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MinnPost 10 at 10: Tim Gihring explains the rise and fall of the Gopher protocol

The Gopher team, clockwise, from a 1994 U of M alumni magazine
Mark P. McCahill Papers, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota
The Gopher team, clockwise, from a 1994 U of M alumni magazine: Farhad Anklesaria, David Johnson, Paul Lindner, Mark McCahill and Bob Alberti.

To mark MinnPost’s 10th anniversary, our writers and editors have dug into the archives to highlight stories that have stuck with them over the years, a series we’re calling MinnPost 10 at 10.

Today, we hear from regular contributor Tim Gihring about “Obsolesced: The rise and fall of the Gopher protocol” which chronicled the history of one of the first popular means of accessing the internet, built by a handful of programmers at the University of Minnesota: 

When MinnPost suggested I look into the rise and fall of the Gopher protocol, I had a big problem. I had no idea how the internet worked, much less how it worked 25 years ago.

For most of us, the internet is air, at once ubiquitous and unnoticed. We don’t distinguish between the internet and the World Wide Web, and certainly not the acronymic nightmare of TCP, HTTP, etc., underpinning them. I had to find a way to ground those distinctions in a more relatable, more human story.

The internet was invented by humans, of course. And in the early days an elite group of computer scientists and government officials from around the world would meet several times a year to decide how the internet should work. In fact they still do — they just met for the 100th time in Singapore.

They met for the 23rd time in March 1992, in San Diego, and as I was looking through hundreds of pages of notes from that meeting I noticed that Tim Berners-Lee had presented his new creation there: the World Wide Web. And the following day, there was a presentation by Mark McCahill, the head of the University of Minnesota team that developed the Gopher protocol —soon to become the dominant means of accessing the internet, ahead of the Web.

And suddenly I had this cinematic scene in my head, of two brilliant, cocky, and very different men crossing paths at a critical moment not just in their own lives but the trajectory of the world — neither of them really able to understand this at the time. 

McCahill would later tell me that Berners-Lee had approached him on the sidelines of the conference and suggested they collaborate. It’s hard to overstate what a culture clash this was: Berners-Lee the cloistered, cultured son of European computing royalty and McCahill the pony-tailed, Nirvana-loving son of a Midwestern oilman. 

McCahill turned him down, of course. He said this without a whiff of regret. No one could have known then which way the internet would go, but the U team was certain about one thing: Berners-Lee was an ass.  

When my story came out, and began making its way around the very internet it was chronicling, it was clear that people were eager to put a face to the machines dominating our lives. It’s both comforting and alarming to realize that behind all the witless ones and zeros are humans not unlike the rest of us, guided by their egos and biases. That even the most visionary technology is subject to our own myopia.

I was surprised, though, by all the nostalgia about this lost history of the internet, especially from people who weren’t yet born when Gopher went the way of Betamax. 

But it makes more sense to me all the time. The internet was innocent then, its potential unformed — a moment when a handful of guys amid the snowdrifts of Minnesota could grasp the keys to the future. How tantalizing that must seem in our not-so-innocent era that the internet, in large part, has wrought.  

MinnPost 10 at 10

Tim Gihring is a Minneapolis writer and editor and a former chair of the Minneapolis Arts Commission. Written in August 2016, “Obsolesced” has gone on to become one of the most widely read stories in MinnPost's history, despite (or because) of the fact that it's also one of the longest stories we've ever published. 

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