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Part 10: Archie, The First Search Engine

Updated: Aug 8

We pick up this series with Archie. No, not the comic book, but the first search engine. Archie was the brainchild of Alan Emtage, a computer science faculty member at McGill University in Montreal. Emtage had decided to take on a challenge from his colleague Peter Deutsch to find an organic way of connecting McGill University’s document library to the internet. Deutsch had previously attempted to persuade McGill to set up an internet connection, but ultimately the university deemed it unworthy of the $35,000 investment.

In 1990, Archie was brought into the world. Its name was a shortened version of the word “archive”, not a reference to the popular comic book. The shortened name was necessary in order to get around the character restrictions inside file server protocols. Archie worked by connecting individual users to a network of public File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers and provided them a query page for them to search for files on these servers with a keyword or keyphrase. The files could be anything from images to text and software, which on its own was a major steppingstone for modern search engines.

To backtrack slightly, an FTP is similar in aesthetic and function to the file directory on your computer. A user can only access the files saved locally with the search function, which makes it effective only for use on your personal computer. This limitation applied to Archie as well. Because it could only access public files, users who wanted to make their files available to Archie had to draft an email and request their files be made available. Needless to say this was a cumbersome process for a seemingly low reward.

As it so happens, Archie inspired the creation of two other rudimentary search engines – Veronica and Jughead, also not references to the popular comic. Veronica was invented in 1992 at the University of Nevada-Reno by Steven Foster and Fred Barry and ran on the Gopher protocol, which was a competitor to the World Wide Web. Perhaps in another blog series, we will dive deeper into the different internet protocols of the 1990’s. They are important to the history of search engines, but they can get highly technical. I digress. In 1993, Jughead was invented by Rhett Jones at the University of Utah. Jughead was also able to run on the Gopher protocol. However, unlike Veronica, it was able to only search one server at a time. Archie and Veronica, by contrast, could search entire networks of servers simultaneously.

Like a lot of the previous inventions we’ve discussed, Archie, Veronica, and Jughead all became largely extinct within a few years of their launch. The primary limitation of all of these search engines was their inability to connect to the World Wide Web and to adopt the HTTP protocol. Unlike a lot failed inventors, though, Alan Emtage did not fade into oblivion when Archie was surpassed. In fact, Emtage would become one of the founding members of the Internet Society alongside other pioneers such as Tim Berners Lee (TBL). The Internet Society is the governing body for internet standards that exists today. Among other contributions, Emtage would work as part of the group who would develop modern URL standards.

As I laid out when this series began, there isn’t a set time number of installments I intend to write. This series has been a discovery process for me as I seek to expand my knowledge of search engines and their significance. I remind you all of that fact to say the following – we have one more week to go before we discuss Google. Next week we will look at WebCrawler, AltaVista, and Yahoo.

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