Meet Alan Emtage, the Black Technologist Who Invented ARCHIE, the First Internet Search Engine
By ALEXANDRA SAMUEL
Feb 21 2017
At a time when “googling” has become the generic term for conducting an internet search, it can be hard to remember that search had a long history before Google came along. But it’s worth revisiting that past during Black History Month, because the pre-Google era saw one of the most momentous black contributions to the development of the internet: the invention of internet search itself, by Alan Emtage.
In 1989, Emtage was graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, where he’d moved from his native Barbados. As a systems administrator in the university’s information technology department, it was his job to find software for students and faculty members—which at that time involved manually digging around the various FTP (File Transfer Protocol) servers scattered across the nascent internet. To save his own time, he wrote some code that would do the searching for him, and named his FTP search engine “ARCHIE” (after “archive”, without the “v”.)
You can get a clear sense of the magnitude of this contribution from a 1994 article offering science teachers a basic introduction to the internet :
ARCHIE, referred to as the “electronic index to the Internet,” is a collection of discovery tools developed at McGill University that electronically search directories of computers on the Internet. ARCHIE can search an estimated 2.1 million files located at over 1200 sites worldwide within minutes. Given a title or subject, ARCHIE will search the Internet and report the location of files containing information matching the keyword. ARCHIE is particularly powerful in locating public domain software available to science educators. Because the number of files expands daily, ARCHIE data bases are updated internationally about once a month.
We now take for granted the availability of search in every context of our online lives—on the internet, on our local computer desktops, even on our phones. But in the early days of the internet, people still needed a clear explanation of the problem that search could actually solve. As a 1995 article in the British Medical Journal explained it:
It is one thing knowing that millions of files are potentially available on thousands of anonymous FTP sites; it is quite another being able to locate a program or other file suitable for a particular task when you may not even know that such a program exists, or if it does, where it might be found. You could try just browsing through various anonymous FTP sites. However, sites vary in how well indexed they are and how easy it is to find applications of a given type… If you know the name of the file that you are looking for, things get easier, thanks to a utility called Archie. Archie consists of a set of computers on the Internet that continually search all the anonymous FTP sites around the world and then compile the results into a single searchable database.
Nearly three decades later, we can see the legacy of Emtage’s contribution in the way that search has not only transformed the way we find information, but in the balance of power on our new well-indexed internet. By that I mean not only the balance of power between the all-powerful Google algorithm and the websites that live or die by its graces, but also, the balance of power between search and the searcher.