Coffee break chat: Internet pioneer Alan Emtage
Barbadian Alan Emtage created what is considered to be the first Internet search engine – Archie (archive without the v).
Alan was 25, and a graduate student based at McGill University in Montreal, when he conceived and implemented what would evolve into one of the World Wide Web’s most transformative tools and paved the way for leading Internet names such as Google and Yahoo!.
In September 2017, Alan’s invention led to his induction as an innovator into the Internet Hall of Fame.
He spoke to Yello about his life and career, what it was like to be at the forefront of the Internet, and what he thinks about how the technology is being used today.
Describe yourself in three words.
Curious. Traveller. Photographer.
Tell us about your childhood on the island.
It was a fairly uneventful childhood.
I was born in Barbados. I left when I was two and a half and we travelled to England, where my father was doing a Master of Philosophy at Oxford University. We came back after a while and I had an English accent which I soon lost.
I went to primary school and then Harrison College where I won a Barbados Scholarship in 1983.
I was shy as a child so tended to choose solitary hobbies. I was into amateur radio and I kept aquariums with lots of fish, which I found fun and a challenge to keep, pretty to look at, and relaxing to watch for hours. They’re always doing something.
Science always interested me so I liked astronomy and started reading science fiction when I was quite young.
Why did you choose to study in Canada at McGill University?
McGill came about for a number of reasons.
I wanted to go away to study, but I didn’t want to go to England because I knew I couldn’t handle the weather. I don’t mind cold as long as it’s sunny, so the dreary, grey skies were not something I wanted to experience for any length of time.
I wanted to be in a big city. A lot of North American universities are in the middle of nowhere, or college towns, and I didn’t want that.
I got into learning French at school when I was about 14, and that was an attraction because McGill is in Montreal. McGill also has a long history with Barbados because of the Bellairs Research Institute and it had a strong connection with Harrison College.
So McGill and Montreal kind of ticked all of the boxes.
And you came up with Archie at McGill, how did that come about?
Well, it didn’t involve any great vision on my part.
Archie was born of necessity and it was about solving a problem that I had to deal with, which was trying to find free software for the School of Computer Science, where I was working at the time as a system administrator while a graduate student. So it was just a way for me to locate stuff quickly.
I actually had it for myself for about six months before it was released and before we realised that there was a demand for it in the larger community.
I didn’t really grasp how important it could be until we started to see the demand, and then it became clear that other people had the same needs, and once word got around, the traffic went straight up.
What was it like being at the forefront of the Internet as it evolved?
Well, the Internet had been around since 1969, so it had been there for 15 or 16 years before I started working on it.
But what happened in the late 80s / early 90s was that the infrastructure finally reached critical mass, where there were enough universities and research organisations connected to it, so you could start doing useful work on it. So what we were doing was trying to find applications that would make it useful.
I was working with people like Vint Cerf, who’s referred to as the father of the Internet, Mark McCahill, who created the Gopher system which was a sort of precursor to the Web, and Tim Berners-Lee who created the World Wide Web, and a bunch of others.
So it was a really exciting time, and we knew that we were involved with something big, but I don’t think any of us knew just how big it was.
Of course there were also a few technical challenges, because the Internet was much slower than we know it today, and there were quite a few restrictions on how you could use it because of how it was being funded and no commercial activity was allowed.
But it was exciting and there was a lot of interesting stuff going on.
What are your thoughts on how the Internet has developed since then?
Well, it’s changed the world but like all technologies, it’s a double-edged sword and you get the good as well as the bad. It’s created some amazing things and allowed communities, for example, people suffering with rare diseases to get in touch with each other and realise that they’re not alone in the world.
But then you’ve got terrible stuff as well, for instance, it could ironically be making people feel less connected and fueling depression.
The problem is really people and how they choose to use the technology.
What was it like being inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame?
It was fun. The event was held in Los Angeles in September and it was a chance for me to see a bunch of people who I hadn’t seen for a long time, so it was a chance to reconnect with people who I used to work with in the early 90s.
I was told that I was the first person from Barbados and the Caribbean to be inducted, so that was a surprise. It was definitely a great honour.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in a career in computer science?
Nowadays, a solid grounding in the theory of the subject, as with any topic, is important.
There are also tremendous opportunities for learning on the Internet itself. Most of the prestigious universities have online courses, many of which are free and allow you to take classes from some of the major players in the field, and I think that’s a huge opportunity for anybody interested in this area.
I’d also suggest taking advantage of magazines and newsletters which will keep you up-to-date with everything that’s going on because the field is changing rapidly day by day.
So, find your passion and get into something that will be of use.
Is there anything you miss about Barbados?
Well, I come back for about four or five months a year over the winter which I’ve been doing for a few years now.
My parents are here and they’re getting older so it’s nice to be able to spend some time with them and the rest of my family and then in the summer I go back to the States.
What are your thoughts on Barbados’ future?
I think the island is in a tough situation right now.
I’m not plugged into the political scene but there seems to have been fairly ineffectual management at the government level, and I haven’t seen much movement on the fundamental problems which have been facing the island for the past few years.
So I think Barbados has a very rough road ahead of it because issues have been left to fester for far too long.
What is your philosophy in life?
‘Seize the carp’, which I’ll explain, because it’s a joke and a parody translation of Carpe Diem (seize the day).
I’m a strong believer that you have one shot at life and you shouldn’t put off anything that is important to you.
Your life can change in an instant, and you’ll never see it coming, so do those things which matter to you and what you want to accomplish. Don’t procrastinate!
If a film was made of your life who would star as you?
(Laughter) I’d like to say Chris Hemsworth because he’s big and handsome. But realistically, maybe Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire and Lion because in terms of skin tone, height and build, he’s probably a closer resemblance.