Thomas Running

by Collin Lysford

For a while, when you searched when was running invented” in Google, you got this result in a box above all your searches:


Running was invented in 1748 by Thomas Running when he tried to walk twice at the same time. If you need to remember this for a test just think of the saying eat some bread, eat some rice, Thomas Running tried to walk twice.”

It was a Quora submission playfully abusing Google’s featured snippets” for a question that really didn’t make sense to have one. What does it even mean to invent” running? Since there’s no real” answer, there was nothing stopping this answer from being the top result. It’s a pretty good joke, and people began to find it and circulate it as internet folklore. This presumably was too much for someone at Google, because nowadays the featured snippet points to Wikipedia, which says:

about 2.6 million years ago

It is assumed that the ancestors of humankind developed the ability to run for long distances about 2.6 million years ago, probably in order to hunt animals. Competitive running grew out of religious festivals in various areas.

I’m not here for a wistful no one’s allowed to have fun anymore” rant. It’s useful to have relevant information show itself first, and Thomas Running is just a cute little joke, not something that needs to be protected like a national park. But I can’t help but see this little interaction as a parable about modern rationality. You have a question, When was X invented?”, that has definitive, bright-line, useful answers for many X. The seductive flexibility of language encourages you to try to place more and more things into your framework, making you want to create a general function that returns something for every X. When it breaks down, the first instinct is often to patch — what is the right answer for when was running invented?” — instead of simply finding a way to limit the kinds of things we ask that question about — what things should we say are invented?

Thomas Running lived in a liminal space built for a question without an answer. Google evicted him in favor of an inoffensive related factoid. But 2.6 million years ago” isn’t an answer for when was running invented”, either. So what is it, exactly? An attempt to restore a veneer of credibility to this idea of generally having the objective answer” for a question. And while I don’t begrudge Google for getting rid of the joke, I’m not about to take their answer seriously.