Why “Wonderful Machine”?

May 24, 2010
Wonderful Machine News

I just heard that the photographer Cameron Davidson is putting a few choice URLs on the auction block, including editorialphotographer.com, and soon, locationphotographer.com.

You can read more on his blog and debate the merits there. Whatever the case, I mentioned this news tidbit because it reminded me of the value of an effective URL, a company’s name in general, and because it’s also made me nostalgic about the origins of our own company’s name.

When we first opened our doors, people would commonly ask why we were called “Wonderful Machine.” A legitimate question, considering that our name’s a little abstract, and at first glance there’s not such a direct connection between our name and the boutique photographer’s web portal that we’ve always been. So let me take you back…

To begin, when we were looking for names for our new company, a lot of the more obvious considerations came to mind: most of the titles included “photo”, “pixels”, “image,” or something else as literal. And there’s nothing wrong with being direct, necessarily.

Additionally, it was important to us that our website’s address would be “[our_name].com” for branding purposes and ease of use. You’d be surprised at how many websites are already taken that have photography-related names. Or perhaps you’re not surprised, considering how many people are sitting on URLs that they’ve purchased in the hopes of “bribing” (it’s legal, and potentially entrepreneurial) the company or individual who actually wants to use the website of that name. Plus, there are just a ton of companies out there with the name that you had originally thought was so unique.

So it took several weeks (months?) for our small committee to agree on “[something]photo.com,” as our company name. We had already battled over the many names that we could call ourselves, made sure the “.com” address was available (a necessity before getting your hopes up), and slept on it for several nights to make sure it still sounded right in the sober hours.

Now we were ready to register the name that had not already been taken on .com/.org/.edu/.omg. The morning that I was set to to pay for our new URL, our founder, Bill Cramer, came running into the studio and said, “Wait, I have a better name!”

We all eyed each other nervously, because it had taken long enough to find consensus on our previously agreed-upon name. But Bill persisted: he had been reading a bedtime book to his young daughters the night before, and a chapter heading stood out to him, especially in light of its meaning.

“The Wonderful Machine” is a chapter in the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books (in this case, “Little House in The Big Woods”), recently made famous by Michael Landon in suspenders.

So what is a Wonderful Machine? Basically, it was described as a wheat threshing machine pulled by horses, separating the waste from the polished, final product. Bill thought the name was evocative enough, and it had symbolism and a personal back-story for him.

We all cautiously agreed to Wonderful Machine, and then privately wondered if it was a mistake. Fortunately, Bill suggested that we sleep on this name for a night, too. And that night produced a strangely unanimous decision to go with the unusual title for our new company, and one that we quickly came to enjoy.

It’s interesting how popular the term “wonderful machine” is in the American vernacular, as well. This is borne out by my Google Alerts for the words “wonderful machine,” which often return links to articles and comments on websites referring to inkjet printers, sewing machines and, truly, fertility monitors. As in, “the new Pregmaster Q2100xp has been such a wonderful machine to use.” So I’m glad it always has a positive association with a product.

I’ll tell you though, the first time I answered the phone “Wonderful Machine, this is Neil,” I figure that I was probably beet red. It sounded a little clunky, and possibly not related to what we were doing.

But after each invocation of the name, including it in our email signatures, and seeing it on a professional logo, I was confident in our choice because it was memorable, light-hearted, and symbolic of quality.

We also realized that a lot of successful companies have abstract names, or at least evocative ones that dare you to think beyond the General Electrics and British Petroleums of the world. But what must the first person who uttered “Hello, this is Google, how can I help you?” have thought?

-Neil Binkley