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The Internet Technology

Jonathon Fletcher: The Forgotten Father of the Search Engine 95

PuceBaboon writes "If you were under the impression that Brin and Page invented the search engine while working out of a garage somewhere in Silicon Valley then think again. The first practical web-crawler with a searchable index, JumpStation, was running out of Stirling University, Scotland, twenty years ago this year, long before Google came into existence. In a tale all too typical of the U.K. tech industry through the years, JumpStation's creator, Jonathon Fletcher, was unable to find funding for his brainchild and commercial exploitation of the idea fell to others. Jonathon, who was a panel member at the ACM SIGIR conference in Dublin earlier this year is now quite serene about the missed opportunity, despite his frustration at the time. Meanwhile, Stirling University is quoted as 'now looking at a way to mark' Jonathon's achievement."
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Jonathon Fletcher: The Forgotten Father of the Search Engine

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  • Tribute (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:19AM (#44764413)

    How about with a Google Doodle?

  • by 50000BTU_barbecue ( 588132 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:19AM (#44764415) Journal
    It pays to be the first when critical mass is achieved. Who remembers JCR Licklider?
    • "It pays to be the first when critical mass is achieved. Who remembers JCR Licklider?"

      Except Google didn't do that, either. "Critical mass" was achieved with Yahoo! Search, Dogpile, and others.

      Search engines were alive and well, and getting millions of hits a day, long before Google came along. The only thing different about Google was that they had a better way of telling which sites were more popular. So their results were better.

      So it wasn't a matter of "being first when critical mass is achieved" at all. It was a matter of "doing it better than the big players" at the time.

      Too b

    • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

      No, it pays to be the best.

  • Short memories (Score:5, Insightful)

    by w_dragon ( 1802458 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:19AM (#44764417)
    Google wasn't the first search engine - not even close. Yahoo, Lycos, Altavista, and others already existed. JumpStation would have probably been crushed by Google just like all the others, even if it had found funding.
    • Re:Short memories (Score:5, Informative)

      by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:35AM (#44764489) Homepage

      Google wasn't the first by a long shot. By several years in fact.

      But, they were one of the first ones to solve the problem of all of those web sites which had polluted every search by adding random words to meta tags or whatever they did.

      When I first discovered Google, Yahoo had devolved into pretty much nothing but spam and irrelevant search results. It had become somewhat useless to use most search engines, because they never actually retrieved anything relevant to the search, just stuff which showed up due to those SEO idiots.

      Google's page ranking managed to discard a lot of unrelated crap and actually get you something useful, and I never used Yahoo as a search engine again.

      Of course, since then, Google's adherence to their own "do no evil" mantra has become a bit of a joke [], and they've become really annoying about trying to force you to use more of their services even when you don't want to.

      So much so that if I was ever within a few feet of Sergiy Brin he might get a kick in the nuts just for the fun of it. You know, just to show him what it's like and to show we care.

      • Re:Short memories (Score:4, Interesting)

        by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:53AM (#44764593)

        I wish I could use the Google I first found. It now ignores all kinds of information and meaningful symbols.

        Google code search should be an interface to normal google.

        • Re:Short memories (Score:4, Informative)

          by swillden ( 191260 ) <> on Thursday September 05, 2013 @09:46AM (#44765043) Homepage Journal

          I wish I could use the Google I first found.

          You don't, actually. That version of Google was way too susceptible to gaming, er, SEO.

          It now ignores all kinds of information and meaningful symbols.

          Have you tried verbatim mode? That doesn't help with searches that include less-common symbols, but it does help with a lot of searches. AFAIK, Google always stripped special characters from searches and from its index, though, so I think you may be remembering an engine that didn't actually exist.

          • Re:Short memories (Score:4, Insightful)

            by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @09:55AM (#44765145)

            Valid, but I wish quotes would work correctly.

            I don't think I have tried that. I just wish it did not strip things inside of quoted strings. If I wanted it to strip them I would not have put it in a quoted string. I might be remembering something that never existed or combining attributes of search engines here.

            • by wmac1 ( 2478314 )

              and the minus sign. It almost never works for me when I need to remove useless links from the results.

