Google the term “inventor of search” and the world’s most popular search engine will, unexpectedly, fail you. Nowhere among the algorithmically organized results will you find the names of the two men who, in the fall of 1963, sent the first known long-distance computer query—six years before Arpanet, the proto-internet, and lonnnnng before the launch of the world-changing Google, 20 years old this month.
Even Charles Bourne himself, the research engineer who built that first online search engine with Leonard Chaitin, a computer programmer, forgot about the wacky experiment for about three decades. “We just didn’t know what it could become,” says Bourne, now 87 and a leading authority on the early history of automated information retrieval.
Bourne and Chaitin achieved their ahead-of-its-time breakthrough at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, with Air Force funding. At the time, most approaches to information retrieval were physical—for instance, data stored on punch cards and sorted by machine—but the Cold War demanded more efficiency, and the Air Force dreamed of quickly sifting through its trove of literature about Soviet technology.
The duo’s program was designed to work the way Google does: A user could search for any word in the files. Their database consisted of just seven memos that Bourne typed onto punched paper tapes and then converted to magnetic tape. Chaitin had flown to Santa Monica, 350 miles away, to input the files onto a massive military computer. From a bulky computer terminal with a screen just 32 characters wide, they sent a search query; the precise question is lost to history. The data lurched over telephone lines—your smartphone is more than 10,000 times faster—but after a long moment, the right answer popped up. Bourne and Chaitin had proven, for the first time, that online search was possible-.
Despite the success, the Air Force shut the project down: The world just wasn’t ready for this innovation. “You really couldn’t imagine, at that time, doing a lot of things with a computer.”