‘The web isn’t going to last forever’ remarked Jonathan Fletcher, the forgotten father of the Search Engine at a conference in Dublin where he was a guest speaker on a panel with representatives from Microsoft, Yahoo and Google in September this year (Sept 3, 2013). ‘The desire to search through content is independent of the medium’, he added.
Surprisingly enough, until researchers tracked him down sometime ago, he wasn’t aware he had built the first modern search engine.
Even though Google is still in its teens (15 year old) and has already become a byword for information retrieval, it has very few words about the man who first created search engines more than 20 years ago.
In 1993, when the web was very much in its infancy, the first popular browser called ‘Mosaic’ was released. Nevertheless, how to find things on the web remained a riddle all the while. Near about that time, Jonathan Fletcher, who was a talented graduate student at the University of Stirling in Scotland got an offer to study for PhD at Glasgow. But unfortunately, the offer was revoked or the grant was withdrawn and as a result Fletcher had to take up a job at his alma mater looking after the University’s technology department. However, while building a web server for the University, Jonathan Fletcher first came to realize the difficulty of tracking websites, an issue that made him go deep into it and come up with a groundbreaking invention. Now, let us hear in his own words about what he did.
“At the time there was a “What’s New” page on a web server that was operated by the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) where people registered their websites for others to view. I knew from setting up the University of Stirling website that the contents of all websites kept changing all the time and as a result I had no way to look for these changed contents. This prompted me to write the web crawler to work its way around the web and build up a database of headers and titles. I was a computing graduate, so writing software to do this was natural to me.”
Mr Fletcher called his invention JumpStation. He put together an index of pages which could then be searched by a web crawler, essentially an automated process that visits, and indexes, every link on every web page it comes across. The process continues until the crawler runs out of things to visit.
Ten days later, on 21 December 1993, JumpStation ran out of things to visit. It had indexed 25,000 pages. And that was how the world’s first search engine died an ignoble death.
Incidentally, today, Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have become household names, primarily for the development of modern search engine, the name of Jonathan Fletcher, who first invented the process has gone into oblivion.
“I would say that he is the father of the web search engine,” says Prof Mark Sanderson of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, who has studied the history of information retrieval.