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Before Google ever was
Date October 26, 2008
Brief Before Google ever was


WE'VE all used Google or Yahoo! at some point but the grandfather of them all, Archie - the first Internet search engine - was created by a Barbadian.

Few locals know that Alan Emtage, the son of Sir Stephen an


WE'VE all used Google or Yahoo! at some point but the grandfather of them all, Archie - the first Internet search engine - was created by a Barbadian.

Few locals know that Alan Emtage, the son of Sir Stephen and Lady Emtage, blazed the trail by conceptualising and implementing the original version of Archie back in 1989 while a student at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.

It was the start of a line which leads directly to today's Altavista, Yahoo! and Google.

Alan, a former student of Harrison College and a Barbados Scholar, was working as a systems administrator for McGill's School of Computer Science when necessity became the mother of invention.

He was responsible for locating software for the students and staff of the faculty.

"I developed a set of programmes that would go out and look through the repositories of software and build basically an index of the available software. One thing led to another and word got out that I had an index available and people started writing in and asking if we could search the index on their behalf.

"As a result rather than having us doing it, we allowed them to do it themselves so we wrote software that would allow them to come in and search the index themselves. That was the beginning," he explained via telephone from his office in New York. The 43-year-old pioneer holds Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Computer Science from McGill.

It is important to note that the first version of Archie was a pre-Web search engine for locating material in public FTP (File Transfer Protocol) archives.

It seems that the administration of the university was the last to find out about what Alan had done.

"We had no permission from the school to provide this service; and as a matter of fact, the head or our department found out about it for the first time by going to a conference. Somebody went up to him and said they really wanted to congratulate him for providing this service and he graciously smiled, said 'You're welcome' and went back to McGill and said 'what the hell is all of this? I have no idea what they're talking about'."

Alan and his colleagues developed various versions that allowed them to split up the service so that it would be available at other universities rather than taxing the facility at McGill.

Archie got its name not from the comic book series, which by the way Alan detests, but is actually "archive" without the 'v'.

At the time, the Internet wasn't commercialised and comprised of just universities. It was known as the NSF Net (National Science Foundation) before it became the Internet as we know it.

There were some fairly strong restrictions on commercial uses since it was funded by the educational arm of the federal government.

Then it changed.

"At that time a lot of people who had used the Internet at grad schools then went off to work for companies and said why don't we have access to it? That was one of the main forces that opened it up and allowed it to be used by more commercial entities," said Alan.

Professionally, Archie is Alan's greatest accomplishment to date.

"That was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was largely being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. There were other people who had similar ideas and were working on similar projects, I just happened to get there first.

"It is considered the original search engine and a lot of the techniques that I and other people that worked with me on Archie came up with are basically the same techniques that Google, Yahoo! and all the other search engines use. So, it was my one opportunity to change the world and you don't get many of those," Alan told the SUNDAY SUN.

Initially, Archie which is no longer in use, brought him much publicity mainly within the communities that were using it such as library communities and Internet information infrastructure communities.

However, he was soon called upon to lecture and speak at conferences around the world and did a lot of work for NATO out of Eastern Europe just after the Berlin wall fell while they were trying to build up their own infrastructure.

While a modest Alan said he wasn't a household name like other pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee a computer scientist credited with inventing the World Wide Web, whom he worked with at one point, he has other accomplishments to his name.

Important working groups

He was a founding member of the Internet Society and went on to create and chair several important working groups at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the standard setting body for the Internet. He also co-chaired the Uniform Resource Identifier Working Group which created and codified the standard for Uniform Resource Locators (URLs).

One would think he was always crazy about computers but that couldn't be further from the truth. While a student at Harrison College, he tossed around a number of other career choices including meteorology.

"I got into computers by a process of elimination; by deciding on all the stuff that I didn't want to do and what was left was computers. I found meteorology and organic chemistry really interesting. But I knew what ever I did was definitely going to be in the science field.

"I have very little facility with languages and I can't draw a stick figure so art was never going to be an option - my mum and my sister got that, not me," said Alan whose first computer was a Sinclair ZX81 with 1K of memory.

He grew up in Cave Hill, St Michael, near the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus and spent his teenage years body-boarding at Batts Rock beach also in St Michael.

These days Alan, who lived in Canada for 14 years before moving to New York where he has been for the past 12 years, works at Mediapolis Inc, a web engineering company. Besides computers, travelling and photography are his passions. He has been sky-diving in Mexico, hand-gliding in Brazil, diving in Fiji, hot air-ballooning in Egypt and white-water rafting in the Arctic circle.

He calls himself a "new experience junkie" and has been to 63 countries so far but plans to make that a three-digit figure before he retires. Alan uses his travels to photograph some of the most exotic and culturally rich places in the world which can be viewed on his web page,

But no experience has brought him quite the exhilaration as his work in the field of computer science.

"It has been a fantastic ride. It's hard for me to imagine these days, what life would be like without the Internet. I have a hard time remembering what it was like before," he said.

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