In the annals of business history, there is Bonk Business Inc. — and then there is everyone else.
Over the last two years, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to Bonk Expo, the 100th anniversary exhibit highlighting the company's incredible history. The festivities started in Pori, Finland in 1993; then on to Helsinki in 1994; from there to Stockholm for five months in 1995. Businesspeople from around the world flooded the museums. What drew these people? An incredible exhibit that celebrates the unbelievable history of one of Scandinavia's most improbable companies — a business with a history that's, quite literally, a fish story. Anchovies to be exact.
According to official Bonk history, the company owes its founding to a desperate crisis: the collapse of the Finnish anchovy industry in 1883, threatening high-viscosity anchovy oil (used to make the wheels of industry turn) and garum, a mildly stimulating anchovy condiment loved by the Russian upper classes. The Russians took the garum shortage so seriously that Tsar Alexander III offered a cash prize to the entrepreneur who could revive the industry.
Enter Pärre Bonk, a poor but resourceful fisherman. His plan: to restock the Baltic waters with the Giant Peruvian Anchovy from the Pacific. Two weaknesses threatened to short-circuit his bid for entrepreneurial greatness: Baltic waters are significantly lower in anchovy-friendly nutrients and significantly colder than the tropical Pacific. Undeterred, Bonk solved the first problem by pioneering the practice of anchovy farming and by creating the first commercial anchovy feed and portable anchovy feeding barrow. But it was his solution to problem number two that made the name Bonk synonymous with truly out-of-the-box thinking.
As recounted in company lore, Bonk decided to warm his fish electrically by running copper wires down the length of the hatchery pools. When he turned on the current, history spread its wings.
The electricity excited the anchovies, which began swimming rapidly from one end of their pools to the other. Thousands of anchovies swimming frenetically in perfect synchronization generated an electrical charge that poured energy back onto the local power and light grid. After long years of experimentation Bonk finally was able to explain the phenomenon — the Anchovy Effect; ultimately he formed his unified theory of "freakwave mechanics."
From this discovery has poured forth an unheard-of list of inventions: bilateral wave transformation; uninterruptable transrippling; fully defunctioned machinery; the gnagg booster (and its modern and more powerful successor, the Raba Hiff Eggstream); photon radiation technology; and more modern innovations that have earned Bonk and Finland their universally acknowledged positions in the pantheon of progress.
This history, which makes almost any other company history seem bland in comparison, has itself been fabricated by Alvar Gullichsen, a 33-year-old Norwegian artist, Bonk's head of product development, and a man to whom business is less a matter of profit and loss than a work of existential art.
Every piece of Bonk equipment is genuinely photon-radiant and guaranteed fully defunctioned: you can see them, but they don't do anything. This combination, Bonk officials assert, comes from in-factory experiments where workers indicated that they wanted more leisure time. To placate the workers, Bonk removed parts from its machines until they did nothing but radiate photons. Incredibly, Bonk says, putting these machines in real factories raises productivity.
Bonk offers seminars in its own branch of science: Bonk reps have traveled to giants such as Electrolux and Nokia to explain the company's theory of defunctioned machinery. These seminars are, like the machinery, virtually content free.
For those who wish to experience the real and imagined world of Bonk, the exhibit opens at the Experimentarium in Copenhagen in September 1996. For the electronic traveler, Bonk has a Web page http://www.asplund.arch.kth.se/~a96_osa/bonk/history.html where visitors can actually climb right into the eggstream and transripple a freakwave for themselves.
Tom Teal, a former resident of Finland, is a largely real writer now living in Boston, Massachusetts.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1995 issue of Fast Company magazine.