Elon Musk is known as a bit of an innovator, a driving force behind PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors. But in the mid-‘90s, he was thinking about how we use the web. His first four patents centered on ideas that are now integral to the way we search and communicate online.
Here are a few things that Musk was thinking about while most internet users were still battling with dial-up connections and America Online CDs.
Calling from the web
Musk applied for a patent in 1997 (granted in 2001) that allowed computers to call land lines. While the patent isn’t quite realizing what FaceTime, Google Hangouts and Skype now allow us to do, Musk obviously saw the way communications were heading.
His patent allowed computers to place calls to phone numbers a user came across on the web. The patent suggests that a user on a business’s website could click on the company’s contact information and be connected to the company via a call center. This is similar to what happens today when you search for a business’s contact details on your smartphone and tap to call it.
Searching in your area
One of the most important features of the modern web is finding location-specific information. We want to know what’s around us, what we can do where we’re headed, and how far things are from us. In 1998, Musk submitted a patent to speed up the way that geographic searches are performed.
His idea was to create a search system that automatically continued to search for the business you’re looking for in a widening area until enough results were found. This would effectively show you the closest businesses in the area you were searching, without having to redefine the area if you didn’t find anything at first—which is what happens when you search for a business on Google today.
Online business directories
Musk actually holds two patents for a directory service that provides business listings and directions to take you there. In a lot of ways, the idea is somewhere between Yelp and Google Places. Musk envisioned a website where people could find information about businesses and then get directions and their contact information from one centrally managed database.
His diagrams also suggest his website could have been extended to real-estate listings and car sales, effectively predicting the rise of sites like Trulia and Zillow, as well as CarMax and AutoTrader.
Musk developed his idea further with his second patent to let users refine searches by playing with the map radius—just like on Yelp—and fax orders to businesses.
Musk has a few more recent patents, though they are related to Tesla projects. He holds design patents for aspects of the Model X, set to be released in 2016, as well as Tesla’s seemingly Star Trek-inspired charging plug.
He also has an outstanding application from 2002 for a web-based faxing system that hasn’t yet been granted, possibly because we can now just email large documents to each other, and we don’t really fax anymore. Not every idea can be a winner.