At a time when “googling” has become the generic term for conducting an internet search, it can be hard to remember that search had a long history before Google came along. But it’s worth revisiting that past during Black History Month, because the pre-Google era saw one of the most momentous black contributions to the development of the internet: the invention of internet search itself, by Alan Emtage.

A screenshot from the FTP tool Archie
A screenshot of Emtage’s tool for indexing FTP servers: “ARCHIE.”

In 1989, Emtage was  graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, where he’d moved from his native Barbados. As a systems administrator in the university’s information technology department, it was his job to find software for students and faculty members—which at that time involved manually digging around the various FTP (File Transfer Protocol) servers scattered across the nascent internet.  To save his own time, he wrote some code that would do the searching for him, and named his FTP search engine “ARCHIE” (after “archive”, without the “v”.)

You can get a clear sense of the magnitude of this contribution from a 1994 article offering science teachers a basic introduction to the internet :

ARCHIE, referred to as the “electronic index to the Internet,” is a collection of discovery tools developed at McGill University that electronically search directories of computers on the Internet. ARCHIE can search an estimated 2.1 million files located at over 1200 sites worldwide within minutes. Given a title or subject, ARCHIE will search the Internet and report the location of files containing information matching the keyword. ARCHIE is particularly powerful in locating public domain software available to science educators. Because the number of files expands daily, ARCHIE data bases are updated internationally about once a month.


We now take for granted the availability of search in every context of our online lives—on the internet, on our local computer desktops, even on our phones. But in the early days of the internet, people still needed a clear explanation of the problem that search could actually solve. As a 1995 article in the British Medical Journal explained it:

It is one thing knowing that millions of files are potentially available on thousands of anonymous FTP sites; it is quite another being able to locate a program or other file suitable for a particular task when you may not even know that such a program exists, or if it does, where it might be found. You could try just browsing through various anonymous FTP sites. However, sites vary in how well indexed they are and how easy it is to find applications of a given type… If you know the name of the file that you are looking for, things get easier, thanks to a utility called Archie. Archie consists of a set of computers on the Internet that continually search all the anonymous FTP sites around the world and then compile the results into a single searchable database.

Nearly three decades later, we can see the legacy of Emtage’s contribution in the way that search has not only transformed the way we find information, but in the balance of power on our new well-indexed internet.  By that I mean not only the balance of power between the all-powerful Google algorithm and the websites that live or die by its graces, but also, the balance of power between search and the searcher.

As Krajewski points out in an article inspired by the name of the former AskJeeves search engine, the servant-master metaphor can help us understand where the power lies in a Google search:

If the servant knows more than the master and the insider information is suited to the subordinates, then who rules whom? In the case of Google or Askjeeves this question was resolved long ago: presumably no one would claim to be the master when entering a query into the user interface of a search engine. If what matters in the relation ship between user and search engine is information analysis, preparation, and distribution, then the power has long since passed to the master of things, and that is unquestionably the servant.

If search has transformed the balance of power between and internet user and the internet itself, it’s also had a profound impact on our own internal makeup—on how we learn, and how we think. In 2010,  The National Science Teacher reported on a study that:

examined the search habits of 72 participants while conducting a total of 426 searching tasks. The researchers found that search engines are primarily used for fact-checking users’ own internal knowledge—meaning the they are part of the learning process, rather than simply a source for information.

In a related vein, Sparrow et al. look at the impact of search on our cognitive processes. As they note:

We are seldom offline unless by choice, and it is hard to remember how we found information before the Internet became a ubiquitous presence in our  lives. The Internet, with its search engines such as Google and databases such as IMDB and the information stored there, has become an external memory source that we can access at any time.

The authors conducted several experiments to test the relationship between internet search and “transitive” memory—“a combination of memory stores held directly by individuals and the memory stores they can access because they know someone who knows that information. “ These experiments provided “preliminary evidence that when people expect information to remain continuously available (such as we expect with internet access), they are more likely to remember where to find it than to remember the details of the item.“  The article concludes:

These results suggest that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology…we are learning what the computer “knows” and when we should attend to where we have stored information in our computer based memories. We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools (8), growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found.

It’s a staggering claim—but one that’s easy to credit if you’re the kind of person who reaches for your phone the moment you’re trying to remember the name of that movie, or the distance between Wichita and Topeka, or a list of the ten most-read undergraduate novels. Search has wormed its way into our memories…which is why we ought to remember the man who put it there: Alan Emtage.



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The Science Teacher, Vol. 61, No. 6 (SEPTEMBER 1994), pp. 26-29
National Science Teachers Association
BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 311, No. 7020 (Dec. 16, 1995), pp. 1626-1630
Grey Room, No. 38 (Winter 2010), pp. 6-19
The MIT Press
The Science Teacher, Vol. 77, No. 1, SCIENCE AND LITERACY (January 2010), pp. 20-21
National Science Teachers Association
Science, New Series, Vol. 333, No. 6043 (5 August 2011), pp. 776-778
American Association for the Advancement of Science