He invented the search engine, but you don’t know his name

This is the tenth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

Have you ever heard the name Alan Emtage? Probably not. He didn’t start a nearly trillion-dollar company. He isn’t digging massive tunnels under cities. His pet project isn’t putting people on Mars. But he wrote the first search engine, way back in 1990. The thing is, he doesn’t brag about this accomplishment.

Hailing from Barbados, Alan Emtage was working on his Masters Degree at the School of Computer Science at McGill University in the late 1980s and early 1990s. While attending McGill, he was also working as a systems administrator for his department. As part of this work, he became the go-to person to help faculty and fellow students locate open source software on the early Internet. To automate things a bit, he built a rudimentary database that would keep an index of all of the files spread across the network. Still, he was the gatekeeper of this data.

And so Alan, along with his colleagues Bill Heelan and Mike Parker, created a user interface that allowed users to search the database directly. They dubbed this search engine “Archie” (“archive” without the “v”). That was the first true internet search engine. To put this in context, it wasn’t until the following year that Brewster Kahle’s Wide Area Information Server (WAIS), Mark McCahill’s Gopher, and Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web even appeared. Those, of course, enabled people to more easily browse and access information spread across the slightly less vast Internet of the day.[1]

Funnily enough, later search engines paid homage to Archie. One Gopher search engine was called “Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computer Archives” or “Veronica” and another was called “Jonzy’s Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation And Display” or “Jughead” (both, a nod to Archie comics). Two years later, the first search engine of the World Wide Web was dubbed ALIWEB for “Archie-Like Indexing for the WEB”.

In the time since Archie, Alan has done a lot of thinking about search engines and where things are headed, especially when it comes to bias and censorship in search results. He also recognizes the dangers posed my “smart” algorithms that factor your browsing and search history into the results they display. He astutely observes that these systems can limit your exposure to differences of thought and opinion, very similarly to what we see happening in social media echo chambers.

Alan Emtage is a pretty fascinating guy. And what I really admire about him is his humility. Despite actually being the creator of the first search engine, he’s not out there trying to boost his own image or cash in on this accomplishment. In fact, I haven’t even seen a humblebrag from him.

At a time in the tech industry with a lot of posturing, gloating, and one-upmanship, Alan’s humility shines.

  1. You can read Alan’s memories from this period in a post on Medium. ↩︎