Jonathon Fletcher: How the forgotten father of the search engine was trumped by Google
The Yorkshireman is being hailed as the father of the search engine for his innovative webcrawler
Jonathon Fletcher does not look backwards. For the past two decades the unassuming Yorkshireman has worked in the financial services industry in Asia, raising his family and only occasionally telling friends and colleagues of his extraordinary invention which has helped revolutionise the world.
Back in the early 1990s, five years before Larry Page and Sergey Brin created their globe-conquering behemoth Google on a sun-drenched California campus, Mr Fletcher was a hard-up graduate student perfecting in the chillier climes of a Stirling University computer laboratory what has now come to be seen as the first recognisable web search engine.
But a shortage of funding, a lack of available disk space and a job offer to Tokyo saw him abandon his creation JumpStation and the vast riches it might have brought.
Speaking from Hong Kong in the week that Google – a company now valued at $400bn - celebrated its 15th birthday Mr Fletcher is remarkably relaxed about the hand that fate has dealt him.
“Looking back is a little bit artificial. You do things in the present or looking forward. Looking back – knowing what I know about the search engine industry – I guess you could say it would have been nice if things had turned out differently. But at the time I just did what I wanted to do and it was the right thing at the time. That is how things work out,” he says.
The 43-year-old father of two, who got his first ZX81 computer as a schoolboy growing up in Scarborough in 1981 is being hailed as the father of the search engine for his innovative webcrawler.
The device - still at the heart of Google, Bing and Yahoo! – is able to sift through webpages and create an effective index making it possible to find things among the ever growing avalanche of data in cyberspace.
Back in 1993 however the web was still the preserve of the US security services and a few plugged-in academics. Although it might occasionally be referred to as a burgeoning “information superhighway” few could foresee the digital revolution that lay ahead.
Mr Fletcher had graduated with a first class degree from Stirling in computing and returning to Scotland after a “lazy summer” he was expecting to continue his studies doing a PhD in 3D graphics at Glasgow University. But an unexpected cut to his funding put an end to his hopes of a doctorate and meant he had to take a job as a lab technician in Stirling’s technology department.
He had no money and was sleeping on friends’ floors or the computer laboratory where he put his time to good use trying to resolve the problem of how to keep abreast of all the new things emerging on to the nascent web.
In 1993 there were only 100 websites but the number was growing exponentially. New ones would have to be manually logged and entered into the What’s New page of the Mosaic browser after the site was formally registered at National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).
“I thought there was a better way,” he says. From September until December he spent evenings and weekends when not at work toiling on the web crawler which could scan websites and index them according to aspects of their text.
“I started off in December 1993 with 25,000 web pages and it finished up in June 1994 at 280,000 roughly. The line was pretty much exponential. At the time I remember being surprised at it doubling or more every time I went through the process. But I had no idea how large it was going to be or whether the rate of increase was going to slow. I had no idea,” he recalls.
“I don’t know whether I was slightly too early or slightly under resourced. I’m not entirely sure,” he says of his decision to abandon JumpStation although he attaches no blame to his old university, where he is remembered as a “tremendously dedicated student”, for its failure to back him financially.
“It was understandable. If I had been a bit pushier or more persistent in trying to demonstrate the value of the JumpStation perhaps things would have worked out differently. But no one else was doing this so it was hard for others to understand the value of it. I am very proud of my university,” he adds.
Mr Fletcher says he does not lie away awake at night dreaming of the billions he might have made. “My parents are proud of me and my wife and children are proud of me. It is enough.”
Of the intervening decades he says: “It has been OK. It has been an interesting path but it has been OK. I didn’t have a crystal ball at the time to see any other way forward so I did what I thought was the right thing at the time and this is how it has worked out. How can I complain?”
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