Alan Emtage and the Birth of the First Internet Search Engine

February 12, 2019

When people find out why Alan Emtage was inducted into the Internet Society’s Internet Hall of Fame, they wonder why he’s not one of the world’s richest men. He certainly would be if he got even a penny every time someone clicked on his invention.

Known as the father of the search engine, Emtage created the first tools for helping researchers find programs on the Internet. He then went on to co-found the company that created the world’s first commercial search engine, Archie, which pioneered many of the techniques used in the public search engines most of us use multiple times every day.

Today he says, “The No. 1 question I get is why I am not a bazillionaire.” He went on to say, “But that’s not what it was. [The Internet] wasn’t a commercial entity. Nobody was making any money off the Internet. If anything, it was a huge sink. We were fighting the good fight. We knew there was potential. But anybody who tells you they knew what would happen, they’re lying. Because I was there.”

“There” was the late 1980s, when Emtage was studying computer science at McGill University in Montreal. While working on his masters, he also became part of the computer science department’s technical support staff, which he said consisted basically of five students.

With no professional IT staff and no money for new hardware and software, he said part of his responsibility was finding software on the Internet.

Emtage said he knew there were anonymous FTP archives, so he would go poking around for them on what was the university’s very slow, first-generation Internet connection. And because the files only had names, no descriptions, he would download them so he could search through them locally.

“So, then I developed a set of scripts that would do that automatically for me in the middle of the night when no one was using the link, because that was the fastest time to get things done,” he said.

“It wasn’t like I just decided, ‘Oh, tomorrow I’m going to invent the search engine.’ It was more organic than that. It was one of those ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions,’ situations.”

Word began to spread about his tool when someone on a UseNet group was looking for a particular piece of software. That’s when fellow student Peter J. Deutsch came to him for help. After Deutsch shared the response, he began getting more queries.

“He came back to me and said there is demand for this out there. Can we put this online?” Emtage said. “So, I did that and once word got out it was explosive and there was exponential growth.”

He said that up until that point, “Nobody had considered that you would need an Internet search engine. It wasn’t really anything that anyone thought about. But probably at that point, at the most, there were only a couple hundred thousand machines on the Internet.”

The only problem was that the search tool, Archie, was sucking up much of Eastern Canada’s bandwith, and they had not gotten permission to create or post it, so they had hidden it from their bosses at McGill.

“At one point, the director of computer science, who was very prim and proper, went to a conference and some of his peers came over and said, ‘Thank you so much for Archie.’” Emtage said. “Thank you so much for doing this for the community. Being the diplomat, he smiled and said, ‘You are more than welcome,’ not having a clue what was going on.”

“But it was a great way of doing it. As the old saying goes, it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

In 1992, he and Deutsch founded Bunyip Information Systems, Inc., the world's first company expressly founded for and dedicated to providing Internet information services. Bunyip distributed a licensed, commercial version of the Archie search engine.

He was also a founding member of the Internet Society, where he chaired several working groups at the Internet Engineering Task Force, including one which established the standard for Uniform Resource Locators (URLs). He has also served on advisory panels for the National Science Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Online Computer Library Center.