Posted by: ivetteromero | July 12, 2013

Alan Emtage: The Codefather from Barbados

code._plugin122Georgia Popplewell (Caribbean Beat) writes about Barbadian Alan Emtage, calling him The Codefather because he is the computer scientist who wrote the piece of code that gave birth to Internet search. Here are excerpts, with a link to the full article below:

“I wrote a piece of code that gave birth to a multi-billion dollar industry. I didn’t make any money off of it, but I wouldn’t change anything.” Uttered by a man with a Barbadian accent, those were the opening lines of the Huffington Post video released last April that introduced many in the Caribbean to Alan Emtage, the forty-eight-year-old computer scientist who did indeed write the piece of code that gave birth to a multi-billion-dollar industry called Internet search. Whenever we use a search engine such as Google, we’re referencing the work of Emtage, who, in spite of only just being discovered by his home region, is a bona fide tech pioneer. His invention in 1990 of Archie, the world’s first search engine, figures in any respectable account of the history of the Internet.

Born in Barbados in 1964, Emtage was raised in an extended family that instilled in him a strong curiosity and “capacity for discovering stuff.” Especially influential were his mother’s aunts. Aunt Constance Inniss, a science teacher and headmistress of St Gabriel’s School, encouraged him to listen to the BBC’s science radio programmes and took him fishing on the sea wall near the family home at Carlisle Bay, where they’d discuss what they saw and caught. Emtage remembers her once waking him at 3 am to see a comet.

At Harrison College, one of Barbados’s elite secondary schools, Emtage found himself in another positive learning environment. He followed the science track, pursuing maths, physics, and chemistry at “A” levels, and was attracted to computers fairly early on, acquiring a Sinclair ZX81 with a whopping 1K of memory during a visit to the UK in 1981. But computers weren’t an automatic first choice as a profession. At McGill University in Montreal, where Emtage went in 1983 after winning a Barbados Scholarship, several career options presented themselves. He considered majoring in meteorology, and after coming near the top of the class in an introductory course in geology he was personally wooed by that department’s chairman.

Emtage admits he chose computer science by a process of elimination. [. . .] After completing his undergraduate degree in 1987, Emtage entered McGill’s master’s programme. [. . .] The mid-1980s to early 1990s were an exciting time to be a computer science major at a North American university, particularly a prestigious one like McGill. The university had the first Internet connection in eastern Canada and the second in the country. [. . .] Still, computers back then were a far cry from what they are today. Computing tasks were carried out by a central mainframe computer, a massive machine usually housed in a general-purpose computing facility. You submitted your task to the mainframe, where it sat in a queue awaiting its turn to be processed. Computer scientists like Emtage spent hours waiting for printers to crank out their jobs on massive sheets of dot-matrix paper.

This was the context in which Emtage wrote the code that would become Archie, the world’s first search engine. His job as sysadmin involved finding software for students and faculty, which meant manually searching computer archives on public servers, a tedious process if there ever was one. Emtage wrote Archie to automate the process and make his own life easier. “Rather than spending my time logging on to FTP sites and trying to figure out what was on them, I wrote some computer scripts that would do the same thing, and much faster too.”

That, in a nutshell, is what’s happening behind the scenes each time we do a Google search, but when Emtage developed Archie in 1989 it must have seemed like magic. Word about the tool spread rapidly, thanks to Emtage’s colleague Peter Deutsch, head of McGill’s IT department, who suggested they make the tool public and allow external users to log in for themselves. Archie went viral across Canada, then the world. [. . .]

See full article at http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-122/alan-emtage-codefather


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