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Oct 23, 2019

Welcome to the History of Computing Podcast, where we explore the history of information technology. Because understanding the past prepares us for the innovations of the future! Today we’re going to talk about Gopher. Gopher was in some ways a precursor to the world wide web, or more specifically, too http. The University of Minnesota was founded in 1851. It gets cold in Minnesota. Like really cold. And sometimes, it’s dangerous to walk around outside. As the University grew, they needed ways to get students between buildings on campus. So they built tunnels. But that’s not where the name came from. The name actually comes from a political cartoon. In the cartoon a bunch of not-cool railroad tycoons were pulling a train car to the legislature. The rest of the country just knew it was cold in Minnesota and there must be gophers there. That evolved into the Gopher State moniker, the Gopher mascot of the U and later the Golden Gophers. The Golden Gophers were once a powerhouse in college football. They have won the 8th most National titles of any University in college football, although they haven’t nailed one since 1960. Mark McCahill turned 4 years old that year. But by the late 80s he was in his thirties. McCahill had graduated from the U in 1979 with a degree in Chemistry. By then he managed the Microcomputer Center at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. The University of Minnesota had been involved with computers for a long time. The Minnesota Education Computing Consortium had made software for schools, like the Oregon Trail. And even before then they’d worked with Honeywell, IBM, and a number of research firms. At this point, the University of Minnesota had been connected to the ARPANET, which was evolving into the Internet, and everyone wanted it to be useful. But it just wasn’t yet. TCP/IP maybe wasn’t the right way to connect to things. I mean, maybe bitnet was. But by then we knew it was all about TCP/IP. They’d used FTP. And saw a lot of promise in the tidal wave you could just feel coming of this Internet thing. There was just one little problem. A turf war between batch processed mainframes had been raging for a time with the suit and tie crowd thinking that big computers were the only place real science could happen and the personal computer kids thinking that the computer should be democratized and that everyone should have one. So McCahill writes a tool called POPmail to make it easy for people to access this weird thing called email on the Macs that were starting to show up at the University. This led to his involvement writing tools for departments. 1991 rolls around and some of the department heads around the University meet for months to make a list of things they want out of a network of computers around the school. Enter Farhad Anklesaria. He’d been working with those department heads and reduced their demands to something he could actually ship. A server that hosted some files and a client that accessed the files. McCahill added a search option and combined the two. They brought in four other programmers to help finish the coding. They finished the first version in about three weeks. Of those original programmers, Bob Alberti, who’d helped write an early online multiplayer game already, named his Gopher server Indigo after the Indigo Girls. Paul Lindner named one of his Mudhoney. They coded between taking support calls in the computing center. They’d invented bookmarks and hyperlinks which led McCahill to coin the term “surf the internet” Computers at the time didn’t come with the software necessary to access the Internet but Apple was kind enough to include a library at the time. People could get on the Internet and pretty quickly find some documents. Modems weren’t fast enough to add graphics yet. But, using the Gopher you could search the internet and retrieve information linked from all around the world. Wacky idea, right? The world wanted it. They gave it the name of the school’s mascot to keep the department heads happy. It didn’t work. It wasn’t a centralized service hosted on a mainframe. How dare they. They were told not to work on it any more but kept going anyway. They posted an FTP repository of the software. People downloaded it and even added improvements. And it caught fire underneath the noses of the University. This was one of the first rushes on the Internet. These days you’d probably be labeled a decacorn for the type of viral adoption they got. The White House jumped on the bandwagon. MTV veejay Adam Curry wore a gopher shirt when they announced their Gopher site. There were GopherCons. Al Gore showed up. He wasn’t talking about the Internet as though it were a bunch of tubes yet. So then Tim Berners-Lee had put the first website up in 1991, introducing html on Gopher and what we now know as the web was slowly growing. McCahill then worked with Berners-Lee, Marc Andreessen of Netscape, Alan Emtage and former MIT whiz kid, Peter J. Deutsch. Oh and the czar of the Internet Jon Postel. McCahill needed a good way of finding things on his new Internet protocol. So he invented something that we still use considerably: URLs, or Uniform Resource Locators. You know when you type that’s a URL. The http indicates the protocol to use. Every computer has a default handler for those protocols. Everything following the :// is the address on the Internet of the object. Gopher of course was gopher://. FTP was ftp:// and so on. There’s of course more to the spec, but that’s the first part. Suddenly there were competing standards. And as with many rapid rushes to adopt a technology, Gopher started to fall off and the web started to pick up. Gopher went through the hoops. It went to an IETF RFC in 1993 as RFC 1436, The Internet Gopher Protocol (a distributed document search and retrieval protocol). I first heard of Mark McCahill when I was on staff at the University of Georgia and had to read up on how to implement this weird Gopher thing. I was tasked with deploying Gopher to all of the Macs in our labs. And I was fascinated, as were so many others, with this weird new thing called the Internet. The internet was decentralized. The Internet was anti-authoritarian. The Internet was the Subpop records of the computing world. But bands come and go. And the University of Minnesota wanted to start charging a licensing fee. That started the rapid fall of Gopher and the rise of the html driven web from Berners-Lee. It backfired. People were mad. The team hadn’t grown or gotten headcount or funding. The team got defensive publicly and while traffic continued to grow, the traffic on the web grew 300 times faster. The web came with no licensing. Yet. Modems got faster. The web added graphics. In 1995 an accounting disaster came to the U and the team got reassigned to work on building a modern accounting system. At a critical time, they didn’t add graphics. They didn’t further innovate. The air was taken out of their sales from the licensing drama and the lack of funding. Things were easier back then. You could spin up a server on your computer and other people could communicate with it without fear of your identity being stolen. There was no credit card data on the computer. There was no commerce. But by the time I left the University of Georgia we were removing the gopher apps in favor of NCSA Mosaic and then Netscape. McCahill has since moved on to Duke University. Perhaps his next innovation will be called Document Devil or World Wide Devil. Come to think of it, that might not be the best idea. Wouldn’t wanna’ upset the Apple Cart. Again. The web as we know it today wasn’t just some construct that happened in a vacuum. Gopher was the most popular protocol to come before it but there were certainly others. In those three years, people saw the power of the Internet and wanted to get in on that. They were willing it into existence. Gopher was first but the web built on top of the wave that gopher started. Many browsers still support gopher either directly or using an extension to render documents. But Gopher itself is no longer much of a thing. What we’re really getting at is that the web as we know it today was deterministic. Which is to say that it was almost willed into being. It wasn’t a random occurrence. The very idea of a decentralized structure that was being willed into existence, by people who wanted to supplement human capacity or by a variety of other motives including “cause it seemed cool at the time, man.” It was almost independent of the action of any specific humans. It was just going to happen, as though free will of any individual actors had been removed from the equation. Bucking authority, like the department heads at the U, hackers from around the world just willed this internet thing into existence. And all these years later, many of us are left in awe at their accomplishments. So thank you to Mark and the team for giving us Gopher, and for the part it played in the rise of the Internet.