The Silly Origins of Google's Name

Or, How Google got the name, never told anyone, and never paid for it.

By Andreas Ramos. Updated August, 2023

Barney Google, with his Goo-goo-googly Eyes

Barney Google and his horse Spark Plug, 1923.
Note the title is copyrighted and patented.
Signed by Billy DeBeck.

Here's one of those convoluted stories about Silicon Valley. A hundred years ago, in June 1919, Billy DeBeck introduced the comic strip Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. It was very popular and appeared in 900 newspapers in 21 countries. Barney Google rode a horse (see above) named Spark Plug, (nicknamed Sparky). Kids loved Barney Google and Spark Plug and kids who really liked Spark Plug were often nicknamed Sparky. Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts (Charlie Brown, Snoopy), was known all his life to his friends as Sparky.

In the 1930s, Columbia University mathematician professor Edward Kasner came up with a number that had a hundred zeros. He asked his nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, to suggest a name for the number. The kid suggested Google, after his favorite comic strip. The professor changed the spelling and named it googol. He also invented the name googolplex, which appeared in his book, Mathematics and the Imagination (1940).

In 1998, Page and Brin, two computer science students at Stanford, built a search engine that could index lots of pages. Since they knew mathematics, they chose the word googol, but when they registered the domain name, they misspelled it... as Google, which brought it back to the original.

When you deal with Google people, they often say something is googly (which means it fits into Google's vision). Where did that come from? The 1923 hit song Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes) with lyrics by Billy Rose which you can hear on Youtube. Google's headquarters is also named the Googleplex.

Snuffy Smith continues as a cartoon character with occasional appearances by Barney Google. There are also animated cartoons with Barney Google as a billionaire (with his Google Building and jet airliner) and Spark Plug (1963)

Billy DeBeck, creator of Barney Google, came up with many phrases and words, including "sweet mama", "horsefeathers", “heebie-jeebies”, “hotsy-totsy” “doodle bug”, “great balls o’ fire” and “time's a-wastin'”.

As I pointed out above, Barney Google was both copyrighted and patented in 1923, which gave Billy DeBeck protection for 95 years (to 2018). Google the company was founded in 1998. I wonder if they paid to use the name?