppy disk's size)

    citation needed

    • by Khyber ( 864651 )

      Those of us that bothered to actually read up on our computer history.

      There's your citation, you witless ill-educated tool.

    • Shortly after I pulled my finger out of my arse I used it to type "keywords" into a "search engine". One of the "results" that I found was this:

      One interesting story about the 5 1/4-inch floppy disk is how the size was decided. Engineers, Jim Adkisson and Don Massaro were discussing the size with An Wang of Wang Laboratories. The trio just happened to be doing their discussing at a bar. An Wang motioned to a drink napkin and stated "about that size" which happened to be 5 1/4-inches wide.

      If you were less of

  • by Tr3vin ( 1220548 ) on Tuesday July 19, 2011 @01:02PM (#36813346)
    How did we invent napkins without napkins on which to sketch? Inventing things in the old days must have been really hard.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is why my startup is focusing on improving cocktail napkin storage, beginning with our upcoming release of a 3 meter x 3 meter napkin and a pen smaller than a human hair. We passionately innovate in innovating to enable innovators' innovation!

  • The B-52 was designed in a hotel over a weekend with sketches on the notepad in the room and calculations done on a roll of toilet paper.

    I've seen designers comment on it in documentaries, but the official Boeing history of it's design weekend leaves that bit out. []

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      I'm pretty sure the 747-400 preliminary design was done on cocktail napkins from the Jet Deck lounge at Paine Field.

    • by fishbowl ( 7759 )

      Anecdotes about things being done on "rolls of toilet paper" often turn out to have a kernel of truth rooted in the cheaply acquired (read "stolen") teletype paper, which in those days was much easier to obtain than sheets of typing paper.

  • Have you ever tried actually writing on a cheap paper napkin using a common ballpoint? It's difficult as hell without tearing it. I have no idea how these people do it.

    • by afidel ( 530433 )
      Don't use a ballpoint, duh. Rollerballs work fine on napkins (I just tested mine on 3 different types of napkins I have at my desk and it wrote just fine with no tearing or bleeding).
    • The Pilot Razorpoint pens would work quite well on anything.
  • I think they are missing the real story that the best ideas are often had when you are business drunk. I know I solve all of the worlds problems when I am hammered, although I can never remember them the next day. I really need to put some napkins around my house so I can write some of this shit down.
  • I wonder if this is because of the alcohol consumed they feel inspired, or at lest more open to new ideas. I know a professional artist ( yes he actually makes a living off of painting ) who claims that his best inspirations come while intoxicated.
  • by spaceyhackerlady ( 462530 ) on Tuesday July 19, 2011 @01:13PM (#36813486)

    I've done real work on napkins. Examples:

    When a colleague was at her wits end on a geometry problem relating to a graphical program, we went out for coffee, drew diagrams and equations on napkins, and solved the problem.

    When a colleague asked me for advice on a presentation, we went for coffee and outlined it, complete with important diagrams, on napkins.

    At a trade show I got talking to some people at the hotel who were attending the same show, and when I drew a map on a napkin showing how to get from the hotel to the show location, they thought it was a work of art and asked me to sign it.


    • by rnturn ( 11092 )

      I think we've all done some sort of work on napkins (or envelopes). It's pretty much inevitable unless you or your coworkers are in the habit of carrying a notebook with you at all times.

      The worst thing I ever had to deal with where napkins were an important form of documentation was a large commercial database server whose administration I inherited many years ago. The "official" documentation consisted of a very badly formatted -- and largely incomplete --- document. It could actually barely even be ca

    • I know the feeling. I once designed a novel data-transfer circuit for a VMEbus computer board on a placemat at Applebee's. Thank goodness it was a plain white placemat, because it took a lot of drawing to get all four modes in there. Later on, I had to spend a few hours encoding the design on the placemat as logic equations.
  • by smooth wombat ( 796938 ) on Tuesday July 19, 2011 @01:22PM (#36813588) Journal

    I can't believe no one has mentioned the most important device ever sketched on a napkin. Its importance cannot be stressed enough.

    I am speaking of the Smelloscope, a device which allows one to smell the odors of distant objects in the universe.

    It also comes in handy for detecting large balls of garbage which have been floating around in space for a few hundred years and which is about to crash into Earth.

  • No one in the wider world knows about advanced Australian research, because they keeps asking to see our napkin archives, whereupon they should be asking to see our serviette archives. And boy do they think things are really screwed up in Oz when they do see napkins.
  • If only the Winklevoss' couldve found that damn napkin...
  • ...I'd bet a lot of money that napkins hold up BETTER than hard drives and floppy drives for data retention. It's hard to beat ink on paper for longevity.
  • Reminds me of the bootable CD standard, which was actually named "El Torito" after the Mexican restaurant it was invented in. []

  • > The sketches featuring boxes labeled PDP-11 and pointers to "The Ether" would eventually be translated into a big-time business for 3Com, Digital Equipment Corp, and now, just about anybody in the computer, telecom and networking businesses ..

    How did this happen without patent protection for "The Ether"?

  • GE Corporate R&D had placemats in their executive dining room printed with sections for text, drawing, graph paper and signature lines for patent disclosure witnessing.
  • Original concept for Kill Bill was also written out on napkins.
    • Original concept for Kill Bill was also written out on napkins.

      That explains a lot.

    • Sadly, the final script was also written in a napkin.

      Disclaimer: I love the visuals of the film but seriously it has not much of an story.

  • []â(TM)s- (apostrophe seems to have broken the URL/link) shows "Page not found" error. :(

  • I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this napkin is too folded and greasy to contain.
  • Churchill and Stalin did write down the partition of East Europe in a napkin.

  • "Napkins don't really stack up well against hard drives or even floppy disks for preserving data over time." Really! We know that Gudea of Lagash reigned from 2144 - 2124 B.C., four thousand one hundred and fifty-five years ago, because clay cuneiform tablets from that time are in the Library of Congress. In China, we have paper records two thousand, two hundred years old. Land records in England can be traced from the Doomsday Book of 1086 until today, and the 925 year-old book can be read today.
  • Duke Nukem Forever was originally envisioned on a napkin as well. Mind you, that being so long ago I would assume napkins were all we had to put our designs down back then.....

    I guess the problem is the staff wrote their deadlines for the project on that napkin as well, and it was clearly lost to time.

  • Anybody old enough to remember the 1980s might remember the Video Toaster. It was designed on the back of a napkin as well.

  • Since Tux Paint is basically the only thing I ever talk about... yeah... Tux Paint was first designed on a napkin at lunch. And I've also heard it's been used as a "quick, virtual 'back of a napkin'" for some engineering designs, since most other drawing programs are too clunky for quick sketches. :)

"It takes all sorts of in & out-door schooling to get adapted to my kind of fooling" - R. Frost