            • I just wish it did not strip things inside of quoted strings

              Back when it was at, the tokenizer simply threw out certain symbols and stop words. So, you could never search on those, which was immediately frustrating on the 'linux search'! If they've changed things, then they're actually indexing all that stuff now and deliberately throwing parts of your search query out just to return worse results. I guess that's possible, but it seems more likely that they're modifying your string fo

              • I don't actually know, but I don't think most symbols are indexed. There are a few [], but I don't think the others are present in the index, so searching on them isn't possible. They could be indexed, certainly, but I'm sure plenty of testing has been done, and it works better for more people the way it is.

            • by ediron2 ( 246908 )

              You may already understand this, but a good method for map-reduce optimization is token combination (combining synonyms and misspellings and such). I'm not a googler, but have presumed that is behind google being good at similar terms (merging tokens) and poor with quoted strings.

              If I'm not wrong, you'd in effect be saying 'damn the specialized system for not allowing an impossible output'.

              • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

                Yes, but for many of my searches that behavior is near useless. I really do want to search for ntop, not top or nettop or anything not related to ntop.

      • And what was your problem with Altavista?

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          ^ What he said. Altavista was pretty amazing for its time, and had some really interesting tools that went in a different direction than Google ended up going. Google went down the path of "our algorithm is magical, you will like our list of results". Altavista had a lot of neat algorithms correlating things, but they gave the user more insight. They had a graphical search-map app, for instance, that let you visually see clusters of related topical areas relevant to your search and drill into them...

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          And what was your problem with Altavista?

          My problem with it was that it wasn't really a search engine. It did no web crawling and sites were added by hand -- and it was damned hard to get your site on it. I was on all the rest of them, and I argued with them about the poor selection of Quake sites they had, some of the worst, content-free crap out there, while mine was actually excellent (other webmasters listed by Altavisa told me "your site puts mine to shame").

          Infoseek was IMO the best one before Google

          • Are you confusing Yahoo with AltaVista?

            There was a link on the AltaVista front page to add a site that was not in the index, and its robot spidered all the links from that starting URL. Their big boast at the time was they had a bigger index than any other search engine (something like 8 billion pages). That was one of the reasons that Google used to crow about how many pages they could spider in their first few years.

      • Re:Short memories (Score:4, Insightful)

        by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @09:30AM (#44764881)

        From what I recall of those days, I don't believe Yahoo wasn't really a search engine at all. Website operators had to submit their sites to Yahoo, who would then manually review the site and then decide whether or not it should be included in their "best of the web" listings.

        Lycos, AltaVista, Webcrawler... those were search engines.

        • by wmac1 ( 2478314 )

          If I remember correctly they had a directory (which was fee based and free) and a separate crawler. For the crawler you just needed to enter a seed URL while for the directory you were required to enter more information.

      • by BigZee ( 769371 )
        I can remember using an application that consolidated results from several engines so that you got results that were a bit more relevant.
      • Though google was better at searches, I think where it was really better was its search input parameter processing.

        Altavista back in the day was an engineering exercise. (Remember how long it was before they had As such, it's full of nice geekisms like boolean operators and parenthetical constructs. Most people couldn't understand that.

        Google was always more of a natural language input system. The only "operators" most people use are + and -, and use their algorithms to kind of guess the re

    • HTDig. I remember trying to get it work on my site, then my boss went a new direction.

      There were various spiders. There was even URouLette, which was a random-link-from-a-web-spiders-db. You couldn't do that now, with all the porn and driveby malware sites.

      There were various web frontends to WAIS [], which never really caught on.

      And if you want to expand search engine past web search engines, there was Archie [] for ftp. Oh, you mean searching a Hypertext-ish system? Well there was Veronica and [] Jughead [], for litt

  • Yes, but... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rodrigoandrade ( 713371 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:23AM (#44764435)

    Brin and Page were the ones who made a profitable search engine.

    Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile (that award went to Karl Benz a few years earlier), but he was the first to make a fortune building automobiles.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Even back then [] the car brings us valuable insights into todays computer problems.
    • Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile (that award went to Karl Benz a few years earlier)

      Don't say it out loud, or Cugnot will be steaming with rage in his grave.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by aix tom ( 902140 )

        The most credit to the success of Benz, that resulted in the big Mercedes-Benz thing that is still very much relevant today basically goes to his wife.

        There is somewhat of a startling co-incidence with Apple Products. There were a lot of people who build "cars" before Benz.

        The "Patented Benz Motorcar" was basically a failure with no customers, until his wife loaded their two kids on board (without telling him) and went on a 212km (132 miles) round trip. That was basically the "Hey, a motorcar is not just a

      • by krigat ( 1253674 )

        Henry Ford didn't invent the automobile (that award went to Karl Benz a few years earlier)

        Don't say it out loud, or Cugnot will be steaming with rage in his grave.

        Yes, it should read "the modern automobile". Then the above statement is correct.

    • Brin and Page were the ones who made a profitable search engine.

      Yahoo, Lycos, even Altavista (in its way) were all profitable search engines before Google.

      Brin and Page just created a search engine that was an order of magnitude better than its competitors.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... not because it was first.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Better at understanding the global needs of the US gov?
    • That's true (Score:5, Informative)

      by Chrisq ( 894406 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:44AM (#44764541)

      Google won because it was BETTER ... not because it was first.

      I remember when I first tried google. I had been using AltaVista and I was amazed at how much more relevant the Google results were. Primitive search engines seemed to just bring up any page that had a lot of the words in, Google's page ranking, and looking up related terms (you ask for "secured lending" and also get pages that say "mortgage") made a real difference.

      • and looking up related terms (you ask for "secured lending" and also get pages that say "mortgage") made a real difference.

        Google does that now, but it didn't originally. It seemed like it did, though, because if there were a lot of pages with "secured lending" on them which all referred to one page about mortgages, giving it a high pagerank score, then that mortgage page was likely to be in the results.

      • I remember when I first tried google. I had been using AltaVista and I was amazed at how much more relevant the Google results were. Primitive search engines seemed to just bring up any page that had a lot of the words in, Google's page ranking, and looking up related terms (you ask for "secured lending" and also get pages that say "mortgage") made a real difference.

        That's one of my frustrations with google. If I wanted to search for mortgage, I'd have searched for "mortgage." Just give me the words that I specify and I'd be happy.

      • by Kyont ( 145761 )

        This exactly, 100%. The youngsters don't believe me when I tell them about that revelatory experience of using Google for the first time and getting WAY more relevant results than all those clunky late-90s search engines. The only reason the complete switchover to Google didn't happen faster is we just couldn't believe at first how good it was by comparison.

        And you know what? It's still really good. Not perfect, they'll probably get their lunch eaten by some clever startup one of these days. But right

  • by ciderbrew ( 1860166 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:47AM (#44764557)
    An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman each have an idea
    The Guy from the U.S. funds, markets and makes the money.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Yes. Because there are no businessmen in England, Scotland or Ireland. Those are the magical lands of innovation. It's the rotten Americans who are making business happen at their expense. Throw in some orcs and ents and we're well on our way to another Lord of the Rings.

      • I submit to you the life story of Mr Tommy Flowers. Inventor of all that be digital; but couldn't get funding. Built the equipment to help win the war himself with colleagues. All innovation kept secret and nothing made of it apart from listening to communications after the war. The UK could have been the number one in computers in the 40s- betting IBM with everything. We also have the bedrock of coders from the 80s. No shortage of top skills in the UK; but most billionaires seem to be Americain. And not ma
        • by haruchai ( 17472 )

          What about Konrad Zuse?


          • I think he would also of had a problem getting UK funding in the 40s.
            and thank you for posting that. They never talk about him on the BBC...
            • by haruchai ( 17472 )

              Zuse's accomplishments, especially in the privations of war, were remarkable.
              He could theorise, build and deliver in a way that very few are capable.
              I don't think he has a present day equivalent of whom I'm aware. Perhaps only Danny Hillis comes close but Thinking Machines didn't succeed.

