Archie, the pioneering search engine of the Internet, has been saved and is now operational

It’s both incredible and somewhat poignant to reflect on the fact that something created in 1989, which fundamentally altered how people interacted with the emerging Internet at the time, nearly disappeared by 2024.

Almost gone, that is, until the determined researchers and enthusiasts at The Serial Port channel on YouTube discovered what is likely the last remaining copy of Archie. Archie, initially developed by Alan Emtage during his time as a student at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, allowed users to search “anonymous” FTP servers across the limited network of universities, researchers, and government and military nodes that constituted the early Internet. It was revolutionary, marking the first glimpse of the future “anything, anywhere” Internet. Yet when The Serial Port team went searching, it seemed almost lost to history.

While Archie was eventually overshadowed by Gopher, web portals, and modern search engines, it still serves as a valuable tool for indexing FTP sites and deserves preservation. The Serial Port recognized this importance and undertook the remarkable and intriguing journey of rescuing it. For the full story, including the explanatory preamble, it’s best to watch their video. However, I’ll share some notable highlights of their tale here, hopefully enticing you to delve deeper.

The Serial Port highlights the broader loss of the Internet’s FTP era, including recent closures like the Hobbes OS/2 Archive. In a lengthy interview with Alan Emtage, the team learned that he had sent a tape copy of Archie to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, though it proved unrecoverable. Emtage’s company, Bunyip Information Systems, last sold version 3.5 of Archie’s server software for $6,000 in the mid-1990s (almost $12,000 today), yet it’s nowhere to be found online. The Internet Archive wasn’t fully operational until 1996, just as Archie was fading from the web and from collective memory.

The Serial Port team tirelessly searched through numerous resources to find a working copy of Archie’s code, including the Internet Old Farts Club on Facebook. I won’t spoil the surprising source of their success, but cheers (or na zdrowie) to the individuals who keep old technologies alive for the benefit of everyone’s knowledge.

The Serial Port not only rescued the last working version of Archie, which appears to be a 3.5 beta, but they also posted its documentation and now operate an actual Archie server on an emulated Sun SPARCstation 5. Currently, it’s indexing its own mirror of the Hobbes archive, as well as FTP sites for FreeBSD, Adobe, and D Bit emulation. When searching for “word” in Archie, I found a variety of files, including the classic “Antiword” app and password managers and generators for OS/2.

Emtage, who would later play a key role in defining the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) standard, gave his approval to The Serial Port’s efforts to recover and preserve the code of Archie’s server. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story about archiving the early Internet in a manner that remains relevant today, with hopefully more achievements to follow.