The First Big Data

How an Ancient Greek made the first Big Data decision and earned a fortune.

Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived around 600BC in Miletus which is in present day Turkey. He is enormously important in history because, before Thales, the only way to explain events was to tell stories about the Gods. Thunder? Well, it’s the sound made by the Cyclopes forging with their hammer the thunderbolts of Zeus. Obviously.

Thales introduced the idea that you could instead use data and intelligence to explain physical processes. He didn’t create the first “database”, but I would say he created the first Big Data database because he recorded all data he could get his hands on, whether it immediately seemed to be important or not. One of the first uses he put this database to was in predicting the weather.

Despite making so many contributions to what would later become Science, he took a lot of stick from his contemporaries.

“Hey, Thales – if you’re so clever, why are you not rich?”

He would patiently explain that the problems he was interested were pure and interesting without being necessarily profitable. It is reasonable to imagine that this did not silence his critics, because he felt compelled to teach them a lesson.

Aristotle takes up the story in his book “Politics”.

“But he, deducing from his knowledge of stars that there would be a good crop of olives, while it was still winter raised a little capital and used it to pay deposits on all the oil-presses in Miletus and Chios, thus securing an option on their hire. This cost him only a small sum as there were no other bidders. Then the time of the harvest came and as there was a sudden and simultaneous demand for oil-presses, he hired them out at any price he liked to ask. He made a lot of money and so demonstrated that it is easy for philosophers to be rich, if they want to.”

What Thales had done here was to invent a way to monetise big data. He had also incidentally invented the ideas of “options” and “monopoly”. It makes me wonder whether the best thing we can do to stimulate the economy today is to mock a few philosophers …

The story of Thales illustrates one possibility you get with Big Data – you have the potential to found a totally new industry (for example Google) or to turn an older industry inside-out (like Amazon).

This is an opportunity that is open in all areas of business, not just in businesses completely built out of data like Google. Big Data is revolutionising astronomy, the car industry, professional sports, online gaming, Marketing etc. etc.

There are other advantages of the Big Data approach which aren’t quite as sexy, but as every bit as powerful.

With Big Data you can understand your customers better and so serve them better – harvest every bit of data on your customers and squeeze the pips out of it.

Result: Happy customers who stay with you and are quite likely to buy more of what you’re selling.

If you can understand your internal processes better, you can operate more efficiently and predictably.

Result: Happy stockholders.

You can also more effectively hunt for new customers.

Result: Everyone happy.

These last three points are almost a definition of how to run a business well – these are ambitions that businessmen from Ancient Greece would have recognised – it’s just that nowadays, with Big Data approaches you have a totally new way to get an edge over your competitors.

Big Data is something you should invest in, not because it is new and way-cool (although it is). You should invest in Big Data because it is a good investment that generates a positive financial return that can be measured in all the old-fashioned ways – customer volumes, revenue per customer and good old-fashioned cost savings.

And to finish, I can’t resist a quick piece of selling – EXASOL make the fastest, easiest to operate database in the world and it is exactly the engine you need to power your Big Data applications. You can download a free version of our software and try it with your data within minutes.

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