Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gopher lives

I was at some family medicine computer playground, back when email was still slightly novel and we were teaching our colleagues to use Grateful Med* to retrieve articles. (PubMed still isn't as good.) I think it was around 1991 or 1992, maybe in San Francisco. Paul Kleeberg, an old friend even then, showed me something called "Gopher" from his home state of Minnesota. We browsed the meeting minutes of some Australian city council meeting.

I was stunned. I felt the tidal wave of history crashing down. It made me think differently about the University of Minnesota. Gopher probably has something to do with why I did a health informatics fellowship at the U in 1994 -- though by then Mosaic (on NeXTstep boxes) was on the rise. I'm still in Minnesota, and I even teach at the U a bit. All thanks, in part, to Gopher.

I thought Gopher was completely gone, though a few years back I was giving away a PowerBook 165 and I fired up the Gopher client. I found a few old sites. I figured it would be a great way for hackers and bad guys to communicate -- who would ever know? Gopher, after all, was dead.

Only it wasn't quite ...
TidBITS: Down the Gopher Hole

... Back in 1991, Gopher sprang out of a University of Minnesota campus information service project aimed at building a 'friendly' method of accessing university documents and services. (The University of Minnesota's sports teams are the Golden Gophers.) In those days, most campuses and corporations maintained their own walled-garden services and access policies, and almost all of them operated in unique and sometimes wildly different manners.

In contrast, Gopher provided a unified, consistent hierarchical interface to access everything. The approach translated well to both text and graphical interfaces, and better still, it offered an easy way to connect a varied set of hosts using simple links. This beat the stuffing out of getting files via FTP, which usually required using a command line. Gopher's method was a large improvement over interacting with library and campus directory systems via Telnet and trying to remember how to compose searches from system to system. Thanks to Gopher, the public resources other servers offered weren't merely accessible - they were usable...
The article mentions GopherVR (remember any VR? I barely remember that one), but not HyperGopher (German I think). Turns out the protocol is kept alive by some contrarian hobbyists, including the author -- a country doctor and part-time hacker. It's a great read for geezer netizens.

* Damn, Grateful Med deserves a Wikipedia entry. I may have to author it if nobody else does!

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