A Pre-Web Search Engine, Gopher Turns Ten

Before the web became synonymous with cyberspace, arguably the most popular search and directory program for the Internet was called Gopher. Despite rumors to the contrary, Gopher still lives, thanks to the efforts of a self-described group of volunteer hackers, who recently released an upgraded version of the software.

Gopher was created by Mark McCahill and his team at the University of Minnesota in 1991, taking its name from the university's mascot, the Golden Gopher. Gopher essentially combined the Telnet and FTP protocols, allowing users to click hyperlinked menus to access information on demand without resorting to additional commands -- a boon for users in the days before graphical browsers.

Using a series of menus that allowed the user to drill-down through successively more specific categories, they could ultimately access the full-text of documents, graphics, and even music files, though not integrated in a single format. Gopher made it easy to browse for information on the Internet.

Interviewed in a PBS documentary called "Understanding the Internet," Gopher creator McCahill said, "Before Gopher there wasn't an easy way of having the sort of big distributed system where there were seamless pointers between stuff on one machine and another machine. You had to know the name of this machine and if you wanted to go over here you had to know its name.

"Gopher takes care of all that stuff for you. So navigating around Gopher is easy. It's point and click typically. So it's something that anybody could use to find things. It's also very easy to put information up so a lot of people started running servers themselves and it was the first of the easy to use, no muss, no fuss, you can just crawl around and look for information tools. It was the one that wasn't written for techies," said McCahill.

Gopher's "no muss, no fuss" interface was an early precursor of what later evolved into popular Web directories like Yahoo "Typically you set this up so that you can start out with sort of overview or general structure of a bunch of information, choose the items that you're interested in to move into a more specialized area and then either look at items by browsing around and finding some documents or submitting searches," said McCahill.

A problem with Gopher was that it was designed to provide a listing of files available on computers in a specific location -- the University of Minnesota, for example. While Gopher servers were searchable, there was no centralized directory for searching all other computers that were both using Gopher and connected to the Internet, or "Gopherspace" as it was called.

In November 1992, Fred Barrie and Steven Foster of the University of Nevada System Computing Services group solved this problem, creating a program called Veronica, a centralized search tool for Gopher files. In 1993, another program called Jughead added keyword search and Boolean operator capabilities to Gopher search.

Popular legend has it that Veronica and Jughead were named after cartoon characters, since they seemingly derived from "Archie," a popular FTP search program of the time. Though the legend of Archie being named for the cartoon, the name in fact is shorthand for "Archives."

Veronica was likely named after the cartoon character (she was Archie's girlfriend), though it's officially an acronym for "Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-Wide Index to Computerized Archives." And Jughead (Archie and Veronica's cartoon pal) is an acronym for "Jonzy's Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation and Display," after its creator, Rhett 'Jonzy' Jones, who developed the program while at the University of Utah Computer Center.

After having been totally unmodified and essentially left for dead since 1996, the Internet Gopher has kicked back to life. The University of Minnesota placed the code under the GNU General Public License and an interested group of hackers set to work on it. On January 8th, they released version Gopher 3.0, code-named "Furry Terror."

Is Gopher still a viable tool for searchers, or just a quaint curiosity? That depends. A lot of good information that was originally stored in Gopherspace never found its way on the web, and using Gopher is the only way to access it. It's easy to find out for yourself -- both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator can fetch and display Gopher documents. Gopher addresses look like URLs but are prefaced with "gopher://" rather than "http://" as you can see in the first link below.

So if you've never played around with this pioneering search tool, give it a try -- or rather, Gopher it!

Gopher Turns 10

A Brief Introduction to Gopherspace

A good overview of Gopher and how to use it.

The Gopher Manifesto

For those who want to really dig into the past, or help support the current development efforts that are keeping Gopher alive.

All the Gopher Servers in the World!
gopher://gopher.tc.umn.edu/11/Other Gopher and Information Servers/all +

One of the last known directories of functioning gopher servers.

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.