Done searching for Christmas gifts by now? Then here’s a little anecdote about the real first search engine –long before Larry and Sergey became billionaires building Google.
In the fall of 1963, two men send the first known long-distance computer query (this, according to a sidebar article by April White in the September 2018 issue of Smithsonian). Six years even before Arpanet (the precursor to today’s Internet) and more than thirty years ahead of Google, Charles Bourne, a research engineer who built the first online search engine, and Lenoard Chaitin, a computer programmer, sent the first query (the actually question they asked is, amazingly, lost to history!).
Here’s what we do know.
Bourne and Chaitin achieved their breakthrough at the Stanford Research Park in Menlo Park, California, with funding courtesy of the United States Air Force. At that time, most information retrieval was physical, where for example data would be stored on punch cards and then sorted by a computing machine. But the Cold War era demanded a more efficient process, and the Air Force wanted to be able to sort through its treasure trove of literature about Soviet technology quickly and efficiently.
In solving the Air Force’s dilemma, the researchers were ahead of their time, designing a program to work more or less the way Google does today. A user could search for any word in the existing files – a database of seven memos that Bourne actually had typed into paper tapes and then converted to magnetic tapes. 350 miles away, Chaitin sat at a bulky computer terminal with a 32 character-wide screen and sent a search query. The request went over the phone lines (that apparently were about 1/10,000th the speed of our smartphones today). A few moments later, the correct reply was returned from the search of the distant database.
The two had proven for the first time that online search was possible.
Ironically, the Air Force shut down the project a short while later. The world, apparently, wasn’t ready. They estimated that an entire file search could be completed in about 30 seconds, but that “it was not envisioned that the user would always have a continual need for on-line computer facilities.”
Today Bourne, now 87, says that “You really couldn’t imagine, at that time, doing a lot of things with a computer.”