The Life and Death of Gopher, the Internet Before the Web

On March 18, in a conference room of the hotel, Berners-Lee presented one possible breakthrough: the World Wide Web. It was evening. Many of the 530 conference attendees had already gone to the bar or to dinner. To the curious who stayed behind, Berners-Lee explained that the Web could be used to connect all the information on the internet through hyperlinks. You could click on a word or a phrase in a document and immediately retrieve a related document, click again on a phrase in that document, and so on. It acted like a web laid over the internet, so you could spider from one source of information to another on nearly invisible threads.

Two other programs with the potential to expand access to the internet — WAIS and Prospero — were discussed in the same session. In the reports of people who saw the presentation, the Web did not come across as the best of them, or even as particularly promising.

The next day, in the light of the afternoon, McCahill and Anklesaria presented the Internet Gopher. It was simple enough to explain: With minimal computer knowledge, you could download an interface — the Gopher — and begin searching the internet, retrieving information linked to it from anywhere in the world. It was like the Web but more straightforward, and it was already working.

In fact, most attendees needed little introduction to Gopher — the software had been out for months. It was the developers they were curious about, the Minnesotans who had created the first popular means of accessing the internet. “People we’d never met were telling us how they were using our stuff and adding things to it,” McCahill says. “We had no idea how big Gopher was going to be until we experienced this firsthand and realized that growth could be exponential for a while.”

In the years that followed, the future seemed obvious. The number of Gopher users expanded at orders of magnitude more than the World Wide Web. Gopher developers held gatherings around the country, called GopherCons, and issued a Gopher T-shirt — worn by MTV veejay Adam Curry when he announced the network’s Gopher site. The White House revealed its Gopher site on Good Morning America. In the race to rule the internet, one observer noted, “Gopher seems to have won out.”

Read more at MinnPost.

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