This edition of the INC. 100 is our eighth such catalog of the country's fastest-growing small public companies. The first was published back in 1979 in the premier issue of the magazine. Since then, the 100 has gone on to become one of the most widely read and quoted listings of its kind, generating numerous news stories this time each year.

Journalists from other publications have suggested that the list elicits such a fevered response because it represents the "best" growth companies in America. We disagree. In fact, you'll note that no such claim appears anywhere in the pages of this magazine. There are publications that claim to be able to divine such qualitative distinctions in list form. One national business magazine does so by using a secret formula it refuses to share with its readers lest, evidently, it be copied by competitors or precipitate a major reevaluation of the dynamics of our public equity markets. Our "formula" is straight-forward, and is described in "How the INC. 100 Are Selected," on page 42.

Not long ago, one nationally syndicated columnist observed that the INC. 100 and the INC. 500 (our listing of the fastest-growing private companies) have engaged the imagination of the American business public because they provide us all with a glimpse at the future of the American economy. Maybe so. It is true, after all, that a number of significant companies -- Cray Research, Genentech, Apple Computer, Federal Express, and Nike, to name a few -- appeared on the INC. 100 early in their corporate lives.

But I prefer to think of the INC. 100 as a seismograph of sorts, recording in real time the tremors of change in our economy as a whole: the birth and consolidation of the personal-computer industry, the impact of deregulation in commercial aviation and telecommunications, and the burgeoning demand for high-quality and cost-effective health care. It's all there, and more, reflected in the lists we've published for the past eight years.