Yesterday’s News: Summer 1995

Web Exclusives

Laziness and serendipity led to a discovery that would eventually change all our lives. In seeking a labour-saving way to gather data, Alan Emtage, BSc’87, MSc’91, created the world’s first search engine, a pre-Web forerunner of Yahoo! and Google.

by Diana Grier Ayton

Search engine pioneer Alan Emtage

It’s been said that every time we use a search engine, we owe a debt to McGill grad Alan Emtage, creator of “Archie,” the first tool to retrieve information from the Internet. According to a News profile from 1995, Emtage wrote the file-seeking program in three days when he was working at McGill’s School of Computer Science. He created Archie to avoid having to log on to Internet sites and manually search each one for the information requested by his boss, Peter Deutsch, BSc’85, MSc’92.

Word soon got out about Archie (a name derived from “archives” and shortened to meet Linux character limits) and people outside McGill began requesting the service. In response, Emtage and Deutsch added a front end to the software so others could conduct their own searches.  The two went on to form Bunyip Information Services in 1992 with other McGill colleagues.

The News noted somewhat breathlessly about the Internet, “Incredibly, absolutely no one owns it.” This was precisely its appeal for Emtage, who recognized its potential. “I like this industry because the old rules don’t apply. … Governments don’t realize what this technology means. There’s no customs officer, everybody has a voice and a right to speak.”

Moving from future to past, the News focused on a form of communication that would also be affected by technology – the art of letter writing, and in particular correspondence between novelist Hugh MacLennan and writer Dorothy Duncan, who later became his wife.

Author and longtime McGill English professor Hugh MacLennan

MacLennan taught at McGill for more than 30 years and though he felt the University “betrayed” him by asking him to give up his office to make way for younger staff, he was persuaded to leave his papers to McGill. According to Bruce Whiteman, then head of Rare Books and Special Collections, “one of the gems” among them was the MacLennan-Duncan letters.

The pair met aboard ship in June 1932 and began writing to each other shortly after the voyage. By November, MacLennan was bashfully declaring himself: “That night we leaned over the boat deck I wanted you quite terribly, but I was very shy & very foolish so I leaned over the rail & muttered bad poetry into the dark.”  After a four-year correspondence, he and Dorothy married in 1936.

Duncan achieved success with her writing before MacLennan, whose early novels and poetry were turned down by publishers. He eventually won a record five Governor General Literary Awards, but Duncan earned one first.  After MacLennan completed the manuscript for his third novel, Barometer Rising, she wrote of the strain on their relationship and expressed the hope that it would be “the means of bringing back the you I used to know.”

The papers reveal not only the touching history of a love story, but also the literary path of one of the first “Canadian” novelists.

In other articles, readers were introduced to alumni who were part of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s inner circle. Within weeks of the magazine’s publication, they and their colleagues would be hurled into the bitter debate over Canada’s future. The furore culminated in the October 30 referendum on Quebec sovereignty – which came within a hair of happening.

Share this article:

Comments are closed.