John Wainwright Was Amazon’s First Ever Customer
Amazon.com was actually founded all the way back in the summer of 1994. But unlike other dotcom-era startups at the time, Jeff Bezos did not believe in launching products “quick and dirty.” The website and processes that would eventually become Amazon.com underwent almost a full year of rigorous testing before Amazon’s website officially went live to the public in July of 1995.
Part of this testing process included a semi-private “beta” launch of the website that was limited, essentially, to friends and family of the handful of Amazon employees that existed at the time.
Key among those early employees was Shel Kaphan, the technical co-founder of Amazon who, along with Paul Davis, essentially developed and designed Amazon’s website and entire back-end.
Prior to joining Amazon, Kaphan had worked at a company called Kaleida Labs, which was a star-crossed joint venture between Apple and IBM, originally targeting CD-ROM production platforms, but pivoting toward developing ScriptX and other object-based computer languages.
The key developer behind ScriptX? A man by the name of John Wainwright.
The First Book Ordered: Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Kaphan told his former co-worker Wainwright about Amazon’s public beta test, and whether by chance or selection, it turned out that the order Wainwright made was the first order ever placed by, and delivered to, someone who wasn’t already an Amazon employee.
So, what was the first item ordered on Amazon?
A book called, Fluid Concepts And Creative Analogies by Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter is probably better known for his landmark book, Gödel, Escher, Bach which is a seminal work in the field of symbolic systems and intelligence theory.
All of this was uncovered a few years ago on Quora when someone asked what the first ever order on Amazon was.
Wainwright himself responded, saying:
I think I’m the customer mentioned in the other answers, I did indeed buy Hofstadter’s Fluid Concepts on April 3rd, 1995 (it’s still in my order history listing!). I’d heard that I might be the first non-employee customer, but could not get it confirmed.
BTW, I still have the book and the original Amazon packing slip!
And indeed, it seems he did! The image you see at the beginning of this post is that same packing slip, provided by Wainwright.
They’ll Name a Building After You…
There is a building on Amazon’s corporate campus called the Wainwright Building. Inside there is a nice little honorific that explains the building’s name.
One comment on the famous Quora thread suggested:
The really funny behind-the-scenes part is that the book wasn’t on hand when Mr. Wainwright ordered it…so rather than disappoint his first customer, Jeff had to buy the book from a local bricks-and-mortar bookstore. 🙂
This anecdote is, sadly, unconfirmed. But it does fit Amazon’s ad-hoc operating methods at the time. For example, consider this famous anecdote from Bezos himself about how Amazon gamed book distribution systems to find obscure titles their early customers so often requested:
“We found a loophole,” he [Bezos] said. “Their systems were programmed in such a way that you didn’t have to receive ten books, you only had to order ten books. So we found an obscure book about lichens that they had in their system but was out of stock. We began ordering the one book we wanted and nine copies of the lichen book. They would ship out the book we needed and a note that said, ‘Sorry, but we’re out of the lichen book.’ ”