Timeline: Burning Man’s tumultuous past

Burning Man has wrestled with its identity since its founding in 1986. Here’s a look back at three decades of passion in the desert.

Timeline: Burning Man’s tumultuous past
[Photos: Flickr users Bureau of Land Management; wnhsl]


The event starts on Baker Beach near San Francisco, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James burn an 8-foot-tall wooden model of a man as bystanders watch.



Harvey names the statue “Burning Man,” and he and James start promoting their Baker Beach event with posters, flyers, and T-shirts.


Police break up the event at the beach on Memorial Day. At the suggestion of the Cacophony Society, a group of neo–Merry Pranksters, it moves to the Black Rock Desert over Labor Day weekend. About 90 people attend.


Burning Man receives a permit from the Bureau of Land Management. After inspecting the site, post-event, the BLM concludes that “no trace of the burning ceremony or the campsite can be found,” inspiring Burning Man’s “leave no trace” edict.

[Photo: Scott London]


Attendees begin establishing theme camps, and “rangers” form to protect attendees from getting lost in the desert. Rave culture arrives.


The first documented internet connection is forged when attendees beam a signal into the desert from a nearby motel and begin uploading pictures from the event to a website. It takes a half-hour per photo.


An email discussion list is established.



Wired runs a “Greetings From Burning Man” cover story. The event gets its first webcast, using streaming technology from MediaCast.


Rules arrive: Black Rock City is laid out with planned streets; driving cars and shooting guns are banned. Burning Man LLC forms with seven members, though not cofounder John Law, who had broken with the event a year earlier after an attendee died. He questions how it can grow and stay true to its ethos.


Larry Page and Sergey Brin create the first Google Doodle by embedding the Burning Man symbol in the Google logo to serve as an out-of-office message while they’re away on the playa. Tickets reach $100.

[Photo: Scott London]


Installation artists David Best and Jack Haye build the enormous Temple of the Mind at Burning Man. It’s the first of many temples from Best, one of the event’s most famous artists.

[Photo: Scott London]


Burning Man forms the Black Rock Arts Foundation to support work on the playa and elsewhere from artists “whose careers exist beyond the institutional mainstream.” The organization offers $270,000 in grants for on-site art in its first year.

2002 is a finalist for a Webby award in the Community category.

[Photo: Scott London]


With the event growing and a network of regional festivals sprouting up, cofounder and “chief philosopher” Larry Harvey writes down the 10 Principles of Burning Man as a guiding ethos.


Google Earth adds a satellite image of Black Rock City to its free online imagery. Al Gore’s Current TV creates TV Free Burning Man, which shoots, edits, and uploads, via satellite, several episodes during the event. They air, without advertisements, on Current TV cable stations.

[Photo: Scott London]


Cofounder John Law unsuccessfully sues the organization to release the Burning Man name and trademark to the public. “If Burning Man is really a movement,” he argues, “the name should belong to everyone, not three guys who don’t get along anymore.” The organization counters that public ownership would open the floodgates for commercialization.



A wireless company installs a temporary cellular tower on private land near Burning Man and offers satellite-connected phone calls to attendees. People in the area make and receive about 300,000 calls during the event. Burning Man responds to the outcry by urging its community to remember that “the dynamics of the Burning Man event will always be changing, and that our community can and will adapt to any new aspect that comes along.”

[Photo: Scott London]


Burning Man sells out: For the first time, more people want to come to Burning Man than the organization’s 50,000-person permit allows. It’s forced to halt ticket sales more than a month before the event. Krug champagne gets in hot water by staging an elaborate dinner party at Burning Man and inviting media to photograph and cover it.

[Photo: Andrew Wegst]


A few months after his IPO, Mark Zuckerberg helicopters in to spend a day at Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz’s camp. Artist Otto Von Danger, meanwhile, creates an elaborate scale model of Wall Street—and burns it down in homage to the Occupy movement.

[Photo: Lisa Keating]


Invited by Burning Man board member Chip Conley, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky attends. According to Conley, the awestruck Chesky declares that “Burning Man is what life would be like if artists ruled the world.”

[Photo: Philippe Glade]


Burning Man becomes a nonprofit with 70 employees, a budget of $30 million, and Marian Goodell at the helm. Private-equity billionaire Jim Tananbaum joins the board and attends the event. Also there: Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, which opposes any increases in corporate taxes and regulations.


Reports circulate on Facebook about Tananbaum’s ultra-high-end Caravansicle camp from 2014, which included a geodesic dome, private showers, Wi-Fi, and full-service staff. They set off a debate about turnkey camps. Tananbaum resigns from the board.



Three-year-old White Ocean, a luxury camp founded by celebrity DJ Paul Oakenfold and Russian billionaire heir Timur Sardarov, is flooded and sabotaged by fellow burners.


A first-time Burning Man participant dies after running into the fire during the burning of the Man.


Larry Harvey dies. The Smithsonian American Art Museum debuts the traveling exhibit No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man.

[Photo: Edmund Fisher]


As Goodell pushes back on Instagram culture and turnkey camps, the Bureau of Land Management denies the organization’s request to grow to 100,000 attendees and signals it may introduce drug screenings.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.