Alan Emtage (Archie)

There was a time when people felt the internet was another world, but now people realize it’s a tool that we use in this world.
Tim Berners-Lee

Alan Emtage
Alan Emtage

The Internet’s first search engine—the Archie system, was created in 1989 by a student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Alan Emtage. Emtage (born 27 November 1964, in Barbados) conceived the first version of Archie, which was actually a pre-Web internet search engine for locating material in public FTP archives.

A native of Barbados, Alan attended high school at Harrison College from 1975 to 1983 (and in 1981 became the owner of a Sinclair ZX81 with 1K of memory), where he graduated at the top of his class, winning the Barbados Scholarship. Alan was always crazy about computers and while a student at Harrison College, he tossed around a number of other career choices including meteorology and organic chemistry, but chose computer science.

In 1983 Alan entered McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to study for a Bachelor’s degree in computer science. In 1987 he continued his study for a Master’s degree, which he obtained in 1991. He was part of the team that brought the first Internet link to eastern Canada (and only the second link in the country) in 1986.

In 1989 while a student and working as a systems administrator for the School of Computer Science, Alan conceived and implemented the original version of the Archie search engine, the world’s first Internet search engine and the start of a line that leads directly to today’s giants Yahoo and Google. (The name Archie stands for “archive” without the “v”, not the kid from the comics.)

Working as a systems administrator, Alan was responsible for locating software for the students and staff of the faculty. The necessity for searching for information became the mother of invention. He decided to develop a set of programs, that would go out and look through the repositories of software (public anonymous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites) and build basically an index of the available software, a searchable database of filenames. One thing led to another and word got out that he 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 doing it himself, Alan 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.

It seems that the administration of the university was the last to find out about what Alan had done. As Alan remembered: “We had no permission from the school to provide this service; and as a matter of fact, the head of 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’… 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.”

Internet’s first search engine
Archie of Alan Emtage, the Internet’s first search engine

Archie is considered the original search engine and a lot of the techniques that Emtage and other people who worked with him on Archie came up with are basically the same techniques that Google, Yahoo!, and all the other search engines use.

Later 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.

In 1992, Emtage along with the computer scientist Peter Deutsch formed Bunyip Information Systems—the world’s first company expressly founded for and dedicated to providing Internet information services with a licensed commercial version of the Archie search engine used by millions of people worldwide.

Emtage was a founding member of the Internet Society and went on to create and chair several Working Groups at the Internet Engineering Task Force, the standard-setting body for the Internet. Working with other pioneers such as Tim Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen, Mark McCahill (creator of Gopher), and Jon Postel, Emtage co-chaired the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) Working Group which created and codified the standard for Uniform Resource Locators (URLs).

Emtage is currently the Chief Technical Officer at Mediapolis, Inc., a web engineering company in New York City. Besides computers, traveling 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.