Alan Emtage Creator of Archie, the World’s First Search EngineFebruary 3, 2020
This profile on Allan Emtage is the first post of a month-long series of profiles on Black STEM innovators in honor of Black History Month. Check back each weekday to read a new profile, the next of which focuses on Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson: A Lifelong Trailblazer and Scientific Leader.
The internet as we now know it, has an incredible amount of information available to people all over the world via computers, phones, and even gaming consoles—all we have to do is search. But before you could “just Google it,” the search process for information was much more time consuming and rigorous and much less fruitful.
Until Alan Emtage, a native of Barbados, created the world’s first search engine that he called Archie.
In 1989, Emtage was a systems administrator in the information technology department at McGill University in Montreal while he was enrolled graduate school at the University. It was here that Emtage was tasked with manually combing various File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers for software that may be useful to students and faculty. This time-consuming search process sparked an idea, which led to Emtage’s invention of a code named “Archie,” after “archive”, without the “v”1.
Archie was Emtage’s solution to the slow University internet connection he used to scour nameless files with no descriptions. After he and the handful of student workers that comprised the IT department at McGill became fed up with this process, Emtage created Archie to take over this tedious task.
“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,” Emtge said in an interview with The Internet Society3.
In the mid- to late-90s, the internet was not as ubiquitously used as it is today. So even after Emtage created Archie and half of the internet traffic to Canada used his FTP search engine, Emtage saw no reason to patent his idea2.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Emtage explained that “At the time, nobody was making money off of the Internet, and we didn’t patent any of the original ideas behind Archie.2” In a separate interview, Emtage elaborated on the mindset behind not patenting Archie.
“The No. 1 question I get is why I am not a bazillionaire,” Emtage told The Internet Society during his interview. “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.3”
The growth of technology over the late 1990s and early 2000s led to increased internet access then increased user adoption. It was during this time that the idea and processes of Archie were used to build the robust, widely used search engines we know today including Google. “In that way, Archie was the great great grandfather of Google and all of those other search engines,” says Emtage2.
As of January 2020, 4.54 billion people were active internet users, encompassing 59% of the global population and surpassing the 2017 prediction that only 53.7% of the global population would use the internet by 20214,5. Many of these users use search engines to find specific information ranging from recipes, historical documents, news updates, and videos.
While Emtage does not profit off his invention that benefitted benefited many companies and millions of people, he doesn’t seem to be fazed, reporting to the Huffington Post that “Every now and again, I interact with somebody who’s a real idiot, and I think to myself, ‘Yeah, but you know what? I invented the search engine.’”2.
For more information on Alan Emtage visit Digital Archeology’s interview with Emtage: https://digital-archaeology.org/an-interview-with-alan-emtage/.
- Jstor. (2017, February 21). Meet Alan Emtage, the Black Technologist Who Invented ARCHIE, the First Internet Search Engine. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/alan-emtage-first-internet-search-engine/.
- Huffington Post. (2013, April 16) Alan Emtage: The Man Who Invented The World’s First Search Engine (But Didn’t Patent It). Retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/alan-emtage-search-engine_n_2994090
- The Internet Society. (2019, February 12). Alan Emtage and the Birth of the First Internet Search Engine. Retrieved from https://www.internethalloffame.org/blog/2019/02/12/alan-emtage-and-birth-first-internet-search-engine.
- Statista.com (2020). Global digital population as of January 2020(in billions). Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/617136/digital-population-worldwide/.
- Statista.com. (2019). Worldwide internet user penetration from 2014 to 2021. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/325706/global-internet-user-penetration/.