A Brief History of Unicorns in Culture and Technology

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Recently we asked our Twitter followers what they’d like to see more of on our blog: social listening, sentiment analysis, and analytics tutorials all received strong support. But the landslide winner, with a full 50% of the vote, is… unicorns. And so, without further ado, Lexalytics is proud to present: The History of Unicorns in Culture and Technology

(Alternate title: From Pliny to Palo Alto – Unicorns Through Time)

A Brief History of Unicorns in Culture

Modern zoologists agree that the unicorn as it appears in popular culture does not match the creature of myth and legend. In reality, many ancient peoples believed the unicorn to be a very real (albeit very rare) creature. Many scholars recorded unicorn sightings throughout ancient history.

But their descriptions don’t match today’s imagery. Roman scholar and naturalist Pliny described the unicorn as, “a very ferocious beast, similar in the rest of its body to a horse, with the head of a deer, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, a deep bellowing voice, and a single black horn, two cubits [about 36 inches] in length, standing out in the middle of its forehead.”

[Unicorns in History Pliny.png]

NOT how ancient peoples thought unicorns appeared. – Image source

An elephant’s feet, a bellowing roar and a the head of a deer? We prefer today’s unicorns. Much friendlier.

Now, Pliny didn’t exactly fact-check his encyclopedic Natural History. Indeed, he supposedly included any and all creatures he heard of. Many contemporary scholars believe historical reports of unicorns to be widely-exaggerated sightings of rhinoceroses or goats.

But the history of unicorns doesn’t end with the Romans. The unicorn appears numerous times in the bible, often as a reference point for great strength. For example, Numbers 24:8 includes the passage, “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.”

Throughout history, people believed the unicorn’s horn to contain magical medicinal properties. Ctesias, a Greek physician in the 5th century BC, believed that drinking from a unicorn horn could neutralize poison and reduce epileptic seizures. Others believed that mixing powdered horn in their drinks would guard them against poisons. Even Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts, used a piece of unicorn horn to test her food for poison.

If you’d like to read more about the unicorn in history and culture, we’ve included a few links to further reading at the bottom of this page. But for now, let’s turn our attention to an entirely different type of unicorn.

A New Breed: The Startup Unicorn

So much for the history of unicorns in mythology. But what about unicorns in other culture? Let’s talk about the history of “unicorn” companies.

A “unicorn” in technology refers to a startup company that is valued at $1 billion or more. The term first appeared in a 2013 TechCrunch blog post, at which time there were only 39 such companies registered in the United States: a rare creature to describe a rare breed of company.

“God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of a unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8

Today, though, unicorns are everywhere. This database of Unicorns, curated by CB Insights and updated in real time, lists 149 237 (updated April 30) such companies as of writing. 14 of these unicorns represent ventures in Big Data or AI, including: Toutiao/Bytedance (valued at $20 billion), Palantir Technologies (also $20 billion), Cloudera ($4.1 billion), and MongoDB ($1.6 billion).

A portion of CB Insight’s list of Unicorn companies – Image source

This begs the question: can big data predict future unicorns?

CB Insights certainly thinks so. In 2015, they partnered with The New York Times to predict 50 future unicorns. So far, six eight of those companies have earned their horns. CB Insights developed their list using their Mosaic algorithm, built on machine learning and data science.

Not everyone is thrilled with this proliferation of a once-rare breed of startup. The rapid inflow of venture capital investment into the tech sector has many fearing a new market bubble. Only time will tell if the tech unicorn is to go the way of its fantastical mammal counterpart.

In the meantime, venture capital firms aren’t slowing down. Their newest target is the “decacorn”, a startup with the potential to value $10 billion or more (the CB Insights list includes 14 decacorns).

We can only wonder: how would Pliny describe a decacorn?

Further Reading

For more reading on unicorns in history and culture:

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