Gopher deserves more credit than it gets

03/09/13 21:51:00    

By Michael Mealling

I'm definitely playing the “I walked uphill to school both ways” card on this one but its something I have to get off my chest. I don't think Mark McCahill gets nearly enough credit for the modern Internet and Web.

My first time on the Internet proper was in 1990 when I started working at the Office of Information Technology at Georgia Tech. Since I worked for OIT I had access to the Sun 386i and a few other UNIX machines used in the machine room. A few weeks into the job I discovered FTP and Archie. A few months into 1991 came Gopher from Marc McCahill at University of Minnesota. I installed the basic server and client on various machines and started serving any campus content I could find. This marked the first instance of Georgia Tech running something other than an FTP and NNTP server for the general Internet.

Later that same year Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau released the NeXT web client, a “line mode” browser, and a rudimentary server. I played with them but the line mode browser was a god awful pain to use and few people had NeXT machines. The idea was attractive but the implementation wasn't really usable by the campus. This will be hard to believe for most readers until 30 but most of the campus still used text oriented terminals. It wasn't until the Lynx browser came out in 1993 that a useful text browser existed.

That meant that all of the content we created from early 1991 through 1993 was put on the campus Gopher server. We did run a web server but the only content it had was a link to the Gopher server. Mosaic was released in a functional form in late 1993. I distinctly remember being at the Houston IETF (the one without any hot water) and being in the terminal room when someone from UIUC showed TimBL the Mosaic browser for the first time. Specifically the use of the newly minted <img> tag. Prior to that point all web browsers simply linked to images, they couldn't display them inline.

But even then, most web browsers were used to access Gopher servers. It wasn't until the Common Gateway Interface and the NCSA HTTPd server in 1993 that content began to be written specifically for the web. Without Gopher would the team at NCSA have been willing to write Mosaic? Without that existing content being available to text mode terminal users I know that Georgia Tech would have waited a while before using TimBL's invention. At that time Tech was investing heavily in Oracle's higher education products that had its own proprietary Campus Wide Information System. Without Gopher there to open that door I doubt a single standard would exist.

So yea, I think Mark McCahill deserves way more recognition and credit for where the Web is today than he does.

P.S. While researching some of the links I used some of the standard Wikipedia articles. I can't exactly find the evidence readily at hand but there is a good deal of revisionist history in some of those articles.

P.P.S For giggles here is the old Georgia Tech homepage circa 1994

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