The first Google Doodle was an out-of-office message. The day was August 30, 1998 -- nearly two years after Larry Page and Sergey Brin had built a search engine in a Stanford dorm room, and less than a week before Google would officially incorporate as a company. Google was so young then, indeed, that it still had a Yahoo!-style exclamation mark as part of its logo.
Despite and maybe because of all the chaos that would come with incorporation, Brin and Larry Page spent the last week of August 1998 to go to the Burning Man festival. But before the pair could engage in some radical self-expression and/or radical self-reliance in the Nevada desert, they needed something a little less radical: a way to let people know they were away. The pair decided on a little icon -- the Burning Man logo -- and placed the spare stick figure behind Google's second "o." They published the new image to their site on the World Wide Web.
The resulting little portlogo was intended, Google would later note in its history of the Google Doodle, as "a comical message to Google users that the founders were 'out of office.'" And while that first doodle was "relatively simple," the history notes, "the idea of decorating the company logo to celebrate notable events was born." In 2000, the founders would ask Google's then-intern Dennis Hwang, now the company's webmaster, to produce a doodle for Bastille Day. People liked it -- so much, in fact, that Page and Brin ended up giving Hwang the oh-so-Googley title of "chief doodler." His doodles, at first, tended to focus on familiar holidays; eventually, they came to include everything from niche histories (today's tribute to Jane Addams) to celebrations of mundane delights (the ice cream sundae).
And there have been a lot of them. More than 1,000 of them, in fact. But they all came from that first one, that now-15-year-old burner. He was the stick figure that launched a thousand doodles.