  • archie (Score:4, Interesting)

    by redelm ( 54142 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @08:47AM (#44764559) Homepage

    While not for HTTP resources, I believe the first search engine (for FTP) was `archie` at McGill.

  • So unless his engine indexed a load of other services such as gopher and ftp servers too then it really was too far ahead of its time so you can see why it didn't garner much interest. Also I wouldn't be surprised if people didn't just think it was archie on steroids so why bother?

  • ...but a software company I started, right out of collage, developed an online search engine (for BBSs) called MagiSearch in 1989 or so. It could crawl up to 32000 (i think i remember that number was related to how big the stack memory was in relation to our data structure in pre 32bit days) text files and pre-index every tokenized word and phrase into an btrieve "database" (pre-RDBMS and SQL) for lightning fast online searches and retrievals...the tech was pretty primitive but the damn thing worked really

    • Dumb question anyway because what you really want to know is who created the first crawling search engine. That's what we're really talking about here, web crawlers feeding search engines.

      • well i guess but it a web page is nothing but a text file (with markup of course) connected with some pipes...there is no doubt that the moment we connected to the WWW through a gateway (this tech was just being developed at the time...Mosaic hadn't been created yet) we would have started to figure out how to start crawling the webpages it was such an obvious need...

    • by Bigbutt ( 65939 )

      Yea, I created the 'Classroom Door' for BBS's back in the 80's. It was a display of 12 or 16 virtual desks with space for 10 or so lines. So you could post a short, 2 line message on your desk or put messages on friends' desks. The older messages would scroll off the virtual desk as new ones were posted.

      Precursor to Twitter maybe? Facebook?


    • Not to detract from your accomplishment, but to clarify, 1989 was not pre-SQL; SQL dates back to the early 70s and became an ANSI standard in 1986. Commercial RDBMS's based on SQL were available as early as 1979. There might not have been any open source SQL databases back then, though.

  • Was his first search engine using page-rank or something like that to bring relevant searches, or was it just a web crawler + grep?

    • by Pope ( 17780 )

      "Page Rank" (get the capitals right) is Google's secret sauce, named after Larry Page, not web pages.

  • The first search engine I used was the World Wide Web Worm (probably in 1994, I think). Before that, I used to use Archie quite a lot, which was a search engine for FTP sites (which you accessed via telnet).

    The World Wide Web Worm found me a quite a few research papers which I needed to read to prepare the dissertation we had to do in the final year of our degree course. It saved many many hours of shuffling through paper in the library.

  • Same story .... A couple of people in a few different (and unrelated) places discover something within the same timespan, say a couple of months to a couple of years (I've seen even days apart). And then its a rush to a brevet (patent) . Also, many invention have been re-discovered over the years. Why is this a story anyway. I'ts been like that for ever.
  • There were many attempts to index the web and create search engines around that time. I find it a stretch to call JumpStation "the first practical" search engine.

    In any case, the article is right that trying to get a high-tech company off the ground in Europe is an exercise in frustration. The UK is probably still better than the rest of Europe.

  • The important innovation that let Google leap-frog the rest was page-ranking based on crawled content.

    So the real question is:

    Who wrote the first page ranked search engine and if they weren't Google then why didn't they end up dominating?

  • by snsh ( 968808 ) on Thursday September 05, 2013 @04:41PM (#44768813)

    Didn't mkgray code the Wanderer like four months before JumpStation? That's eons in Big Bang time.

    When you go back in time past net.Genesis, hours can seem like days.

  • cause this article was written for them yung 'uns.. Brin and Page were latecomers, actually.. I still remember Mosaic, and crashy web pages, and a who;e lot of different search engines. If one couldn't find it, there was a completely dfferent algorithm that could, on one of the others like Jeeves or Altavista.. problem was they started loading up with so much advertising, badly written Javascript, and proprietary plugins like whatever flash was called before it was Flash... that when Google came along wit
  • The Web and its attendant facilities, such as search, came as the culmination of decades or formative work. For Internet search milestones, check out Archie and Veronica. Anonymous FTP was the public document access method for the 70s and 80s. Archive indexed that world.

UNIX is many things to many people, but it's never been everything to anybody.